BBVFC breaks ground on new fire hall

Members of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company, residents, town and state officials gathered in Bethany Beach on Monday, Jan. 31, to break ground for the company’s new fire hall.
Special to the Coastal Point • SUBMITTED: Spectators react with applause during the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company fire hall.Special to the Coastal Point • SUBMITTED:
Spectators react with applause during the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company fire hall.

The plan for the fire hall calls for a new 14,927-square-foot, two-story addition built of masonry and steel, situated to the west of the existing fire hall at Hollywood Street.
The first floor will hold five engine bays arrayed across the front of the building on its west. The floors of the bays will be built at 8 feet above sea level — at the town’s current flood elevation requirement and a full 30 inches higher than present engine bay floors.

Thanks to a variance from the town, the bay doors will open onto a sloped, elevated pad, allowing the engines to enter directly onto Coastal Highway without scraping their undercarriages.

The second floor of the new fire hall will house a meeting room, a boardroom, a recreation lounge, an equipment room and administrative offices.

Also new to the company with the upgraded structure will be live-in member bunk rooms, as well as rooms for use in emergency situations.

The bunk rooms were a design priority for the fire hall, as increasing demands for the firefighters’ services — and quick response times — have already brought overnight stays to their Fenwick Island station. The overnight stays for the firefighters have been seen as a growing necessity at the main station in Bethany Beach, but the ability to provide the service has been hampered by the lack of a sleeping area in the existing hall.

The new fire hall was also designed to minimize impact of flooding on the company’s operations. The existing engine bays have been known to accumulate a foot or more of water from poorly draining areas of Hollywood Street, causing headaches and operational problems for the firefighters.

According to BBVFC President Bob Webster, the fire hall project has been a long time coming for the company. “Although the idea of building a new fire hall or expanding our current location probably dates back to well before I joined the company some 14 years ago,” he said, “the actual committee charged to look into the expansion of this building was not formed until the year 2000.”

The original design for the new facility was created with the assistance of architecture students from Delaware Technical and Community College, including fire company member Frank Sekscinski. Their initial drawings from 2001 were revised and put into the hands of design firm Andrew W. Booth & Associates in 2002.

In the midst of the design process, the company was made aware that the existing design would require a number of variances from the town. Work was halted to allow for that process, then further delayed when a proposed land swap with the town was considered in early 2003.

That possibility finally petered out in May 2004, leading the company to again pursue variances for the existing design. The variances were requested to allow for various existing equipment elements to be moved from their current locations and to provide some design flexibility that helped maximize the interior space in the building.

Four out of five variances applied for by the BBVFC were approved by the town’s Board of Adjustments on Sept. 14, 2004, including a waiver allowing the structure to have a flat roof, which helped maximize its interior space without dramatically exceeding the town’s building height maximums.

The fifth variance, which would have allowed the company to build a communications tower as tall as 150 feet, was rejected.

At the September meeting, board members requested additional information on the technical aspects of the requested height for the tower, seeking a more concrete justification for a tower that would be approximately double the height of the existing communications pole and antenna. It would also be one of the tallest structures in the town.

Fire company and other emergency officials attempted to justify the variance by stating simply that higher is better when it comes to communications towers, especially along the coast. Existing communications have been known to be spotty, thanks in part to the vagaries of radio waves near water and the long, narrow nature of the company’s district.

However, the company was not able at that time to present concrete data showing what the optimal or minimum heights for the tower would be, nor were there any design drawings showing the proposed tower’s construction.

Board members requested that information, and the company was left free to return to the board with their variance request for the tower when it was available. The issue is still pending.

The expected cost for the finished project, including necessary communications equipment, electronic equipment and furnishings, is approximately $2 million. Accordingly, the company also took the opportunity Monday to kick off its fundraising efforts, with that monetary goal in mind.

Webster told those in attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony, “This fund will be monies that we need to earn over and above our current operational fund drive, which we send out in the district once a year. We are reaching out to the community in many ways to get assistance to help us achieve our goals.”

The company will be holding a series of fundraising events, as well as making an open request to community members to donate toward the building fund. Checks can be sent to P.O. Box 950, Bethany Beach, DE 19930. Webster and company Treasurer Wayne Fuller are also facilitating direct donations. Webster can be reached by calling 539-7700.

The fundraising efforts have already brought in some donations, but Webster was quick to point out that early donors had made just the proverbial drop in the bucket of the building fund’s overall need.

“Already, with the generosity of some in the local community, we have been lucky enough to raise over $7,000, but … we have a long way to go,” he said.

Webster also thanked state Sen. George Bunting, Rep. Gerald Hocker, County Commissioner George Cole and former Bethany Beach Mayor Joseph McHugh for their assistance in having the bulk of the project’s permitting fees waived.

The project is being built by Richard Y. Johnson & Son and is estimated to be completed Jan. 6, 2006.