By JOSEPH DITS
South Bend Tribune
7:23 PM EST, January 3, 2013
MISHAWAKA -- Firefighter Rick Rieff paused inside the city's new station No. 4 on Thursday -- a day after it went into operation -- and added emphasis to the words "big difference."
He looked at three engine bays where, as a driver, he could easily park six fire engines if he wanted. With wiggle room to spare.
It contrasts with the old No. 4 that was built as a fire station in 1929 at 2319 Lincoln Way E. and looks every bit the part. There, with just one bay, he'd have just six inches before his truck's mirrors would smack something.
"This is like a palace compared with the old place," he said, noting that the old brick house had "character" -- it was, after all, where his late father had worked until 20 years ago.
About 13 months after contractors started to build the new No. 4 at Harrison Road and Bennington Drive, a half mile east of Capital Avenue, it went into operation on Wednesday.
Emergency calls were few. A fire crew made its first run out of there Thursday morning, offering backup to the ambulance that responded to a pedestrian hit by a car at Lincoln Way and Byrkit Street.
This roughly $3.7 million structure, financed through the city's own bond bank, boasts a 60-seat training room along with a conference room that will be open for the community to use.
It comes with other changes for the Mishawaka Fire Department: As of Jan. 1, a new firefighter contract allows a third ambulance crew to be on duty at all times, along with a new three-platoon system that will mean a lifestyle change for firefighters but efficiency down the road.
The department's station No. 5 near Central Park, which has been used until now as the base for all of the city's ambulances, will be mothballed in another month since ambulances are now based with the fire crews at three fire stations, though not at No. 4, said Mayor Dave Wood.
The city will look for another governmental use for that station in the coming year, Wood said.
The new No. 4 will house members of the city's fire administration, who now work out of station No. 3 on Douglas Road. But they haven't yet made the move, waiting for the phone company to finish work on the phone lines, said Chief Dale Freeman.
And the city will eventually put the old No. 4 up for sale, Wood said.
But it won't have the traditional brass firefighter's pole, which was removed 10 years ago because of cramped spaces. A section of the pole can be found in the new station's foyer, and Assistant Chief Greg Hunt noted, "You'll see a couple of dents (in the pole) from near misses."
The three engine bays -- the most spacious of any of the city's five stations -- will serve as the base for a fire engine and a battalion chief's SUV, Hunt said.
"This should fill the need of any truck well into the future," he said, given that it could be here for decades.
This south-side sector tends to be the slowest of the stations, but it's also in a part of the city that could see growth, he said.
The engines drive around a short extension of Bennington that the city built so that the vehicles enter the station from the back. They depart onto Harrison.
Rieff recalled how he'd have to stop on busy Lincoln Way so he could back an engine into the old station. There were "several near misses" with other traffic over the years, he said.
A compressor here will save crews from having to go to one of two other stations to fill up their oxygen tanks, Hunt said.
The airy kitchen with wide counters is as big as the old firehouse's entire kitchen and TV lounge, Rieff said.
Now the firefighters have a separate room with a large TV and eight cushy chairs. An exercise room with windows and a mirror awaits a treadmill and weights. It's an upgrade from a space the crew had used in the old basement, Hunt said.
Lockers in the six bedrooms have more space than before, he said.
For now, the five-person crews adjust to their new spaces -- and to new work partners. Rieff was on duty Thursday with three other firefighters with whom he's never worked, thanks to the three-platoon system, which reconfigures the shifts and days they work.
It means that firefighters always work with the same crew, and they are dedicated to a single sort of vehicle, be it a ladder truck, engine, rescue vehicle or ambulance.
City officials had sought this for years. Firefighter and union president James Elliott said union members weren't all in favor of the three-platoon system, given the lifestyle change, but they're accepting it. It should cut back on overtime, he noted.
It also means that the shifts now synch up with neighboring fire departments, Hunt said, since they also run three platoons.
So they can get to know each other, he said.
Already on Thursday, there were two boxes of donuts in the kitchen from Penn Township firefighters.
Staff writer Joseph Dits:
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