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Sinking Fire Station Raises Concern

Sinking Fire Station Raises Concern

Allentown's East Side Fire Station (Photo courtesy Google Street View)

The Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania via YellowBrix

March 29, 2010

ALLENTOWN, PA – Allentown’s aging East Side Fire Station is crumbling and sinking into the ground, posing a health risk to firefighters, according to a recent assessment by the city’s top firefighter.

“The station is literally falling apart at the seams and sinking,” Chief Robert Scheirer told the federal government last June. “We are now at the point where the station is considered an unsafe structure for fire personnel to work out of.”

The alarming assessment of the nearly 60-year-old fire station was part of a grant application in which the city was seeking $2.1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to demolish the building and replace it with one seven times as large.

“There are a lot of great reasons to be a firefighter in Allentown; working out of the East Side Fire Station is not one of them,” said John Stribula, who works out of the building and is head of the city’s 144-member fire union.

FEMA has yet to rule on the city’s application, but it’s success is a mathematical long shot. In the stimulus bill, the federal government set aside $210 million for the construction and renovation of fire houses across the country. More than 6,000 applications seeking more than $9 billion in federal aid were submitted to FEMA, according to the agency’s Web site.

“It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Scheirer said during a tour of the building Friday.

If the application is denied, the city is committed to spending more than $200,000 next year to renovate the building, Scheirer said. Despite his warnings in the grant application, Scheirer said the building poses no immediate threat to firefighters.

The East Side Fire Station, built in 1953, is small — home to one pumper truck and the city’s only fire boat — and blends with the homes that sit across the street from Dieruff High School on N. Irving Street.

The station covers a six-mile radius that includes six schools, a senior high-rise building, an airport and manufacturing facilities.

In 2008, the station responded to 1,219 calls for service, an average of more than three a day and the fourth highest among the city’s six fire stations. Last year, with the fire department handling EMS calls as well, calls to East Side exceeded 2,000, city officials said.

The city would like to demolish the 1,600 square foot, two-bay station and replace it with a three-bay, 10,500 square feet facility, equipped with rooms for training, storage and two separate living quarters that would allow women to work at the East Side station (The city has yet to hire a female firefighter and East Side isn’t set up with the separate quarters to accommodate women.)

The expansion would allow the city to add another truck to the East Side station, along with an EMS unit, Scheirer said.

Mayor Ed Pawlowski said, “the optimum solution at East Side is a complete replacement of the structure,” but the city does not have the money and is hoping for some help from FEMA.

Pawlowski has made tough code enforcement one of the bedrocks of his administration, creating a Landlord Hall of Shame and shutting down nuisance bars. Asked whether he has different standards for public buildings, Pawlowski replied, “The city has been aggressive in going after property owners who continually ignore code and other issues at their properties. The city is not ignoring the issues at East Side Fire Station; in fact we are actively working to correct the issues.”

Saddled with budget deficits and unwilling to raise property taxes, Pawlowski has had a hard time finding money for a number of capital projects, including several within the fire department.

“The city of Allentown, like every other city in the country today, is suffering from the economic downturn and does not have the available funding to build a new station on its own in the foreseeable future,” Scheirer wrote.

The most pressing problems at the building are structural. Long, winding cracks run along the interior walls, from corner to corner and from ground to ceiling.

The station floor is sinking and it shakes as the truck rumbles out of the garage. Speculation is the station was built atop a garbage dump.

Random, indented circles are all along the garage floor where the city was forced to slab-jack the concrete — pour concrete into holes to provide additional support. It’s a cheaper alternative to replacing the entire floor.

The garage does not have a modern ventilation system, and years of exhaust fumes have stained the interior walls a brownish-yellow.

“The ventilation issue is a real problem,” Scheirer said. “The only way to ventilate the place is to open the garage doors and windows, and in the winter we lose heat.”

In addition to structural issues, mold infected the station last year and made several firefighters sick, Scheirer and Stribula said.

The living quarters attached to the garage are decorated with second-hand couches and tables, resembling a fraternity house more than a fire station.

The second floor of living quarters has a sleeping area that also serves as a makeshift gym. The low ceiling is marked with hundreds of indents created over the years when firefighters struck it with mop handles pulled out of a bucket.

Repairs at the fire station have forced the city to shut it down for a few hours at a time in the past several years. When is is closed, the firefighters run out of the Hibernia Fire Station on Ridge Avenue, which lengthens response times, Stribula noted. Residents have expressed concern with that alternative because firefighters working out of Hibernia have to cross a bridge to get to the East Side, which can slow response times.

“The floor was falling, so we had to go to another station,” Stribula said. “Any closure of the station, regardless of the period of time, is putting at risk our ability to respond to a fire in a timely manner.”

Delaying a response by just one minute may be the difference between fighting a fire from an offensive position versus a defensive position and may risk lives, Stribula said.

The fire department also has been struggling to keep its fleet in good condition. In the fall of 2008, firefighters were forced to jump into a pickup truck and head to a fire. Normally, they would have arrived at the scene in a firetruck, but it was in the shop for repairs, along with the department’s two reserve trucks.

The incident prompted the mayor to accelerate plans to buy two new pumpers last year as part of a $5 million bond issue last year.

Scheirer said the fleet’s problems have been addressed and replacing the East Side Fire Station is on the top of his priority list.

“We’ve applied Band-Aids for too long,” Scheirer said. “Sometimes, the total cost of applying the Band-Aids surpasses the cost of the project itself.”


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