The Lehighton Fire Department could be getting expanded facilities in the very near future.

Yesterday afternoon, Speaker of the House of Representatives Keith McCall gave a major boost to the plans, offering the fire department a $1.5 million redevelopment assessment grant toward the estimated $3.5 million project.

Then last night, Lehighton Borough Council went on record as unanimously supporting the project by agreeing to match the grant money and hiring an architectural firm to do preliminary work.

The matching grant money pledged by the borough is expected to come from valuation assessments of property the fire department owns and from Pennsylvania gambling revenues, not actually from the borough coffers.

Still, fire company officials acknowledged that bringing the project to reality has some major hurdles.

For example, a massive grant application must be completed by Dec. 31. The council last night appointed borough treasurer Nicole Beckett to work with fire company volunteer Steve Ebbert on getting the application completed by the deadline.

Another hurdle is that construction must begin six months after the grant is approved, which is why Ebbert said he is hoping to have the groundbreaking June 1.

At the council meeting, it was acknowledged that final plans probably won't be completed by June 1. Councilman Dale Traupman questioned the definition of "construction" in the contract requirements and Ebbert said he will attempt to get more information.

The check presentation was made in Station 1 of the fire company.

Ebbert said the project, several years in the conceptual stage, will involve connecting the Lehigh Fire Company No. 1 building and the Engine Company 2 building on South Third Street by demolishing three houses between the structures. The Lehighton Fire Department has already purchased those houses.

Five or six bays will be built on the sites of the houses.

The Lehigh Fire Company No. 1 building was constructed in 1938 as part of the federal recovery program from the Great Depression. The Engine Company 2 building was erected in 1910. Both of these structures will remain intact, although renovations are anticipated.

Part of that structure is being converted into the Lehighton Police Station. The police department is expected to move into their new, more spacious quarters next month.

Attending the check presentation besides McCall were Ebbert, fire department Captain Patrick Mriss, borough council President Grant Hunsicker, Councilman Scott Rehrig, and Bill Richards, a longtime office manager for McCall's Lansford office who will now be working for Senator-Elect John Yudichek.

McCall, who is retiring as a state legislator after 28 years, said Richards will continue working with the borough to assist with attaining the funding.

The state lawmaker labeled Hunsicker and Rehrig as "leaders in the community" and praised their efforts to obtain grants throughout his tenure.

He also mentioned the fire company's need for the funding.

"This fire company has done so many great things in the community," said McCall, who has a record as being supportive of volunteer firefighters by providing funding in other communities and having legislature pushed through Harrisburg in their support.

"It's one service provided which is free service to the community," he remarked.

He said the grant "is just a small token of our appreciation to show our commitment."

Ebbert said the grant is a major component in getting the construction project off the ground.

The firefighter said the construction will make operations of the department "a lot safer." Currently, said Ebbert, the firefighters are working in cramped facilities from two different locations. Gear is stored in Station 1 and firefighters must then scurry to Station 2 from some apparatus. In addition, new safety standards require venting in fire stations. Gear in the present fire station is subjected to diesel exhaust.

One other important factor in wanting to enlarge the facilities is that often during major winter storms or other emergencies where there is potential for widespread power outages, volunteers spend in excess of 24 hours at the station. There currently are no facilities to accommodate them.

The new station would have bunks for the volunteers.

Ebbert praised borough officials and employees for the assistance given to the fire department during the grant application process, especially singling out Beckett "who has been phenomenal in getting deadlines met."

He said firefighters have been working diligently on the project, adding, "We're still volunteers but we're trying to save taxpayers money by doing as much on our own as we can."