The new St. Tammany Fire Protection District No. 1 administrative building, as well as an adjacent firehouse for the Slidell-based agency, should be complete sometime in June, Fire Chief Chris Kaufmann said.

Construction on the buildings, which are located on Robert Boulevard near the Slidell Library, began in June 2017. Work was to be finished within 12 months, but the fire district and its contractor, Stevens Construction & Design LLC, never reached a substantial completion date on the work, Kaufmann said. The parties wound up taking the matter to 22nd Judicial District Court, where litigation is ongoing.

Fire District 1, meanwhile, appealed to RLI, the bond company handling the project. Kaufmann said RLI took bids on a takeover contract that eventually was awarded to VERTEX Construction. The takeover contract went into effect Feb. 4.

The original contract was bid at about $2.85 million, of which Kaufmann said approximately $2.2 million was spent. Kaufmann said the takeover contract called for another $1.7 million to complete the buildings and mitigate some work the fire district saw as problematic.

As the bonding agent, RLI will absorb the extra cost, Kaufmann said.

“The bond company had the responsibility of hiring the new general contractor, but also fixing things in the general scope of work (we thought needed to be done,)” Kaufmann said. “It took us five or six months to get this takeover contract started. I’m very satisfied with the workmanship I see now.”

The Fire District 1 headquarters will be a 7,500-square-foot, two-story facility with ample office space, storage and areas to greet visitors. A large conference room can be used for varied purposes, from routine meetings of fire district personnel to emergency gatherings of first responders.

The building will offer significantly more space than the current district headquarters, located in a 4,000-square-foot building on Corporate Square Boulevard, just off Gause Boulevard. The fire district moved administrative operations there after its former site on Old Spanish Trail flooded during Hurricane Katrina.

Kaufmann said the Corporate Square space served a purpose in a pinch, but that the building has become extremely cramped given the district’s growth in recent years.

“The sellers were great to us because they applied the first year’s rent to the selling price,” he said. “We just didn’t expect to be there this long.”

The firehouse at the Robert Boulevard location will measure 6,200-square-feet and be able to house four firetrucks. The district already has purchased a 100-foot-long ladder truck that will operate from the location. A circular driveway is designed so that firetrucks won’t have to back out on Robert Boulevard.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts, so the facility also will include living quarters for those on duty. Accommodations will include a full kitchen, a day room, bunk beds, lockers and a pair of offices for captains on duty. There is a computer area where firefighters can work on ongoing training, as well as an outdoor patio that overlooks a wide outdoors space behind the firehouse.

Kaufmann said the firehouse layout on Robert Boulevard is similar to the one at the Steele Road facility at the entrance of the Cross Gates neighborhood.

“The layout works really well for us,” Kaufmann said. “We operate three shifts of people going 24 hours on, then 24 hours off. It’s extremely important to be efficient.”

It’s also important to steer clear of floodwater, which is why the Robert Boulevard location on Slidell’s northern edge is critical to operations. Flood conditions usually mean Kaufmann has to temporarily redirect operations away from lower-lying stations at Oak Harbor, on Thompson Road and in Olde Towne. The Robert Boulevard firehouse is on land well above sea level and is large enough for the chief to double personnel there in case of an emergency.

Kaufmann said the small firehouse on Normandy Drive, located just blocks from the new buildings, will be closed when work on the new firehouse is complete. Operations handled there will move to the new firehouse.

St. Tammany Fire Protection District No. 1 operates eight firehouses in and around Slidell.

“This location (for the new firehouse) was chosen strategically to give us the best response times with no overlap (of service,)” Kaufmann said. “It will help our ratings, which will maximize benefits for taxpayers by lowering homeowners and fire (insurance.)”

Kaufmann said plans for a large-scale capital project at the Sgt. Alfred Drive firehouse as well. He expects the current station will be razed and a new building will be put on piers like other municipal buildings in Olde Towne. Living quarters for firefighters would be located downstairs.

“We’re looking to get the architects selected in the next 120 days,” Kaufmann said. “We want to get the plan completed and possibly go out to bid for contractors later this year.”

St. Tammany Fire Protection District No. 1 responded to 7,500 calls in 2018. The district has 174 employees (150 of them full-time firefighters) that serve a population of more than 90,000 residents. The district has an annual budget of just more than $18 million.

The fire district is the only municipal fire department in the state to be accredited through the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. The district earned the five-year distinction in 2015 after undergoing a peer review and meeting more than 250 performance indicators. The district plans to reapply for reaccreditation in 2020.