By Ann McCreary
Okanogan Fire District 6 invited a consultant from the state Department of Labor & Industries to evaluate safety concerns at its Winthrop fire station recently, and the result was exactly what fire officials have been saying for years – the station is too cramped to ensure firefighters’ safety.
Fire district officials are proposing to construct a new station on Horizon Flats Road in Winthrop to replace the facility at 223 Englar St. The district plans to ask voters – probably next year – to approve an increase in the district’s tax levy to pay for construction of the new station.
At Chief Don Waller’s request, a tour of the station on Englar Street was conducted July 24 by John McFadden, regional consultation manager with Labor & Industries Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
In a memorandum sent to Waller last month, McFadden cited “six instances of inadequate clearance … including but not limited to the entry to the station from (the) workshop, in between fire engines, and from the outside walls to the engines. This could cause serious injury to the worker, including permanent disability of a limited or less severe nature, or injuries resulting in hospitalization.”
Inadequate clearance means that there is less than 36 inches of space between vehicles and station walls and doors, McFadden said. He cited a state code (WAC) stating that “three feet of clearance shall be maintained around apparatus parked within the station where the station’s width permits.”
The district has been planning for years to construct a new station. In 2008, district officials proposed to build a station on property across from the Winthrop post office, and asked voters to approve a tax levy increase, but the tax proposal failed.
District commissioners last month chose a Spokane architectural firm to design a new fire station to be built on five acres owned by the district on Horizon Flats. As the district prepares to ask voters to approve a levy increase for the new station, fire officials want to tell the public about the problems at the Englar station, Waller said.
The Englar station holds five fire vehicles. In some cases the engines are wedged into spaces with only inches between the top of the engine and the ceiling, and between the front bumper and the station’s large bay doors. There’s no room for mistakes when moving the trucks in or out of the station, Waller said.
McFadden also identified two other violations, including inadequate lighting in an area where hoses are hung to dry, and lack of a railing on a stairway to an upstairs office area.
“I understand that the clearance issue is complex, and you will be meeting with your commissioners to address this matter. However, the lighting and railing issues will need to be fixed without delay,” McFadden wrote.
Waller said last week that the lighting and railing issues have been corrected. According to McFadden’s memo, the district could be fined up to $1,950 per day if an accident related to the clearance issue were to occur.
A primary concern resulting from the crowded conditions is the inability to conduct a “360-degree inspection” before starting or moving the trucks, said John Owen, a volunteer firefighter and Winthrop station captain.
The inspection is standard safety practice in the firefighting industry, Owen said. It requires that the driver walk around the fire engine to check that all compartment doors are closed, and all equipment and hoses are properly stored. “It’s a general inspection to make sure the truck is ready to move down the road,” Owen said.
Because there isn’t room in the station for the driver to walk around the engine, he “can look at the sides and overhead, and peek around the front and back. Once we pull out of the station the operator can do a proper 360 [degree turn].”
As they rush to respond to an alarm, volunteer firefighters struggle to get into their gear and carry required gear onto trucks in the cramped spaces between the vehicles, Owen said.
Firefighters responding to a wildland fire wear gear appropriate to that situation, but also carry a second set of gear for structural fires in case it is needed, Owen said. Maneuvering in less than three feet of space between trucks and walls with all that bulky gear can be tricky, he said.
“While people are gearing up, the trucks are trying to get out. You can’t make a mistake in this station,” Owen said. “Most of the volunteers have war stories of bumps on their knees, heads and shoulders. Fortunately, so far it’s only been gear that’s been run over.”
No room for expansion
Firefighters also face other challenges caused by lack of interior space. Hoses must be cleaned after each fire and reloaded onto the trucks where they are stored in a compartment on top of the engine. The hoses must be washed off outside and hung inside to dry. Reloading is difficult because of the low overhead clearance. “Loading hose under ideal conditions is not fun,” Owen said.
Engine work on two of the fire trucks must also be done outside, because the ceiling is too low inside the station to tilt the cab forward to provide access to the engine. Work on the other three trucks can be done inside if other rigs are moved outside.
Plans drafted last year for a new station propose a 12,000-square-foot station, about three times the size of the Englar Street facility. The new station would house six vehicles, provide maintenance facilities, meeting rooms, exercise area, storage space and sleeping quarters. Plans also call for a large paved area for driver training and firefigher training exercises.
Waller said the Englar station has been remodeled five times over the years, but the building and lot provide no further room for expansion.
District 6 covers Gold Creek to Mazama, and all the communities within that area. The incorporated towns of Winthrop and Twisp used to have their own municipal fire departments, but now contract with District 6 for fire protection.
The fire district currently has 37 volunteer firefighters, 10 of whom are assigned to the Winthrop station. District officials say those numbers should be higher, and are always trying to recruit new volunteers. “In reality we’re understaffed,” Owen said.
Owen said adequate facilities, including places for volunteers and their families to socialize, have been shown to help with recruitment and retention. Exercise facilities at the station are also important, Owen said, to help firefighters deal with stress and the accumulation of adrenaline and other chemicals that occurs in response to a fire call.
“A lot of motor vehicle accidents are high anxiety kinds of things, but pretty short duration,” Owen said. Exercising after returning from a call can help firefighters reduce stress and anxiety, he said.
Fire District 6 purchased the five-acre parcel on Horizon Flats Road in 2010 for $380,000. The district currently levies 60 cents per $1,000 assessed property valuation. Voters within the district will determine whether to approve a higher levy to pay for a new station. Residents of Winthrop and Twisp, which are not part of the district, would not vote on the tax proposal unless those towns annex into the district.