When Fire Station No. 23 opened in downtown Los Angeles more than 100 years ago, it screamed taxpayer waste. Three stories high, its walls were lined with white enamel tile and the floors were polished oak. The chief’s living quarters were full of Peruvian mahogany, Vermont marble and French beveled glass mirrors. The elevator was noiseless.
This was the Taj Mahal of firehouses — a $53,000 extravagance whose unveiling in 1910 so angered the public that for decades it was touted as the epitome of wasteful government. Today, it would cost millions.
More than a century later, fire departments are fighting a stigma. As their stations age and regulations grow, firefighters risk exposing themselves to health and safety hazards that voters might not even be aware of when they reject spending proposals for new or renovated stations. After all, no one wants to foot the bill for another Taj Mahal.
“I think a lot of people for many years have believed that fire stations should be nothing more than garages with some kind of bay room,” said Ken Willette, manager for the National Fire Protection Association’s public fire protection division. “But fire stations are much more than garages.”
The fire station, depending on the services a department provides, can be everything from storage space for trucks and equipment to training space for fresh recruits to the space a firefighter eats, sleeps and showers in. An aging station can hide a number of dangers — blood-borne pathogens, exhaust-filled air, difficult-to-treat infections like MRSA and carcinogens. Firefighters come into contact with these often silent dangers at fire scenes, car crashes, animal rescues and emergency medical situations, and then bring them back to the station.
“There are older stations where the firefighters regularly eat on the floor,” said Willette. “They don’t have a defined kitchen. They have cramped quarters without proper ventilation. I can remember being in a station and using my finger to write my name in diesel soot on the table.”
Bob Mitchell has seen much worse. He runs Mitchell Associates Architects, a Voorheesville architecture firm that exclusively designs fire stations, and has won awards for its work on projects across the country.
“There was a fire station where the mechanical systems were so antiquated that fuel oil was kept in a tank under the floor,” said Mitchell. “There was an old ventilation system that was unable to collect the exhaust from the trucks’ tail pipes. They had to close the station because of a report I did. Several years later, three of their firefighters developed the exact same organ cancer.”
He has also seen outbreaks of MRSA at stations that lacked adequate shower and sanitation facilities. He’s heard of men being trapped behind trucks that were backing into bays that were too small. He once got hired to renovate a small station where a man was not just trapped, but crushed under the same circumstances.
“The driver couldn’t see him,” said Mitchell. “There was no command center that could see him. All I do is design stations. It’s all I do. And these old buildings are disturbing in the extreme.”
More than a third of fire stations across the country are at least 40 years old. In New York in 2011, more than three-quarters of the fire stations were at least 40 years old. Many of these stations go without exhaust emission control and lack backup power.
The state’s Department of Labor Public Employee Safety and Health bureau has inspected 181 fire stations since July 2012. Some of the inspections are scheduled ahead of time. Some are prompted by referrals and complaints. Of 519 violations found, 366 were classified as serious, which means there is “a likely chance an employee may die or suffer serious harm because of the violation in question,” said DOL spokeswoman Jennifer Krinsky in an email.
The most commonly cited violations include improper examination, installation or use of electrical equipment; inadequate lighting and marking for exits; improper electrical cabinets, boxes and fittings; improper use of portable electrical equipment; improper emergency response to hazardous substance releases; inadequate blood-borne pathogen exposure control plan; and improper use of electrical flexible cords and cables.
“Anything that goes uncorrected can ultimately result in serious injury or physical harm,” said Krinsky. “The state Department of Labor works with fire departments to make sure that any violation is corrected quickly to ensure that all equipment is working properly for the safety of firefighters and the public. Ultimately our role is to ensure that regardless of the age of the facility, the firefighters are in an environment that is free from recognized hazards.”
Glenville residents will soon be asked to pay for renovations that address some of these very hazards.
The Beukendaal Fire Department built its fire station at 501 Sacandaga Road two years after it was incorporated in 1948. An addition was put on the building in 1982 for company meetings and training. In 1997, it merged with the Rectors Fire Department so that its district now covers nearly all of West Glenville.
State officials visited the station several years ago and left the department with a laundry list of code violations. The bay doors were four feet too short. The ceiling wasn’t high enough for firefighters to perform maintenance on top of trucks. The apparatus bay was too small to provide the minimum clearance required once a truck is inside. There was no decontamination capability for equipment or personnel, no ability to properly handle blood-borne pathogens, medical waste or hazardous materials, and inadequate ventilation systems. There was no laundry facility on site, so that when members come back from a fire they had to send their gear out for decontamination.
