AUGUSTA — The last time Augusta built a new fire station, Lyndon B. Johnson was president, gas was 31 cents a gallon and the Augusta Fire Department responded to 500 fire calls a year, had no ambulances and responded to no emergency medical service calls.

There was no Augusta Civic Center, nor Marketplace at Augusta, nor hospital in the then-relatively rural north Augusta.

Now, 51 years since the city’s newest fire station was built on Hospital Street, construction is starting on a new fire station in now-bustling north Augusta. The department responds to 4,500 emergency medical service calls a year, has five ambulances and answers more than 1,300 fire calls a year.

“This is a big deal for us. So much has changed since the city last built a new fire facility,” Fire Chief Roger Audette said.

“It’s going to be a major improvement in our operations and delivery of services. Having the proper facilities to support what we do is important.”

Work started last week at the site of the new, approximately $4 million station, and an official groundbreaking ceremony is set for Thursday.

A 2008 study of the city’s fire station locations, staffing and emergency response times by Matrix Consulting Group recommended the city build a new fire station in the Civic Center Drive area near Interstate 95 to speed response times.

Construction of the new station is expected to be done on Jan. 31, 2017. It won’t be complete by the time the city’s new multipurpose ladder firetruck, which is to be kept there, is expected to arrive in November.

That is a problem because the new truck is too big to fit into any of the city’s existing fire stations.

Audette said one bay of the new station may be complete by the time the new truck arrives. If not, it will be parked potentially in the public works department garage.

ONE LINEF SUB HEXX

Voters approved $3.6 million in bonds in a November 2014 referendum to build the new station. They also approved $1 million to purchase the new firetruck.

However, in January city officials learned the clay soil under the station site may not be able to support the weight of the station and the water-laden firetrucks it will hold. In February, city councilors unanimously approved spending an additional $500,000 to put steel pilings 60 feet down through the soil at the site, into bedrock, so it can support the weight of the station.

Penobscot Builders was selected by the city to build the station, according to City Manager William Bridgeo.

Bridgeo said Audette, who has prior experience as a building contractor and who has been involved in the planning and design of the new station, will serve as the owners’ representative on the project.

The proposed fire station site across the street from the intersection of Leighton Road and Anthony Avenue was acquired by the city for $175,000 in 1999 in the hope of using it to attract business to the area.

However, the city never drew development to the site. Bridgeo said the fire station would take up only a portion of the lot, and the rest still could be developed.

Audette said no traffic lights will be installed on Leighton Road for the fire station, though there will be “fire trucks entering” signs with flashing warning lights which emergency workers can activate as they leave the station.

Audette said the new station will provide some much-needed space for firefighters, trucks, ambulances and gear. He said all the city’s existing fire stations are cramped because they were built before fire departments provided ambulance services or had special equipment for hazardous materials incidents.

Audette said the five ambulances and hazardous materials vehicles and trailers take up an additional seven or eight garage bays of storage space. He noted that today’s firetrucks are bigger than the ones the existing stations were designed for, as they carry much more specialized equipment.

He said the truck bays of Hartford Station, the department’s roughly 100-year-old headquarters building, are so tight firefighters can’t open equipment cabinets on the sides of trucks to do inventory while they are parked inside.

In addition to the new ladder truck, the north Augusta station will house two ambulances, one fire engine and one support vehicle such as a forestry truck, rescue boat or trailers.