Facing decline, standing tall


Fire poles: Slides and staircases are gaining popularity as replacements for the traditional brass fixtures in firehouses.

July 12, 2002|By Zanto Peabody | Zanto Peabody,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The brass fire pole, that abiding image of firehouse tradition, may be going the way of the Dalmatian.

No one knows how many of the poles in the nation's 49,200 stations stand idle or have been removed, but clearly their use is dropping.

A few poles have been replaced with slides. Others being installed in new fire stations are mostly decorative.

"The pole has become something of an anachronism," says Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters. "If you've got a midnight call and you're still groggy - trying to get adrenaline flowing - a jump on a sheer drop of 30 feet might not make that much sense."

Others say modern safety measures are a concern. The holes surrounding the poles at a station in Santa Monica, Calif., for example, will be sealed with doors, a precaution that is catching on.

Still, Wills says, "It's a fire station and, by gosh, a station should have a fire pole."

The image has endured so strongly that firefighters giving station tours almost always slide down the pole.

When asked recently, all the students in a third-grade class at Roosevelt Elementary in Santa Monica said they think the pole is one of the coolest parts of a firefighter's job.

But when the kids are out of earshot, firefighters say they usually spend more time polishing the brass poles than riding them.

Kelley Needham, an architect who specializes in firehouse design at WLC Architects in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., says most of the poles in his latest designs are chic details requested by city administrators, not firefighters.

"I'm putting two in Santa Monica, although they weren't used in the station we tore down," Needham says. "Some cities are asking for three or more poles in a single station."

Fire poles date to the late 19th century, when firefighters' living quarters were built above garages in urban stations where space was scarce. In a profession in which every second counts, it was quicker to slide down the pole than stagger down a staircase.

Poles were made of wood before brass, and at least one turn-of-the-century brass pole is still used in New York City.

Since then, the cool and daring concept of fire poles has crashed into the reality of broken ankles and burning hands. Pole sliding isn't even part of the curriculum at some fire academies.

"No one tells you the brass pole heats up your hands," says Don Collins, a Clemson University architecture professor and captain in the university's fire department. "New guys have a tendency to let go and fall. I know of one firefighter who was so eager to slide on the pole and broke his leg the first day on the job."

(For the record, firefighters are supposed to control their speed with their legs, not their hands.)

In 1997, Washington state outlawed poles in new stations.

Louis Flores, who specializes in fire station safety for the state's Department of Labor and Industries, says Washington also requires rubber landing pads in old firehouses with poles.

"There are inherent hazards in sliding down a pole - like the landing can cause compression and shock on the back," Flores says.

Collins is scheduled to lecture on the shortcomings of single-story firehouse design during a September symposium sponsored by the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization.

Collins and a group of East Coast fire chiefs got the idea to meet from a bunch of Southern California chiefs who met 15 years ago to discuss the advantages of one-story stations.

Nothing requires cities to build flat fire stations, but the International Association of Fire Chiefs for two decades has recommended them as a safer alternative to multistory stations.

"I think the decision to move away from poles has forced communities into one-story fire stations that are not always the best design, either," Collins says.

The Los Angeles Fire Department has wavered on the poles.

Firefighters use them in about 40 of the 112 stations in which the living quarters are over the truck bays, 30 feet from the ground. In the 15 stations built since 1985, however, the dorms were lowered, allowing firefighters to easily take the stairs.

Now the city is returning to a two-story design with brass poles for 19 new stations and will add poles for paramedics.

"Multiple poles are an efficient way to transition from upper to lower floors when you have as many people in a station as we do," says Capt. Norm Greengard of the Los Angeles Fire Department. "Plus, it's 200 years of tradition unhampered by progress."

Looking for another way to speed downstairs, the Ontario International Airport Fire Department installed 30-foot-long stainless-steel slides in its garage, a pair of only a handful around the country.

They're not just fast. They're almost too fast, according to Capt. Robert Helsom.

"We probably [will] have a couple of injuries down the road," Helsom says. "Other than the novelty of the slide, it's probably just as good to take the stairs."

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