The station was in violation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act, as well as local, state and National Fire Protection Association regulations.
“Being a district resident with no fire experience, it was very shocking for me to learn that these volunteers live in these conditions,” said Todd Lavery, who joined the department’s Board of Fire Commissioners several years ago to provide a non-biased opinion on how to address the station’s needs.
“It made me think, you know, I sit there in my nice, cozy bed when they’re out at 1 o’clock in the morning on a January night responding to a house burning down,” he said. “It’s worthwhile for me to try to fix these problems because they’re putting their life on the line daily. They don’t need to come back and put their life on the line again.”
The board met in 2009 to evaluate the building’s condition further and identify needs for the future. It formed a building committee made up of department members, commissioners and residents, and recruited engineering and architectural studies.
Just last week, Lavery and architect Bob Mitchell presented to the Town Board their plans to renovate the station. They want to renovate the existing structure and build an addition that would properly house their trucks, their equipment and decontamination areas. It would be suitable as an emergency response center and up to code as a FEMA shelter. It would use durable, low-maintenance materials with a life of 75 years or more. It would be insulated to be more energy efficient, and have an automatic sprinkler system to reduce insurance costs.
They had spent years cutting it down to the bare bones, trimming fat in an effort to avoid taxpayer rejection. Still, the project would cost $4.36 million. Some of the cost will be covered by the sale of a building, but the typical resident whose home is assessed at $172,000 would see their fire tax increase $100 a year, or 27 cents a day.
“The taxpayer is the only way to pay for it,” said Mitchell. “And the public is generally sympathetic, but to a point. And that point is related to the wallet.”
When Mitchell began his presentation to the board, he made sure to state up front: “Let me be clear,” he said. “This is about needs, not wants.”
Still, departments can get greedy and similar project proposals across the country have been voted down by taxpayers who have no reason to trust that a renovation is really needed. It turns out, there’s one term that does wonders in casting doubt on such projects.
Three years ago, the mayor of Cape Coral, Fla., called the local fire department’s renovation a “Six-Million Dollar Mini Taj Mahal.” Residents of Mattapoisett, Mass., voted down funding a new station three times in a span of two years after residents called it a “Taj Mahal” and something “this town doesn’t need” and “taxpayers don’t want.” In Tillamook, Ore., a local fire district came under fire two years ago after proposing a 14,000-square-foot building with four sleeper rooms for a 27-square-mile coverage area.
And just a few months ago, a long-delayed proposal to renovate Danville, Va.’s 90-year-old fire station was met by reproach from at least one city council member who called it a “Taj Mahal” because of its size, cost and inclusion of a museum. In reality, the museum was to be an old horse-drawn steam pumper owned by the department and set up for display in its new lobby.
“Old age is a problem that exists for the vast majority of fire stations in the country,” said Mitchell. “You’ve seen the statistics for the number of bridges in this country that are deficient. It’s like that. People don’t talk about it that much because it’s a problem that’s going to cost a lot of money to deal with.”
Mitchell recalled presenting a renovation proposal to a group of Binghamton residents three years ago. The project would add several bunk rooms, since the fire department used a combination career and volunteer firefighters, and many members were scheduled to be at the station for 48 hours or more.
“Someone at the back of the room yelled out, ‘What do they need two bunk rooms for? They can sleep on the floor.’ And then you heard, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s right!’ from the crowd. This was a time when the tea party was on the upswing and the economy was still sour and firefighters were terrified to ask the public for support.”
The biggest hurdle in securing necessary renovations will always be the public, he said. For that reason, he urges his clients to embark on aggressive educational campaigns that include tours of their old fire stations and campaign materials.
The Beukendaal Fire Department has done just that, advertising its project plans on its website and Facebook page and sending out mailers to district residents. Still, Lavery admits there is some nervous anticipation of Aug. 27, when district residents will vote on a bond referendum authorizing the department to proceed with its building project.
“We worked very diligently,” he said. “We cut out everything we could. We cut out all excess fat and got it as lean as possible.”
Mitchell said part of it comes down to the public’s values.
“These firefighters are shy. They do what they do out of a deep internal conviction. I mean, you figure you don’t go into a burning building without a special sense of service to your community. And they want to continue to do that. But sometimes I have to tell people, if you want them to continue to do that you have to provide them with a safe space to work from.”