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For Firefighters, Station in a Shed Is Wearing Thin

Original facility in Studio City was closed after the Northridge quake. City action to acquire land brings hope of permanent site.

October 20, 2003|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 10 years years after the Northridge earthquake devastated the original Fire Station 78 in Studio City, rescuers have learned to cope with the eccentricities of living and working out of trailer homes.

More than a dozen firefighters sleep, eat, exercise and rush out on emergency calls from the makeshift station of portable buildings and a narrow metal shed on Coldwater Canyon Drive near Ventura Boulevard.

But it's been far from ideal. The trailers are especially vulnerable to very strong earthquakes because they are supported by jack stands that could buckle, said Battalion Chief John Duca.

"If the force is strong enough, the walls could flatten out," he said.

Then there's the everyday safety concerns. The narrow station is set back from adjoining properties, which obscure the station entrance. Even with lights flashing and sirens blaring, fire engines leaving the station are in danger of colliding with vehicles on the street, said firefighter Tony Porrata, 33.

"You would be surprised how many people are oblivious to our coming," Porrata said. "Just getting in and out of the building is a dangerous situation."

Now, firefighters hope a City Council vote Sept. 30 will help bring an end to the inconveniences and hazards. The council voted to use eminent domain to acquire one acre of a 17.2-acre golf and tennis center in Studio City to build a new fire station. The city will pay just more than $1 million for the property, city officials said.

Pending a condemnation process on the property, designing a new station and other conditions, the new Fire Station 78 could open in about two years.

"I don't think anybody thought it was going to take this long," said David Rodriguez, 43, a firefighter who worked in the fire station destroyed by the quake on Jan. 17, 1994.

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who represents Studio City, said the passage of Proposition F, a bond measure designed to raise money to build emergency facilities, made the land acquisition possible.

In the past, she said, the city would have had to have cash in hand before using the condemnation process to acquire property for a fire station.

"It's not your first choice, to condemn a property," Greuel said. But public safety dictated the decision, she said.

The city rejected an offer that would give it 75% of the 17.2-acre property in exchange for the right to build a senior housing development.

Studio City Golf and Tennis Center owner Guy Weddington McCreary said the offer would have allowed the city to build the station and keep the rest of the property for green space.

"The property is invaluable because there's no open space anywhere else -- and I own it," he said. "The best use for that property is 103 homes, a first-class senior housing development, which makes the property worth about $40 million for me, which they're denying me."

Greuel and other city officials have resisted any deal that would allow the housing development. They favor maintaining the existing golf and tennis facilities as open space.

Meanwhile, the rescuers of Fire Station 78 look forward to a full-size, fully equipped facility.

The current firehouse has one shower for six people. There is no tower for drying wet hoses, so the firefighters must take their hoses to other stations to dry. Failing to properly dry hoses can irreparably damage them.

There's no fuel pump, so firefighters have to drive their engine to the corner gas station to fill the 50-gallon fuel tank -- at retail cost for the city.

The metal shed where the engine is kept lacks insulation, so, depending on the season, it can be extremely hot or cold.

Social events at the lodge next door -- from weddings to limo drivers' conventions -- can create parking chaos in front of the small firehouse. Fire Station 78 is so small that cars frequently use the driveway as parking.

"They don't recognize it as a fire station," said firefighter Chris Stanton, 44. "On Friday and Saturday nights, they'll just park in front. We have to go out there and ask people to move their cars."

In turn, the firefighters and official visitors to the station sometimes use the lodge's property for parking.

"They tolerate it. They work with us, being good neighbors," said Dave Smith, 39, a fire engineer. Duca said the portable trailers have already exceeded their six-year life expectancy. In practical terms, this means that if the city ever tried to move the trailers, "they'll fall apart," Duca said. "It's trash."

Moreover, the station can't support more than the one engine and ambulance because of its size, he said. The new station will have everything other stations have, and possibly more, he said.

"It'll be nice if they build it," Porrata said, before quickly correcting himself. "When they build it."

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