NEW ENGLAND — All it takes is one look inside the New England Fire and Ambulance Hall to see the small town could use a better facility.
Packed like sardines into a 40-foot long by 80-foot wide steel building on the town’s Main Street are two ambulances and five fire trucks of different sizes. One truck is always parked outside.
“Those who have questioned why we need a new building, all they have to do is walk into ours right now,” Fire Chief Joey Kathrein said. “It’s actually dangerous. That’s a big reason why we wanted to expand.”
With the help of grants, fundraising and a donated piece of land, the town is building the $1.15 million Emergency Services Center on the city’s northeast edge to house its fire and ambulance services.
The approximately 11,000 square-foot building — nearly a decade in the making — will have six bays for fire department vehicles, two ambulance bays, a small meeting room with a kitchen and two sleeping rooms, “in the event we go to full-time staff,” said Twig Zahn, the Rural Fire Director who was part of the building planning committee.
The Emergency Services Center is expected to be completed by mid-April.
“It’s huge for the community,” Zahn said. “Some people think we overdid it, but you only get a chance to do it once. If you do it too small the first time, then it’s always too small.”
When the current New England Fire Hall was built in the early 80s, the small town’s volunteer firefighters didn’t have much to worry about. Their biggest fear were fires that started in a field being harvested. Even then, they had nature’s help with those as they were often contained with the help from summer fallow fields.
“If we had a stubble fire, there was always the next field beside it that would stop that fire,” Kathrein said.
Now, with the rise of no-till farming, few — if any — farmers leave plowed fields. Not to mention oil development is inching closer and closer to New England’s service area.
“Our fires are more fierce than they were back in the day,” said Kathrein, who has taken oilfield firefighting training with the Dickinson Fire Department.
Despite being a town of around 600 people — an increase of about 150 since 2010 — the New England Rural Fire Department covers about 550 square miles in Hettinger, Slope and Stark counties. New England Ambulance, Inc., services 691 square miles with more than half its area is in barren Slope County.
Its emergency services have already felt the oil boom’s impact in a small way, despite Hettinger County not having an oil well.
“You just look at our call volume in the last three years, how it’s going up,” said Zahn, adding in 2013, New England’s emergency service calls were nearly an even split between ambulance and fire calls.
Stuart Nielsen, the secretary/treasurer of the New England Rural Fire Protection District, said the initial plan was to add on to the existing fire hall.
“In the end, that didn’t work out, so we looked at a new fire hall,” he said. “Actually it’s the best thing we could have done.”
Nielsen said he has been in charge of writing grant requests for about eight years. In the past two years, money finally started coming in.
Roosevelt-Custer Regional Development awarded New England more than $246,000 in Community Block Development Grants. Farm Credit Services and the MDU Resources Trust chipped in $25,000 and $20,000, respectively. Stark County donated $40,000 toward the project and Slope County added $35,000 .The city of New England kicked in $35,000 and purchased the current fire hall. The Ambulance Service pledged $50,000 of its own money. Kent Maershbecker, who farms and ranches next door to the facility’s new home, donated a couple acres on the edge of his property for the building. New England-based Schwartz Construction donated dirt-moving services.
“We’ve had a super response from both private individuals and businesses,” Nielsen said. “I think they all know it’s something we really need. We’ve had some absolutely fantastic donations, financially.”
But donations and rural development grants weren’t going to be enough to fund the project, Nielsen said. So, he began requesting money from the energy impact grants.
“Up until this last go-round, we’ve been turned down every time and haven’t gotten anything,” Nielsen said. “They said, we know your need is great but you don’t have any oil wells in Hettinger County. That was tough because we have been impacted by oil even though we don’t have any oil wells in the county.”
Each time, Nielsen said he applied for three separate grants: one for the building, one for a new ambulance and another for a water tanker and skid unit.
During the emergency services grant round in November 2013, the money finally came through.
New England was awarded $207,000 for the building, $150,000 toward a new ambulance and $60,000 for the tanker and skid unit for a total of $417,000 in grants.
“With that, we’re going to be able to get this building done,” Nielsen said.
The real challenge
The project is almost completely funded, Zahn said.
New England could finish off the project with zero-interest loans from Hettinger and Slope counties, which Nielsen admitted “I’m hoping we don’t have to use.”
The next step after that is recruiting and retaining volunteers. New England Ambulance has one full-time paid paramedic. Other than that, both departments are staffed entirely by unpaid help.
There are 15 people on the ambulance roster, including seven EMTs and 32 volunteer firefighters. Seventeen of them live outside of town.
“Help is such a huge challenge,” said Tom Zahn, president of New England Ambulance, Inc. “Of all those people on the list, everybody has got a daytime job.”
Having help come from rural areas isn’t a bad thing, Kathrein said, as they’re often the first on scene. But, as with any small town in rural North Dakota, New England’s volunteers are aging. Some of the younger ones work in Dickinson or out of town.
“Some of them are getting a little age on them,” Twig Zahn said. “Some of the people that work out of town, they can be around weekends and maybe a few nights.”
Tom Zahn said, if the area grows — which it is expected to — and call volumes increase, added the sleeping quarters may turn out to be the best addition to the Emergency Service Center in the long run.
“We’re going to have to hire more and more help,” Tom Zahn said. “Those staff people need a place to be. If we have to hire full-time help for the evenings, they can sleep there. Having a place to be is a big deal.”
When the building opens in April, New England’s emergency services should be prepared for any additional growth.
Kathrein said he has spoken to people in fire departments throughout western North Dakota which were affected by sudden population growth and the challenges that came with it.
“We know our call volume is going to go up,” Kathrein said. “We’re just trying to get ready for this mess. That’s the way to put it.”