$1M Conn. fire station renovation project helps establish gender equality

The project allows for a restroom and showers for a female firefighter as well as expansion of living accommodations and the bunk room

Cassandra Day
The Middletown Press, Conn.

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — The South Fire District unveiled Monday its $1 million renovation project, which includes a restroom and showers for a female firefighter, a move intended to promote gender parity.

Reimbursement from the State Bond Commission also allowed the station to add a new wing, expand its living accommodations, and enlarge the bunk room where there are 13 beds separated by low partitions.

Presently, there are 37 employees in the station, according to Chief James Trzaski. Besides the one female firefighter, there are three women among administration staff.

Up until the renovations, firefighters all shared the facilities. When women were occupying the restroom, they would put an "in use" sign on the door, the chief said.

"It made it a little uncomfortable," he admitted. "It's time we do what's right."

The culture of fire service has changed over the years, said Trzaski, whose wife is also a firefighter/EMS. He started his professional career in 1985 as a volunteer, when women were "not allowed" in the fire department.

That's no longer the case.

"The people in leadership were from the '40s and '50s at that time," he said. "I think we've broken that barrier."

When women were hired, Jacobs said, they needed distinct areas, including lockers.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said she recently visited a station in Hamden, built in the 1920s, which had firefighters' quarters, but they weren't enclosed or separated for women and men.

"We have a lot of work to do to update firehouses," she said, especially considering the fire service wants to attract more women.

South Fire's goal is to make the career more attractive to encourage more women to apply for jobs. "We certainly embrace it," Trzaski said.

The department, formerly the Russell Fire Co., is a separate taxing district that now serves 14,000 residents. It started out as a horse-and-buggy operation where Stop and Shop is on East Main Street, explained Jacobs, who joined in 1975.

It began as an all-volunteer operation.

"The residents out here did really get service, because how could you get a horse from [the Main Street station] all the way out here?" he added.

At the time, Jacobs was paid $2 an hour and 50 cents for a false alarm.

The current facility was built in 1968. It had a flat roof, which the chief said isn't ideal considering New England's harsh winters.

That was replaced, additional office and living spaces were added, and more modern facilities created. A workshop was also transformed into a small gym.

The rest of the money paid for the expansion, and some of the work, including painting, brick-laying and the tearing down of walls, was done by firefighters to save costs, the chief said.

"That saves a lot of time," Trzaski said of his crew. "They do that all the time. In the long run, it benefits them."

The former fire chief's office was essentially cut in half to make the lounge larger, Deputy Chief Russ Jacobs said during a tour of the building.

The chief's office was rather large, and the adjoining day room was very cramped, Jacobs said. "Eight people tried to fit in half this room," he said, referring to the typical number of personnel working each shift.

"It was extremely difficult for them," he explained. "Half the time, they wouldn't even go in here."

The project began under former chief Rob Ross, was ushered along by former chief Michael Howley, then Jacobs took over with help from the chief.

"Between he and I, we took it from the five-yard line, and we scored a goal," Trzaski said.

Also in Middletown, the Connecticut State Fire Training Academy recently received $221,000 for firefighter turnout gear and a firefighter training simulator.


(c)2022 The Middletown Press, Conn.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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