Lehighton firefighters joined borough, county, and state officials yesterday in a ceremonial groundbreaking to officially mark the start of construction on a new fire station addition.

The project includes the connection of Station 1 (Lehigh Fire Company No. 1 building) and Station 2 (Engine Company No. 2 building) on South Third Street with the addition of several bays.

Also added will be a training area, shower facilities, a locker room, and classrooms.

The project includes the rehabilitation of the two current fire stations.

Carbon County Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, who has been an active member of the Lehighton Fire Department for several decades and is a former fire chief, stated, "This is something we have talked about for many, many years."

He added, "This is a dream come true; something I never thought I would see."

Several of the speakers paid tribute to the late John "Jack" Kuller, a former fire chief who pushed hard for the expansion project until his untimely death in May 2011.

Lehighton Mayor Donald Rehrig commented, "I'm sure Jack is up there smiling now." Rehrig added, "This was his vision."

Other speakers included Lehighton Fire Chief Gary Frable, Project Committee Chairman Steve Ebbert, state Rep. Doyle Heffley, state Sen. John Yudichak, Carbon County Commissioner Tom Gerhard, Lehighton Borough manager Nicole Beckett, and borough council members Grant Hunsicker, president, and Scott Rehrig.

Frable praised the cooperation the fire company has received from the borough and from state officials, especially from former speaker of the House and state Rep. Keith McCall.

He said the building committee, consisting of 13 members, organized in the spring of 2009.

The chief gave special praise to the contributions by Lehigh Fire Company No 1, the social quarters of the fire department.

Building committee members besides he and Ebbert are Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Mriss, Paul Mriss, Michael Mriss, Rodney Rehnert, Doug Nothstein, Larry Diehl, Dave Oswald, Dan Oswald, Jason Nothstein, Joe Flickinger and Scott Nothstein.

During the program, the voices of the speakers competed with trucks in the background dumping cement for the footers of the building.

Ebbert told the gathering at the groundbreaking that the project actually began with the borough's Comprehensive Plan in 1994, which called for the consolidation of the two fire stations. He said the fire department included the consolidation of the two stations into the long range plan in 1998.

He said there was thought given to moving the location of the fire department, but it was decided this is the ideal site since it is centrally located and close to the downtown area, the Lehighton Hi Rise, the hospital, and school buildings.

"The greatest benefit of this project is to provide our firefighters with a safe working environment," Ebbert said. "With all apparatus being housed in a common area the response time will be improved."

He said the project got a kick start several years ago when borough officials and Kuller met with McCall to investigate whether there was grant money available.

"It was through Speaker McCall's efforts that the borough was able to secure an RACP grant for $1.5 million," said Ebbert.

He said Se. Yudichak worked closely with him and Beckett and obtained an additional $250,000 of RACP funds. Heffley and Yudichak then obtained another $223,650 LSA grant toward the project.

Yudichak stated McCall "got the ball rolling" and told how the former lawmaker worked closely with the borough and fire department.

The senator said the fact that the state gave $2 million toward the project "demonstrates the important work you do as firefighters."

Heffley praised the dedication of the volunteers.

Councilman Rehrig remarked, "We feel we have the best fire company in the state of Pennsylvania."

Ebbert said a formal dedication will be planned upon completion of the project.

The building is expected to be finished and ready for occupancy late this year, possibly by the fall.

The general contractor is Alvin Butz Construction of Allentown.