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Smoike rises from the Shared Services Facility. (Photo by Phil Barnes)

Fire strikes Shared Services Facility; $1 million in damage

WATKINS GLEN, March 23 -- "Thank heavens it has a fire-alarm system, or it might have been a lot worse," said a firefighter early Saturday morning at the scene of a blaze that left an estimated $1 million in damage in the Shared Services Facility at the corner of South Decatur Street and Fairgrounds Lane in Watkins Glen.

The alarm, triggered shortly after 2 a.m., drew firefighters from around the region to battle a fire that initial, "unofficial" assessments said began in a plow spreader truck parked in one of the bays near the south end of the facility. That part of the building -- which runs the length of the structure on its east side -- houses county plows and other vehicles, along with a couple of village vehicles.

Five plows were removed from the building shortly after the fire began and were driven to the safety of the nearby street, but not before sustaining some interior damage -- primarily melted dashboards, said Schuyler County Administrator Tim O'Hearn, who was on the scene after the smoke and flames had been quelled by firefighters. He said Highway Department personnel told him the vehicles would be repaired and road-worthy later in the day, in time to deal with any snow.

"There is some in the forecast," said O'Hearn.

The administrator said the 20 or so employees who have been working weekdays in offices on the west side of the building will have to be relocated while the cleanup goes on . One firefighter said the office section of the building had about two inches of standing water in it.

Firefighters from the Watkins Glen, Montour Falls, Odessa, Burdett, Horseheads, Town and Country, Tyrone, Wayne, Dundee, Beaver Dams, Hector and Mecklenburg departments were called to the fire, which an investigator said started, "unofficially," in the spreader plow, although the specific cause had yet to be determined. O'Hearn said the Highway Department, mindful of similar incidents at a couple of other truck facilities in the region, "have been proactive. That truck was checked out at the beginning of the month. So I don't know what happened."

The fire spread upwards, apparently entering the rafter area immediately above the burning vehicle. When the alarm sounded, a village patrolman responded and saw smoke curling out from the roof.

When firefighters arrived, said one, smoke was pouring out of the roof vents and reaching down into the garage area. They cut a ventilation hole in the roof near the south end of the structure, and brought the blaze under control fairly quickly -- though an hour and a half later they were still checking for hot spots.

The fire was "extremely hot," said the firefighter, and the smoke was thick and black. In the end, there was extensive smoke and water damage to the building and its vehicles, and local investigators were to be joined by state fire investigators. Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kennedy said state representatives can be called in for a variety of reasons, including a sizable dollar amount of damage. In this case, he said, it was "to give us a fresh set of eyes."

"Thankfully," said O'Hearn, "the building is still standing, although there's a lot of damage. It's significant for sure."

He said the county was "putting in place a recovery plan even as we speak." It will, among other things, require moving the building's employees to other facilities. Some are county workers, and some village. The county Soil and Water Conservation District is located there, as well as the Watershed Protection Agency and the Highway Department. The village's Public Works Department is headquartered there, along with the Code Enforcement Officer and the Electric and Street Departments.

"We're talking to (Watkins Glen School Superintendent) Tom Phillips," said O'Hearn, "because we're looking at the school" for possible office space, as well as at the County Building. Watkins Glen Mayor Mark Swinnerton, on site with Deputy Mayor Scott Gibson, said there is some space available at the Village Hall for temporary use, as well.

"We'll be reconfiguring," said O'Hearn. "We need access to fiber, so (the workers) can tie into the (county computer) network."

Beyond that, there is the matter of looking ahead to a day when the county-owned building, built just a handful of years ago and fully insured, can be reopened and operational. But that was far from being determined in the immediate wake of the fire.

"It's too early to tell," said O'Hearn.

Photos in text:

Top: Smoke curls from the Shared Services Facility. (Photo by Phil Barnes)

Second: County Administrator Tim O'Hearn, left, discusses the situation with Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kennedy.

Third: A fire investigator said that, "unofficially," the blaze started in this truck, a plow spreader.

Fourth: A track for one of the building's bay doors was bent when the door was forced open in order to remove a county plow inside.

Bottom: A firefighter throws some roof insulation to the ground beside one of the bays.

(Top 2 photos by Phil Barnes; others by the Editor)

Left: Watkins Glen Fire Chief Dominick Smith, right, confers with other firefighters. Right: The Shared Services Facility sign lists the building's occupants.

Watkins Glen Mayor Mark Swinnerton (in cap) and Deputy Mayor Scott Gibson (hooded coat) were on the scene shortly after 4 a.m.

Firefighters poke through exposed insulation in the building after the fire,
looking for hot spots.

Debris from one of the bay doors that was forced open.

One of five plows removed from the building. They require some repairs, but will be ready for service in the event of snow, said County Administrator Tim O'Hearn.

Firefighters place a protective tarp over one of the vehicles in the building's garage.

Firefighters enter the office area, where officials said there was
extensive smoke and water damage.



© The Odessa File 2013
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869