'A good day to move': Wheeling firefighters excited to move into new, $5 million station
The Wheeling Fire Department's Station No. 23 was a bustling hive of activity last Tuesday morning -- but not because of an overwhelming number of emergency calls.
It was moving day.
Firefighters loaded the newly constructed building at 780 S. Wheeling Road with gear, furniture, food and other things they'll need to live and work there.
Located just north of Hintz Road, the station was built on the site of its predecessor, which was demolished last fall after 42 years of service.
Veteran firefighter-paramedic Bob Carlson liked one thing about the new, $5 million station right away: It has tile floors, not carpet.
"(It's) easier to clean," he said, reflecting the tradition of firefighters handling their own housekeeping.
A big improvement
Wheeling has three fire stations. The old Station No. 23 needed to be replaced, officials have said, because it was too small, had no facilities for potential female crew members and had deteriorating or out-of-date components.
Size was a big factor. At roughly 6,500 square feet, it was designed to house three crew members per shift, not the current five. It also wasn't large enough for modern fire trucks, Fire Chief Mike McGreal said.
The new firehouse is about 11,000 square feet, and a lot of that extra room is in a spacious vehicle bay.
Five rigs occupy the bay -- including a traditional fire engine, an ambulance and a vehicle known as a crash truck that's called into service for airplane-related emergencies and other crises. Wheeling is home to Chicago Executive Airport.
Other improved amenities include a dedicated workout room filled with free weights and exercise machines, a comfortable kitchen and dining area, modern offices and relatively private sleeping quarters equipped with beds and desks.
"The guys had a hand in a lot of the design," McGreal said. "Building a fire station is different from any other building -- you're living and working (here)."
Firefighter-paramedic Bryan Zirzow helped lead the project from conception to completion. Having firefighters involved with the planning rather than just chiefs was important, he said.
"They don't know how we use it, day to day," Zirzow said.
The station's calls on its first day were fairly routine, including a propane cylinder that caught fire next to a building, someone having trouble breathing and someone in cardiac arrest. There were no calls until late in the afternoon, allowing the firefighters to focus the morning on setting up the firehouse.
"It was a good day to move," Deputy Chief Steve Mella said.
A temporary base
The new station took about nine months to build. Funded with money from the village's reserves, it came in ahead of schedule and under budget, McGreal said.
The building's facade is eye-catching. Instead of a traditional rectangular design, it has a slanted roofline that provides some character.
Additionally, a large, gray 23 is displayed on a red background above the center bay's rolling door to make identifying the structure even easier.
The village held a relatively private ribbon-cutting at Station No. 23 this month. As per tradition, firefighters helped push an engine into place in the bay to cap off the event.
"This stems from when fire apparatus were pulled by horses, and many times they didn't like backing up," McGreal explained. "So the firemen were forced to push the carts in themselves."
During construction, crews that normally work at Station No. 23 used the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System headquarters on Hintz Road in Wheeling as a temporary base.
Village President Pat Horcher read a proclamation honoring MABAS during last week's village board meeting.
"I have no idea how much money they saved us," Horcher said afterward. "We would've had to find a place to store the guys and the equipment so they could continue to respond to calls."
McGreal appreciated the organization's hospitality, too.
"The MABAS folks not only provided the facility, they made sure we had everything we needed to staff a makeshift fire station," he said.
Of course, as nice as it was to operate in that nearby facility, being home feels better.
"MABAS is a great place, but it's still like living in your in-laws' house," McGreal said.