SELECTMEN NEWS: Board Supports Fire & Police Substation In North Wilmington; Town To Vote On Project In April 2020?

WILMINGTON, MA — Last week, the Board of Selectmen had a 45-minute discussion with Wilmington Police Chief Joe Desmond and Wilmington Deputy Fire Chief Bill Cavanaugh over the need for a fire and police substation in North Wilmington.

Selectman Chair Greg Bendel placed the discussion on the agenda.

“I thought it would be a good time to have the Chief and Deputy Chief in to discuss advantages of having a North Wilmington public safety station if the [town] were to pursue something like this,” said Bendel. “The people of North Wilmington deserve great response times when they’re in need. At some point, [each member of this board] has said a substation was a good idea.”

Deputy Chief Bill Cavanaugh told the Selectmen that the Fire Department’s response time to North Wilmington is well outside the National Fire Protection Association’s standards.

“According to the NFPA, the first fire apparatus should arrive within four minutes. That four-minute mark usually brings us to the North Wilmington train station. Anything beyond that and we’re outside the range.” explained Cavanaugh. “If we had a station in North Wilmington, in the Andover Street area, we would meet the NFPA response standard 90% of the time.”

“Based on 2009-2018 data, our response to the north side of town is anywhere from 6 to 11 or more minutes,” added Cavanaugh, who noted he fielded complaints just yesterday that it took his men 8 minutes to respond to an incident on Research Drive in North Wilmington. “If you have a serious medical event, 8 minutes is unacceptable.”

“Chief Desmond and myself have looked at several substation in the area. We have found a few that would fit our needs. They’re single facility stations — just fire. But we both feel pretty strongly that with a few tweaks, we could make them fit that Wilmington would need,” noted Cavanaugh. 

Newly minted Police Chief Joe Desmond explained why the Police Department would benefit from some space in the substation.

“Our substation would be unique in some ways because not many fire substations have a police component,” explained Desmond. “The station would have a bay where we could park a cruiser there for an officer to do a report. The station would have some storage capacity, which would help us with our current station built in 2001, where storage is an issue…. Another good thing about the substation is the addition of a training room. That would be helpful for us as our shooting range is in North Wilmington. We could have larger classes and trainers, in close proximity to the range. It’s something that is appealing to us.”

In response to questions from Selectman Bendel, both Cavanaugh and Desmond made clear that the substation would require NO new personnel and NO new equipment. Dispatch would continue to be run out of the central station.

In his questioning, Bendel also brought out the fact that a North Wilmington substation would cut down response time in mutual aid calls, and would likely allow Wilmington Fire and Police to begin responding to the portion of Wilmington (“the Lost Colony”) that is currently serviced by North Reading Fire and Police.

In response to a question from Selectwoman Jomarie O’Mahony, Desmond and Cavanaugh said they’d like see the substation located on Andover Street or Ballardvale Street.

Selectmen React

“This is the first time I’m hearing of a fire AND POLICE substation. I think it’s a great idea. It’s not going to cost us any more personnel or equipment,” said Selectman Mike McCoy. “For the longest time, we’ve talked about building a substation. This should be Priority #1. It’s time we actually did something.”

McCoy suggested the town fund the construction of the substation through free cash.

“I believe we don’t have to raise a tax dollar. We should take money from free cash and be done with it,” said McCoy. “Let’s put our money where our moth is. Our free cash is at an all-time high [of $32 million]. It’s time to dip into the piggy bank and be done with it.”

“I hope you have a space for a gym in a new substation,” said Selectwoman Jomarie O’Mahony, who recently toured the Public Safety Building after her election. “My high school gym was better equipped than what you guys have to keep yourselves strong and healthy for us. You all deserve to keep yourself as well as possible.”

“This is long overdue,” added O’Mahony. “The substation has been a discussion point for well longer than I’ve been a resident here.

“A substation – combined police and fire – should be a top priority for our town,” agreed Selectman Jonathan Eaton. “From 1990 to 2016, the town population increased by a little more than 33%. That’s resulted in more call and more congestion with slower response times. There’s been a 63% increase in fire runs over the past 15 years.”

“And there’s 1,048 units within four housing projects coming to North Woburn in the next few years,” warned Eaton. “Each town surrounding Wilmington — except North Reading, which we do a lot of mutual aid to as a result — has at least one substation.”

Cavanaugh noted that Burlington’s new substation could be used as a mode for Wilmington. Wilmington’s substation would house both an engine and an ambulance, plus a sally port for a police vehicle.

“I agree with my colleagues,” said Selectman Kevin Caira. “I want to reiterate that the recent hiring of new firefighters and current staffing will be sufficient to cover a substation.”

“Almost 50% of fire calls last year were for someone who was 65 or older,” noted Selectman Greg Bendel. “A new substation would be a huge advantage to the seniors in town to have a quicker response time. That really stood out to me. This would be very advantageous to our seniors.”

“The need for a substation in North Wilmington has been there for quite some time. I have seen records back from the 50’s regarding discussions about a substation…,” said Town Manager Jeff Hull. “One of the things I’m always mindful of is that the project needs to be financed in a way that is fiscally sustainable. We don’t want to put ourselves in a position where, in a few years, when the next slowdown occurs and we’re not in a position to continue to staff the new building.”

“I’m sounding a cautionary note to not use free cash to fully fund this. I don’t want to get into a full discussion at this point, but fiscal sustainability is my concern,” continued Hull. “We need to think about 5-10 years out. We’re in a good situation right now. When you look at the fact that, as of 2017, we have $143 million worth of our projects to be done in town, that’s a sobering number.”

What’s Next? 

Bendel said that the purpose of the discussion was to see if the board had an interest in pursuing a project like this going into next year’s Town Meeting. He was apprehensive to discuss the project’s finances and location tonight.

Bendel made a motion to ask the Town Manager and his department heads to look into financing options and identify possible locations for the substation with the intent to pursue an article at the 2020 Town Meeting.

O’Mahony amended the motion to put a date certain — by one of the board’s October meetings — on when Hull will report options back to the Selectmen.

The motion passed unanimously.

Bendel and O’Mahony noted that the Board of Selectmen, the School Committee, Finance Committee, and others will hold a public meeting on September 30 to discuss the town’s Facilities Master Plan and next steps forward. The discussion will almost certainly include the need for a new public safety substation in North Wilmington. The public is invited to attend and participate.

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