Firehouses: History Versus Safety

There was an article in the New York Times recently reporting that the US Coast Guard has increased the average body weight calculation for passengers where commercial boating is concerned.  The old weight was 160 and the new one is 185.  Surprise:  people are getting bigger, fast.

It seems that fire trucks  and ambulances are following this same trend. Are firefighters also getting bigger or do we just need more stuff?  Or, maybe it is a little bit of both.

Whatever the cause, bigger fire rigs are creating tension (and problems) in older areas where the existing firehouses may have both historical value and be subject to preservation restrictions where any changes to the structure are subject to approval.

Such is the case here in Washington, D.C., where a host of firehouses built in the 19th or early 20th centuries have apparatus doors and other features that make them ill-suited to the 21st.

The facades on many of these buildings are constructed of limestone or are intricate and of a “character-defining” nature. Thus, they cannot be easily changed.  In addition, the buildings may have landmark status because of their cultural value.

According to the Georgetown Current, a community newspaper, Tim Dennee, a city preservation architect, says, “It’s kind of a quiet disaster”, referring to the number of fire stations, up to ten, that may require alteration.

One community preservationist suggested that the station housing Engine 28/ Truck 14, which has more EMS than fire runs, simply have ambulances rather than fire companies, which would presumably mean that the neighborhood would stop having fire emergencies,  surely a great relief to citizens.  Following this logic, it would make more sense to simply close the station altogether, vanquishing fire/EMS emergencies with one fell swoop.

Meanwhile, the DCFD is predictability antsy, as some renovation projects are seven years old and the condition of firehouses, E28/T14 being one of them, have necessitated their closure with the companies moved elsewhere.

It’s a fascinating issue because so many beautiful fire stations have been torn down and it would be unfortunate to have more destroyed for any reason.  Hopefully, sanity will prevail and these treasures will be carefully re-constructed to allow for the delivery of modern fire/EMS services.  DCFD personnel make a key point:  the narrow entrances are currently being damaged as rigs with as little as three inches of clearance try to “thread the needle.”



  • Larry Osborne says:

    You make the point that ambulances and apparatus are getting bigger, and ask the rhetorical question; “do we need more stuff?” Most of us would agree that we do need more “stuff” based in part on both the technology which we face, and which is also now available to us. The question which some of us are beginning to discuss, especially in the current economic climate, is do we need it on every or even most pieces of apparatus?

    During the mid-1960’s, prior to the consolidation of Jacksonville and Duval County, Florida, one County station presented a problem similar to that described in the article. Cab-over fire apparatus had simply become too high to fit in the station. The County simply purchased a one-off engine-forward pumper, which also happened to be the County’s first 1000 gpm pumper. It later served the consolidated City. Several older cab-forwards remained in the fleet long enough to provide adequate spares for this station, when needed.

    The need for greater crew size and eliminating riding on the tailboard eventually necessitated the replacement of this station. That seems less of a problem for the historic old urban stations which Eric describes. It is a dialog involving operational necessities, economic realities, and irreplacable history, and a dialog worth having.

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