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A portion of the ceiling in the shower area of the Central Fire Station in Brattleboro collapsed after heavy rain last week.

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Brattleboro fire chief: firehouses are crumbling

As Selectboard considers Police-Fire Facilities Project, Mother Nature and Father Time call the shots at the two town fire stations

BRATTLEBORO—Fire Chief Michael Bucossi arrived at Central Fire Station on Jan. 11 to bad news — and an eau de toilette of wet 1950s insulation mixed with mold and mildew.

Bucossi described the odor of 1950s insulation that filled the second floor after heavy rains caused a portion of ceiling in the shower room and one of the bedrooms to collapse.

“It stinks,” he said.

Once the insurance adjuster gives the go-ahead, repairs can happen, Bucossi explained, describing the work as urgent.

Water filled the ceiling fixtures, and an electrician has disconnected the electricity for those rooms. Without a hint of irony in his voice, the chief noted the water also damaged the building’s internal fire alarm system.

BFD staffs its two stations — Central station and Station 2 (West Brattleboro) — around the clock, in 24-hour shifts. The water damage means two firefighters on each shift will have to find another place to sleep.

Bucossi is accustomed to the roof springing leaks. Water stains decorate the meeting room’s ceiling.

The chief’s office has its own water stains. Some storms and spring melts require that Bucossi keep a coffee cup — or two — on his desk to catch dripping water.

Water seeps in around some of the window frames, he added.

“These buildings are held together with bubble gum and duct tape,” Bucossi said.

The Jan. 11 leak is new and located on the opposite end of the building from the meeting room and Bucossi’s office.

“A 16-year-old roof on a more-than-60-year-old building just doesn’t work,” he said. “The roof is on its last legs.”

Town leadership and voters have wrestled for decades about whether or not to renovate or replace Brattleboro’s three emergency stations.

While the residents talk dollars and cents and explore various scenarios for the Police-Fire Facilities Project, the stations have continued to degrade.

Bucossi admitted to experiencing different emotional states as he watched things break down around him for at least the 15 years since the town considered — and rejected — building a combined emergency facility at Exit 2.

Now, he just feels frustrated.

“This is no way for a fire department to have to survive,” he said.

‘Clever repairs’ by ‘patient employees’

The roof damage follows the furnace at Central Station giving up the ghost, which left firefighters without heat for a month, Bucossi said.

The emergency generator at Station 2, which powers the station and emergency systems like radios during a power outage, is another casualty of deferred maintenance.

The repair company in charge of maintaining the equipment told Bucossi that the machine’s not worth putting money into. Nor can the company guarantee any repairs it makes will hold, the chief said.

The stations were built during an era when fire departments, staff, and equipment operated differently, Bucossi said.

Repair issues facing the stations are “not due to the lack of maintenance,” he continued. The problems are due to age and the town’s having long deferred its capital projects.

A lot of the work done on the stations to date are “very clever repairs by some very patient employees,” he said. “They’re working in conditions that are not right.”

Bucossi worries about his firefighters. He gives the impression that each building breakdown guts him: the chief is supposed to protect his staff.

What if a firefighter were sleeping in the bed or using the shower room when the ceiling fell? He said it was just luck that no one was hurt.

“The hard fact of this is we’ve continued throwing good money at a bad situation,” he said. “It’s not worth the taxpayer’s money to continue to Band-Aid these buildings. They need to be fixed.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #340 (Wednesday, January 20, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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