Ready to Respond

By Tony Bennett

With a New $4.5 Million Headquarters, the Superior Fire Department Can Better Achieve its Mission of Saving Lives, Homes and Businesses

Anyone who hasn’t been to Superior for a while is bound to be impressed by the many changes that have taken place in recent years. New roads, new
buildings and new businesses have been popping up left and right. And one
of the newest  projects to be completed is construction of the Superior Fire Department (SFD) headquarters at 3326 Tower Ave. to replace the old facility, which was built in 1980.

This $4.5 million headquarters/fire hall – one of three fire halls in the city – is a welcome and necessary upgrade for the department, since it will allow SFD staff to perform their jobs in new and better ways. These days, the critical life-saving and property-saving responsibilities of firefighters are more multifarious than ever. So the Fire Department staff is excited about their new headquarters, as it will allow them room to grow. At 20,000 square feet, it’s twice the size of the old one. But thanks to energy efficient design, the new facility will not consume any more energy than the old building did, and it’s expected to last for 50 years. 

“We really just moved everything over,” said Fire Chief Steve Panger. “We had a lot of things packed up and on pallets and things like that, starting the day we moved in. Since then, we’ve been in the process of getting things moved in and settled. Things are still in boxes, but it’s getting there. We don’t have the finishes up on the wall or anything like that, but we’re starting to get settled. Then phase two of the project is all of the exterior work, the site work and parking lots. There is a storage building going up in the back as well, where we’ll house some of our trailers and boats and additional equipment. I’m hopeful that in a couple months, it will be looking pretty much done.”

The SFD was working out of both the old and new fire halls for a short time, but Panger says that this didn’t complicate things too much. “The things that firefighters use on a daily basis to live here have to move over in one day,” he explained. “It kind of goes from working out of one hall to working out of the other station. It’s a little tricky, but once you’re out, you’re out. And of course, because we had the demolition lined up pretty much a couple days after, everything had to be cleared out to allow for those crews to come in and start the demo.

“Headquarters is our most active centerpiece or keystone of all of our fire stations.”
– Fire Chief Steve Panger

“It’s been amazing,” said Panger. “The crews have been working out of the old station all winter long. Part of that station was demoed for the current project, so the quarters were pretty cramped. They really did very well and dealt with the situation; I never heard any complaints. And, of course, they’re really happy to be coming out of the new station now.”

Panger said the decision that a new fire hall was needed was made after an SFD needs assessment was conducted several years ago. The conclusion was that these necessities would best be provided through a brand-new facility.

“Back in 2013, we  looked at our needs as far as facilities: what kind of condition the current facilities were in, the needs assessment of room for all of our equipment, and if the stations were really adequate for how we operate today,” Panger explained. “And that’s where it stemmed from.” The assessment process determined that although they were in need in some improvements, “Station 2 and Station 3 were in pretty decent shape,” he said. “They still need some work, and maybe some remodeling and replacing finishes and things like that. But they could still work and could be remodeled to make them serve better for today’s firefighters.” 

However, the old SFD headquarters didn’t fare as well in the assessment process. “We looked at headquarters and we found the building was in pretty rough shape [structurally],” said Panger. “The space wasn’t really there. Since 1980, we gained a lot of additional equipment and we were kind of busting out of that facility. Some of it was stored outside and some of it was across town in other storage places. So we wanted to make sure to get a facility that had all the things you’d see in a modern fire department today. Plus, we wanted to make sure all of our equipment was inside – being taken care of and available right away if we needed it.

“Not only are we fighting fires, but we do primary medical contact and 911 calls. We do rescue, we’re doing HAZMAT, we’re doing fire education.”
– Hazardous Materials Coordinator Cameron Vollbrecht

“Headquarters is our most active centerpiece or keystone of all of our fire stations,” Panger said. “Most everything comes from headquarters. We do all of our training here. Our administrative services are here. Our fire inspectors are headquartered here. So it’s a very active station, and it’s a big part of our overall operations.”

Panger also said that the new fire hall will allow the SFD to conduct various types of critical firefighter training in a much more streamlined fashion. “We have a training room that we didn’t have before,” he noted. “We have a training tower which is available to us all the time now. We have a large exercise room, because physical fitness is really important.”

An increased focus on cleanliness necessary for firefighters’ physical health is now possible, too, thanks to the new fire hall’s design. “We can keep the dirty stuff on one side and we can keep the contaminants on the apparatus side, and we can decon [decontaminate] and make sure everything is kept clean so you’re not spreading contamination,” Panger explained. Given the copious amounts of hazardous materials that firefighters come into contact with in the course of their duties, this increased focus on keeping such materials away from their skin and lungs is crucial. Contaminants are also involved when firefighters respond to medical situations.

The facility’s design, which complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act, also provides more space to accommodate both male and female employees. Since today’s fire trucks are larger than they were 30 years ago, the new fire hall includes drive-through stalls. And engine cabs can now be tipped up for engine inspection and maintenance, since the ceilings are high enough.

“Now kids and senior citizens can come in and learn more about what the fire department does and how they themselves can be safer.”
– Lead Fire Inspector Dan Sertich

“One of the things we didn’t have was a meeting room – a boardroom,” Panger continued. “Now we can hold meetings for our agency or we can host other agencies, and fire inspectors can do plan reviews there. So to conduct the business of the fire department, we actually have a space now to be able to meet and bring the public in. The training room area even acts as kind of a public area. We can have some events there. We’ll have room for them to park. We’ll have the facilities here to host collaborative training events with other agencies. That’s pretty exciting for us.”

