BETHLEHEM — Thanks to the perseverance of area fire chiefs, the vision of the commissioner of the Department of Safety and the generosity of volunteers, the state’s second fire-training academy is taking shape here in the North Country.
To be known as the Raymond S. Burton North Country Fire and Emergency Medical Services Training Facility, or for short as the NCTF, the academy sits on a 12.1 acre site on Trudeau Road that until it was acquired by the state on May 29, 2013, had previously been owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and used to support its operations in the nearby White Mountain National Forest.
Although it’s been in service to train firefighters for several months already, the new fire academy is still a work-in-progress and is tentatively scheduled for an official opening sometime this summer.
On Monday, District 1 Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, who won a special election to fill the balance of Burton’s term — Burton died Nov. 12, 2013, from liver cancer — toured the site with Bethlehem Fire Chief Jack Anderson, the project supervisor. Kenney said he liked what he saw.
Anderson said that the rationale for having a second fire academy was a straightforward one: Concord is a long way from communities in the North Country whose firefighters need to be trained on an almost-ongoing basis.
By his math, Anderson estimated that it is 89 miles from the driveway of the NCTF to the training academy in Concord, adding the distance and time required to travel represents a significant financial burden on North Country fire departments, the majority of which are all-volunteer, or like Bethlehem, have a limited number of career firefighters.
A member of Bethlehem’s department since 1967 and its full-time chief since 1996, Anderson said a training facility in the North Country has been sought for a long time, adding that the idea took off about two years ago when it received the backing of John Barthelmes, the director of the New Hampshire Department of Safety.
Barthelmes called for a committee of chiefs and firefighters to study the matter, and they eventually came up with a dozen possible sites for the new fire-training center, with a parcel next to the Lancaster Fair Grounds as their first choice.
While ideal in many ways, the Lancaster property was located largely in wetlands, said Anderson, which necessitated going with the second choice: the USDA land in Bethlehem.
The Bethlehem property is within 60 miles of the departments who will be using it, has some existing infrastructure and it can be further developed as needed, according to the Division of Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services.
Purchased for $157,000, the property consists of a main structure and several other buildings, one of which is being converted into classrooms and office space. On April 29, the fire-training center took ownership of a four-story “burn building.”
Earlier this year, the Bartlett Fire Department did some training there in the old USDA administrative building, which thanks to a smoke machine, recreated some of the conditions that firefighters would encounter in real life. The building has also been used for aerial-ladder training.
“The facility is already being heavily used,” said Anderson, adding that he and his colleagues in the fire service were proudest of the fact that the new classrooms and office space are “being built by the firefighters up here.”
Anderson described the NCTF as a “win-win for everybody,” adding that it will most assuredly be used to its full capacity because “firefighters are thirsting for knowledge” and those of them living in the North Country will now have a place to learn and train much closer to home.
A volunteer work party is set to come to the NCTF on May 31, said Anderson, to continue bringing the facility online.
Deb Pendergast, director of the Division of Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services, on Tuesday praised the efforts of Anderson and his fellow volunteers, adding that “the biggest savings to the taxpayers is the volunteer labor” of which she and her husband are a part.
That type of buy-in from the people who’ll be using the facility, she said, is “what’s going to make this successful.”
Pendergast said some of the mutual-aid agencies that will use the training center have sought and received grants, including for an air trailer in which firefighters’ air cylinders can be refilled. Although the trailer will be based at the NCTF, it is mobile and can be hauled to the scene of major fires.
Pendergast said the NCTF will get a new water line as well as a 10,000-gallon cistern this summer. She said the former USDA administration building will continue to be used for “non-destructive” training, but is also being eyed for conversion to a dormitory or meeting rooms.
A former deputy fire chief in Laconia, Pendergast said the NCTF will serve firefighters and EMT’s and also the immediate community as well as law-enforcement agencies.
She noted that the naming of the facility after Burton was approved by Gov. Maggie Hassan and the Executive Council as Burton battled the return of the disease that eventually claimed his life.
“We actually made sure we got word to him and his family before he passed away,” said Pendergast, that something Burton had championed for many years, was finally coming to fruition.