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Fire station structure not up to hurricane code

Built in 1991 before Hurricane Andrew changed perceptions, Station 29 needs improvements to keep firefighters safe.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003


SEMINOLE -- If a hurricane ever blows through here, some of the firefighters who would respond to the emergency could end up needing to be rescued themselves.

City officials aren't sure the building in which they'd weather the storm -- Station 29 -- would keep them safe.

"I want them in a building they can survive in," said Fire Chief Dan Graves.

A study of the 17,000-square-foot building says the station's north wall and roof aren't stable enough to withstand hurricane-force winds. "When it was built, it was designed for the codes of that time," said architect Ted Williamson.

The station opened in 1991, a year before Hurricane Andrew struck Florida. The massive storm caused such severe damage that the state revamped some of its building codes.

Williamson said many cities in Florida have strengthened their public buildings, especially ones used for shelters. "You have to make sure flying debris doesn't penetrate the walls," he said.

Graves fears that could happen at Station 29. The north wall consists of plywood, Styrofoam and a metal mesh covering. "And that's pretty much it," Graves said.

The wall is structurally sound, Williamson said, but adding metal sheeting would prevent objects from flying through it.

The city has hired Williamson's company, Williamson Dacar Associates in Safety Harbor, to conduct an evaluation of the building. The $39,000 project includes a two-month study of both structural and mechanical aspects of the station.

The firm's engineers will determine what needs to be corrected and provide cost estimates for renovations, which could run a few hundred thousand dollars, Graves said. The project wasn't budgeted for this year, but surplus funds are available to pay for it, said Harry Kyne, the city's finance director.

In addition to being worried about flying missiles and a roof blowing off, Graves is concerned about the building's environmental condition. Roof leaks, a faulty ventilation system, poor air quality, plumbing backups and an inadequate living space design are listed as problems.

While there are no glaring examples of the building's internal problems, there is proof they do exist. Mold is growing on sections of the ceiling. Paint has bubbled on some inside walls, possibly the result of poor ventilation.

Station 29 was built four years before the city took over Seminole Fire Rescue. In 1991, the then-independent agency also built a new administration building and maintenance facility on the grounds at 11195 70th Ave.

Mayor Dottie Reeder said that while the city assumed a professional fire department, it also inherited its problems. "You take the good with the bad and over time you have to take care of the bad," she said of the station.

A few years passed before problems, such as leaks, began to surface. But by then, the building's architect, CBST & Associates, had gone out of business, Graves said. So had other contractors responsible for the project, he said.

"It was incredible," said Graves, who was a lieutenant for the fire department in 1991. "There was nobody to hold accountable."

In 1997, the city hired McCarthy & Associates to provide a structural study of all city buildings. The study revealed several deficiencies with the structural integrity of Station 29.

The following year, a $50,000 state grant helped pay for $118,000 worth of repairs to the station. The work included adding bracings to the building's trusses and replacing nine aluminum and glass bay doors with steel doors.

The 1997 study also identified the problems with the north wall and the roof, but there wasn't enough funding at the time to fix them.

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