On Oct.11, 2020, Greensburg, Pa., fire chief Thomas Ball responded to a late-night alarm coming from the community’s public works building on South Urania Avenue. As he drove the three-and-a-half minutes to the garage, Bell wasn’t overly concerned. He expected to find a malfunctioning panel alarm in need of a reset, but when the building came into view, he saw the orange glow of flames, and his heart sank.
“I am also the director of public works for the city of Greensburg, and that garage is my second home. I spend anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day there. However, I had to put my emotions to the side and go into fire chief mode,” he said.
A devastating loss
Thankfully, nothing exploded, there were no fatalities and no civilians were injured in the blaze, which was deemed an accident by Bell. He said the fire originated in the street sweeper, but the exact cause of the fire remains unclear.
“We even brought John Deere out to take a look at it, and they couldn’t determine the cause either,” he said.
The fire resulted in a devastating loss for the city. Not only was the garage destroyed, but there was significant damage to the fleet as well. According to reports, three dump trucks, a front loader, skid steer and pump truck were lost while two other dump trucks sustained repairable damage. Bell said the city council approved the leasing of one truck as well as the purchase of two more plus a skid steer to help rebuild the fleet, but the department has yet to replace the street sweeper. The city has also been looking at creative ways to replace the garage.
The garage was built in 1976, and over the past 45 years, the city’s fleet had stretched the facility to its limit. Bell said the city’s insurance would pay to replace the bicentennial-era building, but an updated structure would require more resources than Greensburg has. Bell said the city’s budget took a big hit over the course of the pandemic, requiring a more modest upgrade to the proposed building.
“If we have to build, then we have to build for the future, not the past,” Bell said. “I took a proposal to the city council and said that we need to utilize the land a little better, and that’s what we are doing now.”
A new beginning
The new garage proposal allows for large, open bays for the city’s fleet as well as office space for the workers. It also incorporates a simple metal building to house equipment and the relocation of the existing salt building to a municipal golf course to make room for the new additions. Bell said the odd shape of the property, lack of parking and the salt storage building limited what could be done with the space. After working with Scott Maritzer of Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. to design the new facility, Greensburg awarded the general construction contract to C. Tucker Cope & Associates for $1.8 million. Securing the raw materials necessary to build has presented additional challenges to the project, but Bell remains confident it will all work out in the end. He is also grateful for the nearby communities that offered their assistance while the department recovered their fleet from the fire damage.
“Believe it or not, I am working out of three different places at the moment,” he said with a laugh. “We have a stone company that has a big warehouse on the east end of town, and we were able to rent a 5,000-square-foot space from them to store equipment. There is also the Old Freight Station, which is our maintenance and electrical shop, and then we have an emergency operations center — that’s where my crew hangs out every day. I am in the basement with a desk, a night light and an air conditioner plugging away.”
Despite the setback resulting from the fire and the subsequent pandemic, Bell is pleased with the resilience his department showed. However, he hopes he never has to go through it again and would not wish a similar experience on anyone. If all goes according to plan, the new facility will be completed by January 2022, and when he is in his new office, he vows to supply the champagne for a proper celebration.
As he reflected on the experience, he said it has made his hair a lot grayer than it was before. Not only did he have to couch his emotions in his dual role of fire chief and public works director, but he also had to figure out how to proceed in extraordinary circumstances. Still, he is grateful the city council and administrators were as supportive as they were. “They knew what this meant to me,” he said. “They also knew I probably took it harder than anyone. Not only was I born and raised in Greensburg, but my father was the public works director before me, so it was personal. When this is all over, I think the city will be better off than it was before. It’s just going to take time.”