Smoldering issue: Fort Valley Fire Department deals with space woes

FORT VALLEY — When the Fort Valley Fire Department ran out of space in their main station, the city’s short-term answer was to buy a shed.

Outside the station on West Church Street, sheds house the department’s oxygen tanks, archived supplies, even a fire engine — stored there since 1996 when the truck, too big for the current truck bays, was purchased.

It seems to be Fort Valley’s typical approach to its fire department. Have a problem? Buy another shed.

All the fire department wants, Fire Chief Otis Daniel said, is a new building, complete with a training room large enough for the entire department, men’s and women’s bathrooms, and bays big enough to house its largest trucks. He has tired of forcing firefighters to adjust to the cramped conditions.

“You get tired of putting Band-Aids on stuff,” Daniel said. “There’s some stones out there that need to be turned over to allow us to get what we need. We feel like we’re on the back burner.”

There is one bathroom for the two dozen full-time and volunteer firefighters. Water from the faucets is tinted orange. The shed housing T-1 — the larger fire truck — floods even during light rain. A leaky roof was repaired, but firefighters wonder how long it will stay fixed.

The Fort Valley City Council decided last week to approve renovations to the current building, which would add a second bathroom and extra sleeping space to cover additional staff. The renovations will cost several hundred thousand dollars — the city expects an estimate this week — as opposed to the millions needed to build a new fire station.

“(The renovations) will relieve us some from where we are,” Daniel said.

The Fort Valley Fire Department responds to less than a call a day on average, which could be part of why funds have not been made available for a new building. Mayor John Stumbo has said it has more to do with the city’s current budget woes than the department’s need.

The station is behind City Hall, and the most recent addition was added in 1965. The building’s first floor has a holding area for four fire trucks, including one from 1925 only used in parades. Six twin beds occupy a room the size of a typical master bedroom suite, with one bathroom for use by all. The second floor is used for offices for the chief and secretary and a training room that can hold about 15 people. Including volunteers, Fort Valley’s department has 24 members. If a fire breaks out, firefighters have to retrieve the oxygen tanks from a shed several dozen yards from the building, as well as assorted equipment stored in other outdoor sheds.

The scattered resources affect response times, officials said. The largest fire truck has to be carefully pulled out of its bay to ensure it is not damaged in the process.

The building was equipped to hold the same number of firefighters when Harold Fluellen began as a cadet in 1984. But changes in technology and the accumulation of equipment have overrun the facility, he said.

“(The fixes) might work a few years, but we’re going to still need a new building eventually,” he said. “Time changes. And we have passed that time.”

Firefighters tell stories of running into each other when a fire call does come in, and feeling like they are always in somebody else’s personal space.

“It’s packed, but I wouldn’t know what size it’s supposed to be,” said Courtney Harris, who has been with the department nearly a year. “But you get used to it,”

The already cramped quarters will get even tighter when three new firefighters start work in October.

“It’s just like a family at home,” said Jeremy Williams, who has been with the department for two years. “When you outgrow the house, you’ve got to get a new one.”

For now, getting a new one isn’t an option.

“You don’t really think about a firefighter ’til you need one,” Daniel said. “Hopefully, one day that will change.”

To contact writer Marlon A. Walker, call 256-9685.