April 2, 2014

With Space at a Premium on Harrison, Rescue Squad Needs a New Building

Back in 1964 when the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) built its headquarters on North Harrison Street, Princeton was a quieter, less populous town. The simple brick building had ample space for training, meetings, and a room where members could relax between calls. There were parking bays big enough to house the two Cadillac ambulances and the 1956 converted bread truck that served as a rescue vehicle for the squad.

An addition a decade later allowed for a third ambulance and a new rescue truck. But as Princeton municipal administrator Bob Bruschi and PFARS president Mark Freda told members of Princeton Council at a meeting March 24, the squad outgrew the building years ago.

PFARS is hoping to build a new headquarters on the site of Princeton’s former public works facility at the intersection of Valley Road, Witherspoon Street, and Route 206. At the meeting, Council agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding, and Mr. Freda hopes the governing body will approve the proposal at its meeting on April 21.

“Back in the 70s, you’d run hundreds of calls a year. Now, it’s 3,000,” he said during a tour of PFARS headquarters last Saturday. “The community has grown and changed a lot, and so has technology. Things are very different and we have been struggling to keep up for years.”

The PFARS property is on the corner of North Harrison Street and Clearview Avenue. On the lower level, there is a room where squad members relax when not out on rescue calls. Lined with low-slung chairs and ottomans and a big-screen television, the paneled room leads into the office, a six-foot-by-six-foot cubicle where all of the paperwork is done. Next door is a room lined with lockers, surrounding four pushed-together desks with computers.

“There used to be a pool table in here, but now that everything is logged into computers we needed a place to put them,” Mr. Freda said. In an adjacent, tiny room that holds electrical equipment, there is a place carved out for bunks where squad members can catch a few hours of sleep between calls.

Upstairs, a meeting room lined with photos and memorabilia serves as space for classes, gatherings, and fundraising events. In the adjacent, small kitchen, a ceiling panel had been removed to check for possible leaks from the weekend’s incessant rainstorms. “This is a constant concern,” Mr. Freda said. “We’re always watching for water damage.”

The biggest space crunch is in the four bays where three ambulances and one rescue vehicle are housed between calls. There is little space to move, let alone service the trucks, which are considerably larger than the Cadillacs that were standard for emergency calls five decades ago.

“Backing into the bays can be really hard,” said PFARS member Shayan Rakhit, a senior at Princeton University. With two of his colleagues, Mr. Rakhit was relaxing in the lounge between calls. “We just can’t operate out of this building anymore,” he continued. “There isn’t enough training space, and so much apparatus is kept outside. Our boat is kept at the fire station because there’s not enough room here.”

Fellow squad member Bryan Hill, a student at Rutgers University, added, “During Hurricane Sandy, there was no generator system. We ended up sleeping in a conference room at the municipal building. The new building would have a backup generator so that wouldn’t happen.”

The idea for a new facility has been floating around PFARS for the past decade. At various times, the organization has considered building at its current property, which also includes two small houses on Clearview Avenue; the site of the Valley Road School building; a plot on Bayard Lane across from elements restaurant; and the public works location. The architecture firm Pacheco Ross of Voorheesville, New York, which specializes in emergency facilities, has long been a part of the conversation.

“The thing that’s so good about the public works site is that we could still operate out of here while it’s being built,” Mr. Freda said. “And it’s a great location. You’re literally at the center of town. The firehouse and the police station are right there, and we do a lot together. With something like Hurricane Sandy, you want one central command post.”

The proposed arrangement would be a land swap in which PFARS would have a long-term land lease on the new site. The town would continue to own the land. In turn, the municipality would get the land on PFARS’ current Harrison Street property. The town would act as the financing entity for PFARS.

“The town expects us to raise money and will float a bond when the building starts,” said Mr. Freda. “But we’d love for the community to come together and help us so we don’t have to rely on the town. We’ll be hiring a full-time fundraiser to work with us on this.”

With so many starts and stops to the project, there is no definite design or firm estimate for the cost, but Mr. Freda estimates it will be in the neighborhood of $6 million. “We’re not going to build an extravagant building,” he said. “It will be sturdy and well thought out — nothing crazy.”