Fire Station 50: Goodbye to the old, hello to the new

Lance Shearer

For firefighters on Marco Island, and especially Fire Rescue Chief Chris Byrne, the groundbreaking on Tuesday to replace the island’s original fire station was an emotional moment.

While there was nostalgia and fond remembrances of moments in the building that will be torn down to make room for its state-of-the-art replacement, the primary emotion was relief.

“Your life is over, Fire Station 50,” Byrne said in his remarks to the crowd assembled inside the station’s cavernous garage, next to City Hall and the police department. “You’ve served us well, you’ve seen us in good times, and you’ve seen us in bad. Your replacement is ready for what comes our way. We’ll always remember your service and your special time in the history of Marco Island.”

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The ‘bad times’ Byrne referenced included Marco’s direct hit from Hurricane Irma in 2017, when firefighters positioned in the station had to evacuate to the upper floor of the police station next door as flood waters lapped at the fire station’s door.

The good times included many pancake breakfasts put on by the Marco Island Fire Rescue Foundation, spreading fellowship and syrup among the community, as well as CPR classes and first aid training in the station’s training room. Somewhere in between were 9/11 remembrances, with the fire department’s bell tolling to commemorate the losses of Sept. 11, 2001.

The reason for the relief from Byrne and the 36 firefighters under his command is that the old building is worn out, not built to current codes, with a host of issues starting at the roof and working down. As Byrne said, the station has “been reconfigured time and time again. We’re plagued with mold remediation, A/C problems, and termites in the roof trusses.”

“I’m not sad to see this go,” said Fire Capt. Dustin Beatty. “This change is much needed. There’s been band-aid after band-aid. The roof trusses above you are barely held together.”

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But there are a host of memories associated with the building, countless batches of firehouse chili cooked up and eaten, lives saved, and kittens rescued.

“It’s kind of bittersweet. I was here when it was built,” said Byrne, and as a firefighter, he spent the first night in the station when it was dedicated. “It’s our home.”

As Byrne noted, the station “is an emergency facility out of which firefighters have responded to more than 75,000 emergency incidents” in its nearly 30 years of service. The station also served as Marco Island’s first city hall, with former city manager Bill Moss and current City Clerk Laura Litzan both having worked out of the space, and for a time was also the home of the MIPD.

Byrne singled out for special recognition former Fire Rescue Chief Mike Murphy, who served from 2001 to 2020, and attended the groundbreaking in a shirt indicating his retired status.

“Recognizing the deterioration of the station, Chief Murphy began to plan for a major renovation or new construction” of the existing facility, said Byrne. Murphy served his entire tenure in the old Station 50, and now Byrne will take the department into the future in the new building.

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Byrne credited another former fire chief, Charles MacDonald with choosing the site for the station, shortly after he took up the post on October 1988. “The Chief always said, ‘if a map of the island is a dartboard, then the location of this property is the bullseye.’ ”

The existing building had its first brush with a major hurricane while under construction in 1992, sustaining minor damage from Hurricane Andrew. The new station will be built to withstand 205-mph winds and be able to house 60 people during a storm, enabling emergency responders to react quickly after disaster strikes. It will have a flood plain elevation of 11 feet, two feet more than the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires.

The project designed by BSSW Architects features sleeping quarters, bays for equipment, administrative offices and meeting rooms. It will be home to a fueling center, an IT department that will hold the city’s data center, a training tower and a community training center with a 40-person classroom. The 6,000-gallon generator and fueling station will allow the operations center to maintain power and for city vehicles to fill tanks before and after storms. Before, the city was solely reliant on the commercial gas stations.

The city entered into a contract with construction manager-at-risk Manhattan Construction. The at-risk delivery method of the contract allows for a guaranteed maximum price of $12.5 million for the project with the chance to identify cost-saving methods, city fleet and facilities manager Miguel Carballo said.

It will be paid for with an $8 million bond, $3.3 million from the voter-approved Collier County 1-cent sales tax and a $1.28 FEMA Hazardous Mitigation Assistance Grant, Carballo said.

With the loan being paid back through the city’s capital improvement program, City Council Chairman Jared Grifoni stated residents will not see a tax increase for the project. He spoke after Byrne and was followed by Senior Vice President Jim Cuddihee of Manhattan Construction.

The ceremonial groundbreaking, with city councilors and dignitaries including Byrne and Murphy tossing a shovelful of sand with commemorative spades, was the second eight-figure groundbreaking in four weeks for the city, following on the heels of the Aug. 18 commencement of major renovations at Veterans’ Community Park, also under the stewardship of Manhattan Construction. Assistant to the City Manager Casey Lucius added some punctuation to the moment, popping a canister of confetti overhead as the sand was tossed.

Actual construction, said Cuddihee, will commence in about a month, and take approximately 16 months until completion. The city has the recently renovated Station 51 in the north quadrant of the island and will operate out of the refurbished Medical Arts building on the other side of the police station and community room until the new Station 50 is ready.

Additional reporting by Adam Regan.