Last Thursday night, the Lehighton Fire Department took another step toward the enlargement of its fire station when it won approval from the borough's Zoning Hearing Board.

The only obstacle to the project status is the awaiting of additional grant money. The project cost is estimated at $3.5 million. About $1.5 in grant money has been secured so far.

The project involves tearing down three houses - which Lehigh Fire Company No. 1 has already purchased at no cost to the taxpayers - and connecting Station 1 to Station 2 on South Third Street via additional bays and other added facilities.

One zoning board member asked - and it was a legitimate question - why the fire company purchased the properties before getting zoning approval. The zoner, George Petrole, also asked if other sites in the borough were considered.

Attorney James Nanovic, who pleaded the case to the zoners on behalf of Lehighton Borough Council (the borough owns the fire company buildings) explained that the acquisition of such real estate is time consuming and costly, so the purchases occurred when the houses were available.

Also, there were other sites examined, including a vacant lot next to the Lehighton Community Center. The problem was that building such a station would have been "astronomical" in cost, said the solicitor.

Two other problems, which weren't mentioned by the solicitor but would have prevailed had the fire station been erected next to the Community Center, are:

Ÿ The site is next to Lehighton's most populated playground. Do you really want a fire station next to a playground, where small children constantly play? When a major fire occurs, apparatus must leave the fire company quickly. Volunteers come to the fire station in their personal vehicles. Safety would have been a serious concern.

Ÿ If a new fire station would have been erected, at least one of the present stations would have become vacant. What would the borough have done with the Lehigh Fire Company No. 1 building? Renovating the bulky, stone building into office space would have been quite an expense.

The fire department wants to expand its facilities at very little cost to taxpayers. As stated above, it was Lehigh Fire Company No. 1 which purchased the three homes to be demolished for the project - all at no cost to borough residents.

The fire department assured it doesn't want to engage in the construction phase of the project until grants are secured to pay the majority of its cost. After all, the fire department members are borough residents are realize the financial straits many people are enduring, especially in the present economic times.

The late John Kuller, the borough's fire chief who died last week, constantly pointed out the safety problems at the present fire stations. When a fire occurs, apparatus departs from the front and the back of the building. Firefighters rush between the two buildings. There is inadequate room to safely suit up for a fire response.

The sooner the fire station is enlarged, the better. The Lehighton Fire Department and its related organization, Lehigh Fire Company No. 1, are to be commended for seeking fire station improvements, especially since they're doing as much of the project as they can without burdening the taxpayers.

It's dedication that goes above and beyong being a mere volunteer firefighter.

By RON GOWER

rgower@tnonline.com