Fire department has burning need for new station, chief reports

Aug 29, 2022

LAKEVILLE — Fire chief Michael O’Brien believes he was brought in nearly four years ago to “turn the ship around’’ at the Lakeville Fire Department.

And although he’s happy to report several improvements made at the agency during his tenure, O’Brien says there’s a glaring need that the Lakeville Fire Department still faces.

A new fire station.

“This fire station is about as dysfunctional as any building I've been in, as far as how the trucks are laid out,” O’Brien said. "We store a lot of our vehicles outside, which is not typical for a fire department.’’

Space is seriously limited, he pointed out. “We don’t even have a real bunk room.”

The chief said he’s been advocating for a new fire station because the current one puts the department at a disadvantage.

“I think there’s a failure for maybe some community members to understand…the fire station has a clear connection to life safety,” Chief O’Brien said. “Where a fire station is built has an impact on life safety. The type of fire station you have allows the fire trucks and ambulances to get out faster. The health and safety of the firefighters themselves is impacted by the place they live and work in.”

The existing building on Bedford Street has served as both Lakeville’s fire station and town hall for decades, according to Town Administrator Ari Sky. 

The building is a former water pumping station for the City of Taunton and Sky described the facility as being built in an “ad hoc’’ manner, calling it “substandard.’’

The town has hired a consultant, Socotec, which is conducting a feasibility study to determine whether it will recommend the town build new or simply renovate the existing facility. 

If a new fire station is built, the existing facility would likely still be renovated as only the town hall. However, Sky said renovating the original fire station would be a challenge due to “a number of really significant structural deficiencies.’’

The first goal of a feasibility study is “to kind of give an early idea of what the expense might be, as well as some test fitting for different sites,” Sky said. “There are a couple places around town being talked about.”

The existing station presents challenges when it comes to recruiting new hires and retaining existing employees, according to the fire chief.

“We actually hired a firefighter, who once she was given a tour of the facility, actually turned the job down,” O’Brien said. “I think the word she used was ‘repulsed’… and having an inexperienced staff and having turnover also puts us at a disadvantage in terms of the product we’re putting out the door.”

The town budgeted for two more full-time positions at the fire department this year, as Lakeville’s population and call volume both grow. Including the chief, the department has 14 full-time staff and 20 on-call, part-time staffers, plus an administrative assistant.

The chief called the availability of paramedics on the local and national level “pretty dismal’’ and said recruiting them is now a very competitive process.

Pamela Garant, the department’s deputy chief, said Lakeville is not the only department facing this issue.

“This is happening on a national level,” she said. “It’s not local. It's not state. It’s nationally that the applicant pool is diminishing. And part of that is it’s a grueling job. It’s 24 hours. It can be life and death.”

The number of calls firefighters and medics in Lakeville have to respond to is growing, which is the reason for the additional positions. 

Lakeville fire has averaged around a 10 percent increase in call volume over the last 10 years, and saw a 14 percent increase in the past year, according to the chief. That’s across all aspects of the department, including fire, medical and rescue. 

O’Brien said that increase is tied to the pandemic as well as a growing population. 

Lakeville Fire has added to its equipment arsenal in the nearly four years since O’Brien started at the department, which helps keep up with the call volume growth. After developing a capital improvement plan, the agency has worked with the town select board to buy a new fire engine. An ambulance and new radios were also purchased.

The department is also getting a new ladder truck, which will be the first new ladder truck the town has ever owned. Historically, Lakeville has purchased used ladder trucks. The new truck comes at a price tag of just under $1.4 million.

A new station, though, remains a critical issue for O’Brien, despite recent progress and acquisitions.

“We’re in recovery mode,” O’Brien said. “The department was in a deficient state and we’re trying to get it to a point of being operational… Providing a reasonable level of service you’d expect from a town this size. And I think we’re close. The only deficit remaining is the building.”