Firehouse opens era of consolidation

May 14, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

When the firehouse at the corner of Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard opened in 1905, the smell of oats and hay hung in the cool air of the building's brick-walled bays. When the alarm bell sounded, massive horses heaved against leather harnesses, hauling wooden fire wagons toward burning buildings.

The firehouse is silent now, closed a few weeks ago as part of the city's push to consolidate firehouses and curb the soaring costs of building maintenance.

Yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was on hand to dedicate a $1.8 million replacement firehouse across the street and a short way up Liberty Heights Avenue from the old building.

"We'll be doing more of this," Mr. Schmoke said, after cutting a red ribbon to open the station. "When people see the efficiency of something like this, I think they are inclined to support it."

The new, brick fire station with a peaked roof will house Truck 12, which occupied the old firehouse, as well as an engine company from farther up Liberty Heights Avenue.

As with recreation centers, police stations, libraries and other municipal buildings, Baltimore's aging firehouses are getting more expensive to maintain. Leaking roofs, failing heating plants, crumbling walls and other problems are a constant drain on the city treasury.

"Most of the [fire] houses in the city are of the 1920s vintage," said Tyrone W. Wallace, executive secretary to the Board of Fire Commissioners. "Heating plants, air-conditioning units are causing a lot of concern because we're pumping a lot of money into those units."

Fire officials say the consolidation of the two fire companies will save the city about $15,000 each year in routine heating and repair bills.

But with a new roof for a firehouse costing between $4,000 and $10,000 and the cost of repointing the bricks of leaking walls reaching $80,000 per fire station, fire officials say consolidations can save much more over the long haul.

So plans are taking shape to consolidate more of the city's 54 firehouses. For example, construction is scheduled to begin in 1994 for a new firehouse near the corner of Edmondson Avenue and Swann Avenue, which will draw Engine 53 from a few doors away and Engine 36 from 2249 Edmondson Ave.

In all, the city has plans to reduce its inventory of firehouses from 54 to 48, according to Mr. Wallace.

Given the shifts in the city's population and the introduction of faster, more reliable fire trucks, fire officials said the locations chosen for many of the city's firehouses almost a century ago no longer made sense.

"We don't build any single houses anymore," Mr. Wallace said. "Single houses really are from the old horse-and-buggy days when you needed to be closer. With the mechanized equipment, you can get there quicker."

In some parts of the city, particularly in South Baltimore, the closing of firehouses has been opposed by community leaders concerned that fewer firehouses will mean a longer response time and a greater risk.

But fire officials were able to win community support in the Forest Park neighborhood by convincing residents that moving the engine company from the old firehouse near the county line would put it closer to the center of the community.

"We sold it to our community 10 years ago," Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, D-5th, said of the firehouse merger. "This community gets much more, and the city gets a bigger bang for the buck."

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