Gamblers sometimes get a second chance, even in Nevada. The University of Nevada, Reno, rolled the dice in March 1999 by opening a new $27 million fire academy near Elko. Eighteen months later, amidst much red ink and unexpected environmental impact, the fire academy ceased live-burn training operations. By November 2000, it closed its doors at the new site completely.
Political wrangling and a contentious court battle over construction financing followed. The academy seemed destined to remain a fire training ghost town for the foreseeable future. But in August, after five days of meetings held by the litigants, the warring factions suddenly called a truce. University of Nevada President John Lilley announced that the academy would reopen before May 2002.
"The success of the meetings was the result of the good faith efforts of all persons to reopen the academy," said Lilley in a statement released by the university. "We have spent five productive days together and have arriveed at a suitable agreement for all parties involved."
Lawsuits arising from problems with the academy's wastewater treatment system and the UNR decision to withhold rent payment have been dismissed, the UNR statement reports.
"Engineers for the parties will immediately commence the design of facility modifications, and, upon approval of these proposed changes by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, the participants will work immediately to commence construction so the university can reopen the academy facilities for classes in spring 2002," the UNR statement reads.
Denise Baclawski, executive director of the academy, said in July that she anticipated a resolution in the near future that would permit the academy to reopen.
"What the parties have decided is that it makes a lot of sense to get us back up and running and then duke out their difference in court afterward," Baclawski said.
A "retrofication" plan detailing the necessary repairs and a timetable for completing them had already been submitted for university approval, she said.
"The current status of the school is that the facility itself is closed pending the outcome of repairs of construction and design deficiencies," Baclawski said. "We are currently working with the owner and the builder to resolve those. We have been presented a schedule that shows we could be open by the spring of 2002."
Located in the Ruby Mountain region of northern Nevada, the UNR Fire Science Academy is home to 25 full-sized live burn props, together with a staff residence, administration building, cafeteria and recreation building, classrooms and observation tower. The isolated location permits year-round live burns, as opposed to the annual eight-month schedule allowed at the academy's previous home in Stead near Reno.
Unfortunately, the academy's wastewater oil-water separation system designed to handle 1,200 to 1,700 gallons of liquid a minute proved inadequate to handle the amount produced. Testing detected trace amounts of MTBE at a level one-tenth of the reportable requirement in groundwater, apparently contaminated by fuel used in the live-burn operations. Further aggravating the problem was that the retention ponds failed to hold the contaminated liquid.
The resulting decision in July 2000 to suspend live-burn operations affected nearly 600 students registered to attend the academy in the following three months. Later that year UNR ceased all on-si9te operations, including training in incident command, hazardous materials, high angle rescue, confined space rescue and other emergency management skills.
It would be more than 10 months before water doused flames at the academy again. Beginning in June, academy personnel commenced a regular schedule of igniting, then extinguishing live-burn props to test a pilot water treatment plant, a scaled-down version of a design under consideration to remove the fuel contamination from wastewater.
"Right now we are burning every day on a small scale to provide waste stream production and verify that it works," Baclawski said. "That's been very exciting. If the design is successful then that is what will be built."
After the fire ban, UNR and the Nevada University and Community College System Board of Regents filed suit against the Nevada construction company that built the academy and a California investment company that financed it under a lease-purchase agreement. The investment company counter sued when UNR, attempting to force wastewater system repairs, refused to tender its $230,000 a month rent payment. The UNR default was cited later when Moody's downgraded the University and Community College System's bond rating to A2 from Aa3.
The first signs of compromise was an agreement that the investment company and the construction company could start testing the pilot wastewater plant without admitting to any blame for problems on site. In early June, a district judge denied a bid by the Board of Regents to dismiss the investment company's suit. He also refused UNR's bid to dismiss a lawsuit filed by mortgage holders on the academy. In a surprise move only a few days later, the construction company requested that a settlement conference involving all the litigants be convened. That request was granted.
Even before the legal morass developed, the academy had become a source of controversy for the UNR board of regents. Before moving to the new facility UNR fire training had been finaqncially self-supporting. In December 1999 an audit revealed that the new academy fell almost 1,700 students short of an expected 4,800 students in its first year. As a result tuition fees fell $1.7 million short of the anticipated amount. A projected $750,000 in consulting and advisory services had netted just $2,800. UNR also expected to pick up $350,000 in grands, but received less than $15,000.
Despite a loan of almost $1.75 million from UNR funds, the financial picture continued to worsen. In May 2000 a report by the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse Coopers revealed that despite improved enrollment figures the academy needed to raise $2.5 million by the end of June or face a budget shortfall.
At that time several of the UNR regents questioned whether the university should cut its loses by immediately closing the facility. Only a few days following the release of the Price Waterhouse audit UNR president Joe Crowley announced his retirement after 22 years in that position.
Baclawski said only that UNR is exploring several different options to find a long term solution to the academy's financial woes.
Although the facility remains closed, the Fire Science Academy still operates off-site training and consulting services. The academy has concentrated its remaining resources on its new Emergency Training and Consulting (ETAC) division, designed to promote off-site training, Baclawski said.
"What we are doing is offering off-site open enrollment classes, mostly the kind of classes that do require props," Baclawski said. "For those classes that do require props, we have developed some for courses such as hazardous materials response that can be loaded on a semi truck."
At this time none of the portable training props are used to conduct live burn operations, she said.
Clients can order the standard training course or request something something tailored to their industry, Baclawski said.
"We are customizing the training at the client's site," Baclawski said. "The client calls and says 'I'd like to have this typoe of training to meet these goals.' Then we develop the curriculum and send our instructors out there."
Also, the academy is lending its expertise to public works committees as consultants. To date, the academy has offered help to the cities of Reno, Elko, and at least one community in California, Baclawski said.
These off-site programs will continue even after the academy has reopened, she said. Until then, programs like these keep the UNR Fire Science Academy functioning and viable.
"We are doing everything we can to keep our name infront of the clients and let them know we haven't gone anywhere," Baclawski said. "It tells them that we are here and committed to reopening the facility."