However, the chief beneficiaries of the new fire hall features are the SFD staff. And that – most certainly – is as it should be. These skilled, dedicated and courageous individuals put their lives on the line to save the lives of people and their pets and to protect businesses, homes and property. While they serve their demanding shifts, they live and work together at the fire hall, so they deserve a facility that meets their needs. The SFD’s core services are: fire; rescue; emergency medical service; hazardous material response; and fire education, investigation and inspection.

“We have 36 firefighters and four command staff, and we also have an administrative assistant and a mechanic on staff,” said Panger.

Cameron Vollbrecht is the Superior Fire Department’s hazardous materials coordinator. He has a background in biology and environmental science, and he says that the new fire hall will help him to do his job better.

“Now we can drastically improve our education and training, and because of that, we’re going to end up improving patient care.”
– Medical Service Director Corey Larson

“The fire service has changed so much in the past 30 years, when the old building was built,” Vollbrecht explained. “And, you know, we fought fires – that’s pretty much what we did. Now, not only are we fighting fires, but we do primary medical contact and 911 calls. We do rescue, we’re doing HAZMAT [dealing with hazardous materials produced through fires], we’re doing fire education, so we have all these other roles. We’ve also got all this other equipment and we’ve outgrown the station. We just have a lot more stuff that was spread out in different locations, which isn’t ideal when you’re required to respond to something and to be proficient at it. You need to have your equipment there with you, so it’s ready to go and you’re always ready to use it.

“We did the best we could, before, but equipment was in different places, and we’d have to send the crew to grab the gear,” Vollbrecht added. “This way, all of our equipment is under the same roof. Then they’re going to build another building right behind this station for storage, where we’ve got industrial fire equipment that Enbridge has purchased for us, and that’ll be under that roof. Right now, it sits at the airport in a hangar. So now it’ll be close by and it will be easier to respond to incidents.”

Vollbrecht also touts the importance of the SFD’s new training tower, which can be used even when the weather is bad outside. “We have a three-story training tower where we can do high-rise evolutions,” he said. “Before, we’d have to ask UWS [the University of Wisconsin-Superior] or one of the apartment buildings to do some training. Now we have that in-house. I can take a probationary firefighter there and get in a lot of high-quality, one-on-one training.”

Lead Fire Inspector Dan Sertich feels the same way about the new facility. His job also entails providing a lot of community education and going into schools to teach about fire prevention. The new fire hall will allow him to invite Superior’s citizens into his world.

“It’s actually a benefit to everyone in the city to have this program,
because first of all, the businesses are safer.”
– Battalion Chief Scott Gordon

“It’s an inviting building,” Sertich said. “And when we get the public to come through our doors, that’s an opportunity for them to see us and interact with us. There are things we can do, such as education seminars, because we now have room for people to gather. Our inspection bureau can present seminars to talk about smoke detectors or fire extinguishers or escape plans in your home.

“It’s much more than just a building,” Sertich added. “It’s a place where memories are going to happen. Now kids and senior citizens can come in and learn more about what the fire department does and how they themselves can be safer. The public relies on us to not only be ready for an emergency, but also to be role models and provide hope and lead by example. So it’s a tremendous opportunity all around, for sure.”

Corey Larson, the SFD’s medical service director, said that in 2018, roughly 80 percent of the fire department call volume was medical in nature. So the new hall will also allow him to focus more effectively on improving training along these lines. “Our facilities got substantially better,” he said. “Now we can drastically improve our education and training, and because of that, we’re going to end up improving patient care.” He added that “our medical supplies and equipment have much more room. We can do a much better job of keeping track of what we have.” Larson also has his own space in the new station, where his ability to deal with paperwork is much improved, he noted.

The fire department is equipped to better deal with the paid-for services part of the staff’s jobs as well. Local companies have come to depend on their partnerships with the SFD to help them train workers. They also rely on the department to provide assistance in the case of an event such as the Husky Energy Superior Refinery fire in April of 2018. 

Given the copious amounts of hazardous materials that firefighters come into contact with … this increased focus on keeping such materials away from their skin and lungs is crucial.

“As we got more familiar with our business partners, we realized they wanted more of their fire department,” said Battalion Chief Scott Gordon. “It isn’t fair for the taxpayer to pay extra taxes for firefighters to work specifically with an entity that wants something done. So that’s how we created the paid-for service programs. It allows any company to contract us to do anything that we are able to teach, and we do it on our day off with firefighters that are experts in their field. We have about a dozen modules that we have developed. It benefits companies because their employees feel safer.”

Gordon also explained how the SFD benefits from the paid-for service programs. “It’s a win-win,” he said. “Those [SFD] instructors have knowledge of businesses that we would never otherwise have knowledge of. They get to know what their processes are, how they run their shifts and so on. Then they come back to work and bring that knowledge with them. So it’s actually a benefit to everyone in the city to have this program, because first of all, the businesses are safer. And second, the firefighters are better equipped to respond to that business, just because we’ve been doing extra things with them.”

Gordon says the Husky fire was better mitigated due to the relationship that the SFD had established with the company prior to the event. “We are better equipped to fight petroleum fires or industrial fires in general as a result of that partnership, without having to use the regular budget that the tax base provides us to get that training,” he noted.

As this article was nearing completion, Chief Panger announced his impending retirement on September 30. Since the new fire hall has been built, he sensed it was the right moment, both for himself and his family. “My family and I decided it was a great time to go,” Panger said, adding that the fire department’s vital industry partnerships are also well established. And he is very proud of the SFD staff’s expertise and dedication.

With a new headquarters facility in place, the city’s firefighters are now better equipped to achieve their mission of saving lives, while educating both residents and businesses on how to help prevent fires from occurring. PS

Tony Bennett is a freelance writer based in the Twin Ports.