By Cindy Hoffman, Staff Writer
(Nov. 16, 2023) Two years of talking about whether to replace or renovate the Ocean Pines South Side Fire Station has taken on a different tone and direction, as parties on both sides of the table are now debating who should own the land and the building.
In September, a fire station working group reviewed an outline of a proposed agreement between the Ocean Pines Association and the Ocean Pines Volunteer Fire Department that said, “the land and station ownership under both stations will belong to OPA to allow for funding options to be secured by real property and eliminate easement and zoning issues.”
It also reads, “OPVFD/OPA agree that if the active number of OPVFD volunteer firefighters falls below (to be determined) and/or the requirement for paid firefighters exceeds (to be determined), OPVFD will cease to operate with all assets going to OPA in accord with the current agreement.”
A Sept. 13 memo by General Manager John Viola and Ted Moroney, the chair of the fire department working group, proposed “OPA will be responsible, in coordination with OPVFD, for maintenance and upkeep of the station and property. The land and property may/will be used by OPA as collateral both now and in the future to fund construction and/or future expansion.”
But on Nov. 13, the fire department’s board of directors responded with a hard “No” via a letter to Viola.
“We will begin the renovation process with existing funding and funding we get by other means,” Dave VanGasbeck, president of the OPVFD, said.
Ocean Pines leadership might want ownership of the land and building, but that could affect the future of the fire department itself.
According to the Worcester County Charter for fire companies, a volunteer company “shall not be controlled by any other legal entity and shall be in complete control of its own funds.”
“If OPA took over the fire department, there would be no more county funding,” Chief Steve Grunewald said. The fire department received nearly $1 million this year from the county.
“Ocean Pines would have to apply for the charter all over again, which is not an easy process.”
Although the debate over funding and ownership continues, no one disagrees with the need for a new fire station.
OPA President Rick Farr said he told OPVFD President Dave VanGasbeck, “If you need any assistance in fundraising activities, please provide ideas and I will present them to the board and the association membership to initiate any type of assistance.”
Farr said the working group led by Moroney was very good in what they did for the past several years, in trying to come up with a resolution that would be a win-win situation for all.
“We were going to pay for the fire department, hold the mortgage, build the fire house, and run it how they see fit. We thought it was a good proposal,” Farr said. “Using association dollars to build a fire house, from a business standpoint, it did not make sense.”
Farr noted that the original bids received from the fire department provided quotes of about $8 million. The working group and Viola were able to get those costs down to $4 million.
Currently, the fire department has a grant for $2.67 million to replace the building. The department’s leadership is also starting to look at local banks to consider getting a loan for the remaining costs in addition to fundraising efforts.
In September, the fire department announced a personalized brick fundraiser in honor of its 50th anniversary, offering community members an opportunity to leave their mark on the project. Donors can give $100 for a 4×8-inch brick or $200 for an 8×8-inch brick.
The south side fire station has been in operation since 1981, with additions made in 1985 and 1987.
Certain standards for a new fire station are required by the National Fire Protection Association as well as building codes. Those requirements include a decontamination room, separate gear room with a ventilation system, and an exhaust system in the truck bays.
Other priorities include single sex bunk rooms. Currently, men and women have to sleep in the same room and appropriate bathroom and shower facilities.
Storage and safety are two major issues at the fire house currently. There is not enough room for all of the trucks, with some being parked outside. Fire truck pumps will freeze if they are stored outside so other emergency vehicles are stored in the parking lot.
Firefighting equipment is currently stored in the apparatus bay, along with the fire trucks. VanGasbeck said the bays are not equipped with a proper ventilation system, which means that all of the firefighting gear is subject to exhaust, fumes and humidity. The gear is also not protected from ultraviolet light, which are one of the leading causes of gear deterioration.
According to a report by Manns Woodward Studios, the station should have a dedicated decontamination room and decontamination toilet off the bay to prevent potentially hazardous materials from entering other areas of the fire house. This would also allow for cleaning of equipment on site, saving downtime between calls and cleanings. The current situation means that firefighters are consistently exposed to the off-gassing gear.
A report released this year by the International Association of Fire Fighters found that occupational cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters. Not only is a decontamination room important for firefighting gear, it is critical to the health of the firefighters and other emergency responders, the association found.
“We are addressing our needs, not our wants,” VanGasbeck said.
“We have really dedicated staff now. To provide the highest quality service for the community we need to provide a good quality of life for our career staff and volunteers.”
While the fire department has the additional North Station, the South Station is actually at the center of the community. The stations service 79 miles of roadways in Ocean Pines. According to the International Standards Organization, homes should be within 1.5 miles of a fire station. Twenty-nine miles out of the 79 are not within 1.5 miles of either station.
The North Station is an all-volunteer fire station and allows volunteers living on the north side of Ocean Pines to access an apparatus and respond more quickly to a fire from that side of the community. Grunewald said that their current response time is two minutes.
In 2022, the Ocean Pines Volunteer Fire Department (OPVFD) responded to 345 fire and 1888 EMS calls. OPVFD serves approximately 6,000 homes and numerous businesses.