By Kristen Levine, Reporter
The Princeton Fire and Police Departments did not receive the necessary two-thirds vote to approve funding of construction documents for a new public safety complex at the May 15 Town Meeting.
“The Fire Department thanks everyone that came out to support us,” said Fire Chief John Bennett after the vote. “We thank the tireless efforts of our Public Safety Committee for presenting what would have been a cost-effective plan that could have supported public safety for many years to come.”
Housed in a building originally built in 1890 as a carriage house, the Princeton Fire and Police Departments had been looking to modernize for some time. Architects from Caolo & Bieniek Associates, Inc., who have designed several public safety buildings elsewhere in Massachusetts, devised plans for three potential buildings to house Princeton’s first responders.
Residents at Town Meeting had the chance to vote to allocate funding from the Town’s General Stabilization account and from the undesignated fund balance to the Public Safety Building account. This would have funded construction documents for ‘Option B’ from Caolo & Bieniek, a completely new 15,500-square-foot building that would house the police department, fire department, and an emergency operations center.
Before the vote, Town Meeting attendees had the opportunity to hear not only from Bennett, but from Selectboard member Matthew Moncreaff. Moncreaff raised concerns about the cost of the overall project, and of what he felt were issues of transparency in the decision to move forward with ‘Option B.’ Moncreaff stated that he believes the building does need to be built, but that the cost is too high.
After two presentations, and questions and comments from more than a dozen Princeton residents, the motion failed to reach the two-thirds threshold, at 174 ‘yes’ votes and 112 ‘no’ votes.
“The Massachusetts State Fire Marshal announced at the most recent Massachusetts fire chiefs meeting that funds are being released for the construction of public safety buildings by the federal government,” Bennett said. “It’s unfortunate that we won’t have shovel-ready plans.”
The current department headquarters has seen several iterations, from its carriage house origins to a highway storage barn in the 1950s and 60s. As waste disposal was more lenient in earlier times, this history comes with problems.
“[The highway department] would dump oil into grates in the floor,” Bennett said. “The ground is contaminated. We’ve removed gas tanks from the grounds. There’s water coming into the station; there’s days we’re standing in six inches of water trying to get gear on to go to a call.”
The aged architecture of the building cannot be retrofitted for modern equipment, as the building is too old to be altered. This leads to the fleet of emergency vehicles being left outside, as the trucks are too large to clear the low garage doors. The station ambulance can fit in but with one inch of clearance between it and the ceiling.
“Floors are heaving, ceilings leak, there’s black mold,” Bennett said. “It’s just a horrendous mess.”
Beyond quality-of-life issues for the department, there are practical problems as well. There is no ready room to store and change into gear, no sleeping quarters for overnight staff, only one bathroom and one shower, and no decontamination facilities. Bennett noted that people often have to go home after a fire to shower and decontaminate, against typical protocol. The garage doors cannot be replaced as the motors are too old.
“Chains have snapped,” Bennett said. “They come down like guillotines; we almost had someone get hit. If it didn’t kill them, it would have been serious injuries.”
The Fire Department shares its space with the Princeton Police Department, who maintain a presence on the upper floor of the building. This comes with its own set of problems, as there are no sally ports to transport detainees into the building from cruisers and the station lacks holding cells. Police cruisers are unable to park inside the building as the floor is cracking – a floor that is above the radio room.
“[In the] current area the floor is falling,” Bennett said. “A cruiser going in would end up in the radio room.”
A previous win for the current building was its gym, used by both departments as a means to stay compliant to physical expectations of the job, as well as a morale booster.
“It’s heartwarming,” Bennett said. “One gentleman that uses the facility is actually training our younger folks.”
Despite the modern gym improvements, the overall building does not meet NFPA, OSHA or ADA standards.
“It has a lot of history and people want to save it, but to save the façade and front structure would be $3 million more than just tearing it down and building a new safety facility,” Bennett said the week before Town Meeting.
Just hours after voters decided not to proceed with funding the new public safety building, Bennett and his crew went on to fight a three-alarm fire in Leominster.
“Princeton is call-and-volunteer,” Bennett said. “But still, when you dial 911, we go. We all have other jobs and commitments, families we’re responsible for, and we put all that aside when the tones go off.”

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