Fire station poles on way out

SEATTLE — There won’t be many Seattle firefighters sliding down fire poles in the future.

Not after city officials took a look at the price tag for two new brass poles in the city’s newest fire station: $150,000 each.

Seattle is phasing out the historic staple of the fire house, saying new safety features stressed by state regulation and other costs make them too expensive for future stations. They also argue that stairs serve just as well when it comes responding to calls.

The phase-out will mark the end of a fire house feature romanticized in countless movies and television shows about firefighters.

“It’s been a part of tradition,” Assistant Department Chief John Nelsen said Friday. “People in tours still ask to see the fire pole and ask if we have a Dalmatian.”

The phase-out has ticked off some firefighters.

“We’re frustrated with this change, and feel some of the reasons are disingenuous,” said Dallas Baker, a director for the Seattle Firefighters Union, Local 27. “They’re overstating the true costs.”

Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industries, calls fire poles “old technology.

“Generally speaking, they’re not safe. There is the inherent danger of having a hole in the floor. And you have the risk of firefighters landing on each other.”

Fischer said that during the 1990s, many cities across the country moved to phase out fire poles, and existing poles were retrofitted to have better safety standards, such as 3-inch-thick rubber platforms to cushion landings.

In 1996, the state actually prohibited poles in new fire stations, saying a nationwide agreement by people in the firefighting industry stressed higher safety standards.

The state rule came into play when Seattle decided to build the new station. The fire department, along with the city and the union, secured an exemption because of the higher-than-usual height of the new station — nearly three stories tall.

The final cost of the poles, though, was a surprise, Nelsen said.

Baker said the city is overestimating the cost by including factors that pump up the final figure.

The two fire poles in the city’s newest station, near Qwest Field and Safeco Field, are most likely the last two to be built here. Those two poles came with the new safety standards. Instead of a pole out in the open, firefighters now have to go through a door that only opens when the alarm goes off. The stairs in the new station were also made wider to handle firefighters rushing down.

“To be fair, there are inherent risks with both responses but I feel like the safety measures taken with the design of the poles mitigates the injuries we’ve seen in the past,” Baker said.

He said poles save time when firefighters respond to calls.

“When you’re talking about a big fire, seconds matter,” he said.

There are poles in 11 of 32 Seattle Fire Department fire stations and those are expected to stay.

In the past few years, many cities that used to have poles in every station — including New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago — have started to get rid of them, citing injury concerns.

In Pittsburgh, a woman sued the fire department after she fell through the fire pole hole and was injured during a party. Seattle has dealt with two lawsuits stemming from injuries with fire poles, one coming from the family of a boy who fell through the fire pole hole, suffering traumatic brain injuries in 2003. The city settled for $1.25 million.

Another lawsuit came from an injury in 2003 as well, when a member of the fire department fell down the hole and was seriously hurt. That lawsuit goes to court this summer.

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