Police and Fire facilities: Possible next steps

Storm Stella in 2017 had quite an impact. Damage from the ice storm not only shuttered Borough Hall and temporarily relocated our staff; it forced us to reexamine the operations of every department in town. The result is that we’re researching options to move forward on some capital projects that have been necessary for years (in some cases – decades!) – but we’re miles from the finish line and will only get there after a lot of work internally and spending time hearing from residents.

A little background
We are prioritizing our Police and Fire facilities. They are -and we cannot stress this enough- woefully, embarrassingly and dangerously outdated. When we requested a report outlining facility issues from our Chiefs, their responses were multi-page lists that included everything from a need for basic functionality to serious non-compliance issues. Here are just some of the problems with the current PD and FD buildings.

PD: ADA non-compliance, security problems (no secure parking, evidence and police records not properly secured as required by current regulations), lack of storage for records, evidence, equipment and evidence processing; detention area issues (including a lack of separation between juvenile and adults in detention/processing area as required and no secure prisoner area outside of detention cell as required); unprotected telephone systems; traffic issues that impact response time; HVAC issues, no secure interview areas for witnesses/victims; detective bureau currently off site due to space constraints; areas unprotected by fire detecting equipment or an automatic sprinkler system; only one functioning bathroom currently shared by officers and prisoners; water intrusion and leaks; pest issues; inadequate training room, storage and conference space; locker rooms that serve as locker/break room with no shower or toilet facility; and a lack of women’s’ locker room/bathrooms.

FD: ADA non-compliance; traffic issues that delay response and are unsafe (including the need to enter oncoming traffic lanes and/or backing up blindly, traffic back up and safety hazard at Collings Ave light when going into a blind curve on the wrong side of the roadway, firehouse not angled properly making apparatus navigation difficult and town events in very close vicinity to firehouse with heavy pedestrian traffic); pest issues; water intrusion and leaks; current building size limits apparatus due to bay ceiling and door height; crew quarters in poor condition with poor ventilation, HVAC and circulation; no separate bathrooms/locker rooms/showers for female staff; inadequate showers for personnel to use in a timely manner after a fire or exposure incident to decontaminate; equipment not up to safety standards; inadequate training room, storage and conference space; electric and breaker issues that cause power loss; and sewage backups in floor drains.

We’ve spent the last several years repairing and trying to maintain these buildings so our police and fire could work from them, but the band-aids will no longer suffice. The current buildings are in such bad shape and poorly situated that no amount of renovations would correct many of these issues (such as size and location), which is why we are looking into new facilities, rather than rehabilitating the old buildings which would come at great cost and not solve much.

And if you still aren’t convinced (remember, this is an abridged list) our Chiefs will be conducting public tours of their current buildings to show condition issues and how it impacts operation just before our fall Town Forum on October 24.

Potential plans
In talking to our Chiefs, staff, planners, architects and public safety experts, we think a joint PD/FD public safety building is the best approach to give our departments new facilities in our already dense town. We have acquired the lot at 434 Haddon Ave and are looking at developing a facility on that space. This space has excellent potential for a shared facility for a few reasons. Police and fire services would still be relatively centrally located with better access to a main corridor. This location would have less impact on our business district and pedestrians in the heart of the downtown. The location has ample space for such a facility, apparatus, fleet, equipment and parking for citizens.

Plans for a new facility would remedy the above issues and dramatically reduce operation and maintenance costs for both police and fire, improve response times, provide better communication and efficiency for both departments, provide increased community visibility and improved accessibility for residents and provide shared, multi-purpose areas that can be used by PD and FD, which maximizes the facility’s use.

The key at any location is to minimize the impact on a neighborhood (we are studying examples of new facilities in similarly dense areas and how they balance noise and traffic issues) and maximizing safety for those our public safety staff serve.  At this point, we are only in the very beginning stages of examining the feasibility of using this site and will engage the community as much as possible with neighborhood meetings, town wide meetings, answering questions and concerns and providing as much information as possible as we move through the research and planning process.

How do we finance this?
Building new public safety buildings is necessary – but it’s not necessarily cheap. While we are a long way from having any figures, we do know we are in a good position to finance these capital improvements that will not rely solely on taxpayers. The great news is we have some revenue streams that will help cover the cost of this facility – which means minimizing impact to property owners.

The sale of the Heights of Collingswood to new owners means a revaluation that will increase tax revenue from that property which we plan to apply to this project. We are working with the Camden County Improvement Authority which provides low cost financing and our development team will examine any and all grant sources available to us to bring down costs. One consideration is a mixed-use model that includes office space alongside public safety facilities to help offset costs and add to the taxable base. Additionally, our PD and FD will be simultaneously working to acquire grants to reduce the cost of equipment and other needs in any new space.

Our goal is to plan a safe, modern (and desperately needed) public safety facility for the lowest possible cost to taxpayers. This is all conceptual right now – but we’re looking at every possible opportunity. We must update our facilities for our public safety teams (we’re about a decade late on getting started) and this will be a long and thorough project that balances cost, municipal need and community need.

Next steps and long term
As we plan to bring our public safety buildings up to date, we are looking at even longer term planning for updating Borough Hall, Courts, Public Works and possibly even adding more parking to Collingswood. All are part of a larger plan with many moving parts, but we will take things one step at a time and keep residents as informed as we can. With any questions, don’t hesitate to email me at jmaley@collingswood.com.

All are welcome to join the discussion at our next Town Forum on October 24 (7 p.m., Community Center) which we will dedicate partially to this project (as well as chickens, stop signs and whatever else you want to discuss). That evening, PD and FD staff with host tours before the Forum for any folks interested in viewing current conditions. We’re looking forward to moving our police and fire out of the 50s and into the twenty-first century and, as always, we welcome your thoughts.