So you want a training tower?

By Don Manno

WHP research indicates that approximately 90 fire departments in the United States face that question each year. While a department will purchase hose, gear, and fire apparatus on a regular basis, acquiring a training building from "scratch" is a new and unique experience that requires a whole new knowledge base. What do you need to consider? Let's take a look:

Do you have land?

Where you locate a training building is critical. Consider the future growth of the area around your proposed site. "What will the neighbors say?" will depend upon the direction of smoke coming off your site. Consider prevailing winds and other atmospheric considerations - humidity, fog, average temperatures, etc. Traffic to and from the site through neighborhoods, noise, parking, runoff water control and related environmental concerns are all part of selecting a site and obtaining land. Do you have the money to buy the land or will you be forced to take land from another agency? Why does that other agency want to give you that land? Be careful!

How much land do I need?

That depends on what you want to do and how much money and power you have! Get more land than you think you will ever need. A training building project, over time, will always expand into more training. Why? Because the building becomes the center for training and educational activities for the department. I have never seen this axiom fail. If you are forced onto a small parcel and that's the best you can hope for, charge ahead! A small fire department should consider 10 acres as an appropriate site, and realize that in a few years it will be totally utilized. Anything less is short-sighted and poor planning. You don't have to use every acre the first day. If you can, get 20 to 30 acres with future expansion in mind. A larger department will need more land. Remember, land will not get cheaper.

Is this now or has this ever been a wetlands area?

Is a wetlands area nearby? Is it or is it near a habitat housing an endangered species? If so, you can expect to jump through a number of additional hurdles for approval of the site. If the land is wet, but not a wetlands area, you may have additional foundation-related costs.

Has this parcel of land ever been filled? Is it just dirt or do you have rock formations?

If you have a site that contains fill dirt you may have additional costs associated with the foundation. Rock may force you to blast to install a foundation and that is very expensive!

To know your soil condition, you must pay to have soil borings completed. This process will lead to obtaining a soil bearing pressure "number" which is needed to begin the design of any foundation. I have seen projects stop right here as the number indicated a foundation would be so expensive that it killed the effort until "better" land could be obtained. Do not purchase or accept land until you have a soil report that tells you a foundation can be built at a reasonable cost.

Do you have money?

A lot of fire departments have "land" available and start the prices before they actually have money. You need to research and make decisions about what you want, and what you may be able to afford. This effort will drive how much money you seek.

You need to avoid requesting insufficient funding.

NOBODY wants to go back and tell the Mayor or the Council that they need more money or forgot to plan for some additional expenses. Remember, it's always easier to give money back than it is to get more money!!!

You want to know from suppliers and vendors the "Budgetary" or ROM (Rough Order of Magnitude) dollar figures.

These will and should be high numbers which are certain to be able to deliver the desired item - regardless of inflation, industry price increases, etc. The Budgetary estimate is designed to give you a solid financial planning target, and allow for unknowns. The only way to get good estimates is do your homework. Go to the fire service shows, visit each vendor of related equipment and get price information. Those numbers will help you think through your project.

How much money will you need?

From that level on, cost will reflect exactly what you specify. Shop around, look at plans for other projects you've seen and might be close to what you need. Ask for cost data. Be careful! Reasonable fire training projects can be accomplished with funding in the $160,000 to $500,000 range. At the upper end, projects can cost millions of dollars, and involve architects, engineers, planners, suppliers, lots of meetings and a complicated approval process. These projects often require voter approval through a bond issue.

What do you need? What do you want? What is best?
…and more questions to consider.

Sometimes the hardest part of the project is getting the department and all of its leaders to agree on the answers to these questions. NFPA documents lay out the minimums for 1001 certification, but that may not suffice if you're a larger fire department. You have to do a needs analysis to define what you need. What will this project do for the department? Will new member training be done here? Will in-service training and/or outside training be held? What types of special training could be done? Will special props be required? What kinds of fires will you be allowed to have on site? How frequently will you train - year round? Day and night? What type of water supply will be used for training and where will runoff go? Do you need storage for equipment or gear at this facility? Will you have gas burning props? What about Class A burn training? What exactly do you plan on burning and how much does that cost? How much trash and debris will be generated? What other features do you want in the building? What type of building - concrete or steel? Is there a threat of vandalism? Will other agencies use the building and site for training? What lining material should you use and who will do maintenance on site? Do you have freeze-and-thaw conditions? How will you get your wet stuff dry? Where will you park and where will you park heavy truck company and rescue company apparatus?

Good preparation and planning will put a smile on everybody's face on ribbon cutting day.

Don Manno served as Director of the Marketing Division for WHP Training Towers. He was an instructor at the National Fire Academy for over 16 years and was a nationally recognized speaker on fire training and safety.

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