Highland News Leader

New public safety building will eliminate railroad headaches during emergency response

Take a look inside Highland Fire Station No. 1

Highland EMS Chief Brian Wilson speaks briefly about some of the needs of the Highland Fire and EMS Departments and gives an inside look at Highland Fire Station No. 1 located at 1115 Broadway.
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Highland EMS Chief Brian Wilson speaks briefly about some of the needs of the Highland Fire and EMS Departments and gives an inside look at Highland Fire Station No. 1 located at 1115 Broadway.

City officials say Highland’s $7 million public safety building, aimed to provide updated facilities to the city’s first responders, will also improve city fire and EMS teams’ response times.

The new building, planned to go out for bid Jan. 1, will be a headquarters for the city’s police, fire and EMS departments and will update outdated facilities throughout Highland. The project also includes renovations to Fire Station No. 1, located at 1115 Broadway, where the city’s EMS team is currently headquartered.

EMS Chief Brian Wilson said the new building and fire station renovations will allow his department to house EMS vehicles and crews on either side of the CXS St. Louis railroad line that runs through town. Right now, he said, if a train is moving through town first responders have to use longer, alternative routes to make it to the northern fire districts.

“One of the unique characteristics Highland has that a lot of communities don’t have to worry about are railroad tracks running right through the middle of town,” Wilson said. “All it takes is a slow-moving freight, a stopped train or a long train. All of that equates to time.”

In total, Highland’s paramedics cover five fire districts across roughly 400 square miles — Highland, Pierron, St. Jacob, St. Rose, Grantfork and Marine. Districts like Pierron and Marine, north of the CXS tracks, can be difficult to respond to when a train is moving through the town, Wilson said.

The railroad tracks act as a divider between Highland’s different services areas, separating north and south. Currently, there is a small fire station north of the railroad on Woodcrest Drive, but it does not have space to house EMS vehicles.

That can leave EMS and fire teams searching for alternative paths during emergencies.

Wilson said if a train happens to be traveling through town during an emergency, crews head toward Sycamore Street, where there is a small underpass underneath the railroad; but the height of the underpass makes it difficult for fire and EMS vehicles to pass through.

Other options include the overpass near the Veterans Honor Memorial or backtracking and trying to find an intersection where the train has already passed.

Benefits beyond response times

Wilson also said the new public safety building’s location off Troxler Avenue, considered an “artery road,” will cut down on the time first responders spend taking side streets.

Wilson said improved response times can also raise the city’s Insurance Service Office ratings, which in turn lower insurance rates in the area. The ISO is a private corporation that evaluates cities on things like a fire department’s response times, staffing, equipment and other fire-related areas for insurance purposes.

According to the city’s website, Highland has a Class 4 ISO, a highly coveted ranking that puts the city in the top 15 percentile in Illinois. If response times continue to improve, Wilson said, the ISO could reach an even higher rate, meaning insurance rates in Highland could lower.

City Manager Mark Latham said the new building also reflects the growth in the north side of town. He said with better response times, updated facilities and better service to districts like Pierron and Marine, the project made a lot of sense.

“There’s just a lot of pluses,” Latham said. “The discussion has always been that as the town continues to grow, we try to combine not only the police department — that is basically out of space and can’t really grow in its present area — to combining and having fire and EMS with them on the northern half of town, where most of the growth is happening right now.”

Highland’s comprehensive plan was redone roughly four years ago to better reflect the direction Highland was moving toward. The new facility was part of that planning, stemming from the increasingly out-of-date facilities the city’s emergency responders are working in.

Fire Station No. 1
The fire and emergency medical services station located at 1115 Broadway in Highland. Megan Braa mbraa@bnd.com

The city’s police and fire stations are both around 35 to 40 years old and have a laundry list of issues stemming from the age of the buildings that include:

Not complying with American with Disabilities Act standards

Inadequate living quarters and amenities at the fire station that do not accommodate men and women

Inadequate office, storage and evidence space

Structural issues like leaking roofs, collapsing retainer walls, crumbling driveways, rotting woodworking, steep stairwells and foundational issues

Lack of sally port and a prisoner transfer area at the police station

No separate bathrooms for witnesses and police officers

The police station is in a residential area, out of sight from the public eye

Latham said it isn’t clear how long the construction of the building might take, but estimated “about a year.” Loyet and Associates is the firm designing the building. The firm’s president Matthew Loyet echoed that estimate. Currently the city and firm are working to keep the 31,000-square-foot building and renovations near the $7 million estimate.

Loyet said the firm will present concept art and more plans for the building and renovation to the city council next month.

The project is being funded by a half-cent sales tax that began in July 2018.

Kavahn Mansouri: 618-239-2507, @KavahnMansouri