First steps made in city and Ogle-Lee’s fire training facility project

‘We'd like to see it utilized by as many entities as possible’

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ROCHELLE — The Rochelle City Council and Ogle-Lee Fire Protection District Board recently approved an intergovernmental agreement for the construction of a joint fire training facility in the future. 

The facility is planned to be located at 920 S. Main St., a 12-acre property that was donated to the city in 2020. Under the agreement, Ogle-Lee will pay the city $263,000, as the site was appraised in 2021 for $580,000 and there will be dual ownership. 

According to the agreement, the city will retain ownership of the property and the City Manager and Rochelle Fire Chief will have administrative authority of use and scheduling of the site and facility. The city and Ogle-Lee will split costs of future development of the site. Those fees will not necessarily be split 50/50, due to other potential uses of the facility like training for utility personnel and other city departments along with other entities possibly training there. 

The city is discussing a partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the American Public Power Association to utilize the location for a midwestern pole climbing school and lineman training center.   

“In the end, we'd like to see it utilized by as many entities as possible,” Rochelle Fire Chief Dave Sawlsville said. “Area fire departments, law enforcement and the railroads are some examples. If there's a need for any kind of training, it's in a great location. People have already reached out and said, 'If you build it, we will come.'"

Sawlsville said discussions have been ongoing about a potential training facility for a couple of years. He kept hearing from firefighters that they could do more meaningful training if they had somewhere to do it. Most training is currently done at the fire station and is limited due to fear of damaging the building. 

Rochelle Fire trains at acquired training sites when they become available, such as the vacant Hickory Grove or abandoned houses. 

“But they don't become available very often,” Sawlsville said. “When you have a facility that you can design and dedicate that's available whenever you need it, that's great. Back in the day, we just did what we could right here at the fire station using the best stuff we could. There are benefits to this new facility. It makes us better at our jobs, more efficient and safer.”

Another benefit of the planned facility is its potential to lower homeowner’s insurance rates for area residents. The Insurance Service Organization rates fire departments and that plays into residents’ insurance costs. Rochelle and Ogle-Lee having access to a fire training facility would give them a better rating. 

Sawlsville said local training facilities are more common now compared to 10 years ago due to added benefits. He spends a lot of time traveling around the state and visiting other departments and he’s seen more and more of them. 

Rochelle and Ogle-Lee having both full-time and paid on-call staff makes the facility more necessary. 

“You have to meet your paid on-call staff where they are,” Sawlsville said. “You have to train those guys when they're available. If you have something local and available, you can say you'll meet them where they are and when they can make it. It's a benefit for all of our folks.”

Rochelle Fire and Ogle-Lee already have a contract in place. Rochelle goes to all Ogle-Lee’s calls and Ogle-Lee responds to Rochelle’s bigger calls. Sawlsville serves part-time as Ogle-Lee’s chief. They train together and have the same radio frequency. 

“We back each other up all the time,” Sawlsville said. “It only makes sense that we partner with them on the training facility. If we're going to count on them, we should train with them. Our relationship with Ogle-Lee has been just amazing. I haven’t come across another relationship like it. We work together every day.”

The next steps of the project include engineering to lay out the facility. Grants will be pursued to help with project costs. Sawlsville said the work can be done in phases as money becomes available. 

City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh said he’s most excited by the facility’s potential to provide training for all city departments, especially the utility side. There’s a “real good chance” it could be home to a pole climbing or line training school for national organizations. 

When Rochelle Municipal Utilities employees go to pole climbing school, they go down to Tennessee. The Rochelle facility could be the only one or one of the few in the Midwest. 

“I do think there's some really prime opportunities to have national or regional training when it comes to the electric side there,” Fiegenschuh said. “And it can be paid for by organizations coming from outside of our community using it."

The city manager said there's no timeframe on the project. Funds have been budgeted for next year for engineering and design work. He guesses it will be another year or two before construction. He’s unsure of what the potential investment could be, but is excited about the facility’s potential.

“Our mayor and council have said that they want more collaboration with other units of government,” Fiegenschuh said. “Whether it's the state or federally or locally. The thing I like most is there are a lot of opportunities to make it more than just a fire training facility. Kind of a fire, public safety and utility training facility."