When the nation’s first fire stations were built, fire engines were much smaller, firefighters were all male and fewer furnishings were made from materials that, when on fire, produce toxic smoke.

Today, fire trucks are much taller and wider, many departments have at least one female firefighter and contaminants are everywhere.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported in September that a study showed 43 percent of U.S. fire stations are 40 or more years old and don’t meet today’s needs, and to replace them all would cost $70-$100 billion.

The report identified the number of fire houses that are more than 40 years old, 21,230; and what is contained in the stations compared with existing standards and government regulations.

The study found that many of the older stations are not equipped with exhaust emission control, are without backup power, do not have separate facilities for female firefighters and need mold remediation.

When the first fire stations were built, departments were exclusively male. Today, an estimated 10 percent of career firefighters are female.

“We have one female, and we don’t have a dedicated women’s shower in the locker room,” said Mike Phelps, deputy director of fire services for the Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety. “She can go upstairs to the unisex shower and we post a sign on the door, or she uses the men’s locker room shower and we post someone at the door.”

North Berrien Fire Rescue Chief Michael Mattix said his stations do not have separate female shower facilities, and that’s on his wish list.

North Berrien’s Station 1 in Coloma is 30 years old, while Station 2 in Riverside is just 15 years old.

Although Station 1 has not reached the 40-year mark, “We still have issues,” Mattix said.

“When Station 1 was built, it was built for apparatus size back then. Today’s trucks are 100 inches wide, and now we’re experiencing tighter fits into those doorways,” he said.

That was the case in Benton Harbor as well. The city recently spent $150,000 to widen the doors and replace the windows at the fire station, built in 1937.

Phelps said there had been no modifications since the station was built, and trucks were much narrower back then. Clearance on each side of today’s trucks was just one inch before the doors were widened. The widening added almost two feet of clearance. Still, backing the trucks into the station is tricky. The have to be backed in at an angle to avoid hitting a concrete stairway from city hall into the fire station.

Phelps places the price tag for a new fire station today at between $2 million and $6 million, depending on size and other factors.

“We’d probably be at about $4 million. The funding is just not available to build a new station. And if we did build a new station, where would we put it? I don’t know that there’s a good site available,” he said.

A shortage of funding, tighter municipal budgets and a lack of grants are likely reasons for the large number of older, ill-equipped fire stations, the NFPA said in its report.

In 2018 in Baroda Township, voters narrowly rejected a request for a $2.8 million bond issue to fund a new fire station. A site had not been selected and Fire Chief Larry Klug believed the uncertainty of the location was an issue in voters’ minds.

The current station, just north of the Baroda Municipal Building on First Street, is more than 60 years old and is obsolete, firefighters have said repeatedly.

The department’s newest fire truck has just six inches of top clearance to get into the station. There are no drive-through bays, requiring trucks to be backed in. Also, there are no washing machines to clean gear and no showers for firefighters to clean up after going out on calls.

Safety issues

North Berrien Chief Mattix said cleaning and decontaminating gear is more important than ever.

“Absolutely there are more contaminants that ever. In your average fire, there are well over 300 toxic chemicals contained in the smoke in one room. The makeup of furnishings has changed. They burn hotter and faster but also give off more toxins,” he said. “And our turnout gear, because it is made from cloth and woven materials, absorbs that, so we need to clean those and remove those toxins. Some of our firefighters take their gear home. We don’t want to take those toxins home.”

Mattix said that 30 years ago, washing turnout gear meant hanging it on a ladder and hosing it off. Now, there are washing machines made specifically to wash firefighting gear.

“We have that now, but Station 1 had to be retrofitted to put that in.

Baroda Township Deputy Fire Chief Doug deBest said township officials have not decided whether to seek another millage vote.

“We’re making repairs and improvements, and making the best of what we have. We sold a truck within the last six months that we didn’t have room for. We were keeping it somewhere else,” he said.

The biggest issue, deBest said, is firefighter safety.

“Our station only has two doors, so our trucks are double stacked, one parked in front of the other. The road we’re on is getting busier, so we have to put people on the road to be able to back our trucks in. The norm now is the pull-through stations.”

Exhaust emissions are another concern. The NFPA found that 59 percent of the nation’s fire stations are not equipped with exhaust emission control systems. The diesel exhaust fumes that are emitted when the trucks start up can increase the likelihood of heart, lung and respiratory disease, and lung cancer.

“Our station is too small to be able to put in an exhaust emission control system,” deBest said.

The Baroda station also does not have gender-specific restrooms or a washing machine for gear.

“The new norm is to say you should wash everything off. When you have 15 firefighters and one restroom … with mutual aid, we wash our gear the best we can at other locations,” deBest said.

He estimates that 12 of the 32 fire stations in Berrien County are more than 40 years old.

St. Joseph Township funded a new fire station in part with a millage passed by voters in 2008. The Colfax Avenue station was built in 2009 and replaced one that was built in the 1950s. It has two large bays that can hold four fire trucks, basement storage, a laundry room, kitchen, a police annex and a meeting/training room, as well as separate male and female restrooms and showers.

Benton Township also built a new fire station in 2009 on Crystal Avenue, and closed a station built in 1967 next to the township hall and one built in 1948 along Napier Avenue. Another station built in 2007 on Enterprise Way remains in operation.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa