A relic of decades-old design, the Columbia Fire Department’s Station No. 7 could soon become a casualty of 21st century Columbia-style growth.
The walls inside the building are breaking apart. Fire trucks have a hard time getting on the road in emergencies because of traffic at South Providence Road and Nifong Boulevard. Drab green and brown paint make it a bit of an eyesore.
“Aesthetically, it’s just not very pleasing,” Battalion Chief Steve Sapp said.
The Fire Department wants to solve the station’s structure, location and appearance problems with money from Proposition 3, a proposed three-year extension of the existing one-fourth-cent capital improvement sales tax that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Proceeds from the proposition would be set aside for specific public safety needs in the next 10 years, including the Fire Department projects, 21 new emergency warning sirens and a police training facility.
Of the public safety agencies, the Fire Department has the longest and most expensive list of needs, which includes replacing or refurbishing 10 fire trucks, building two new fire stations and relocating Station No. 7 at a total cost of $13.6 million. The costs of the police training facility and warning sirens are nearly $1.2 million and $310,000, respectively. That’s $15 million worth of public safety needs over the next 10 years.
“We’re trying to meet the needs of the departments,” City Manager Ray Beck said.
Moving Station No. 7 from 3601 S. Providence Road became a priority for a variety of reasons, Sapp said. Built in 1983, it was designed to conserve energy, “so it has a solar design,” Sapp said. “It’s essentially an earth-contact fire station.”
Mounds of earth were sloped up against the outer walls of the station to act as a natural blanket, reducing the cost of heating and cooling. But the earthen berms caused expensive problems.
John Sudduth, building regulations supervisor in Columbia’s Office of Protective Inspections, said soil around the building expands and contracts with weather changes, causing cracks in interior walls.
“At the time (Station No. 7) was built, it served its purpose well,” Sapp said. “It just has not held up well.”
A 2004 report by Allstate Consultants deemed the station safe for use but suggested removing the slope to relieve pressure on the walls and monitoring the cracks for slight movement every 30 days.
Sudduth said the berms have been removed since the report was submitted and that his office checks the cracks once monthly.
Repairing Station No. 7 would cost $300,000 to $400,000 — significantly less than the estimated $1.2 million to $1.5 million for a new building — but cracking walls aren’t the only issue. Two traffic lights and a median at South Providence Road and West Nifong Boulevard slow response times, Sapp said.
Moving the station would shorten response times and eliminate the overlap in the coverage areas of Station No. 7 and No. 8, the city’s newest station, which was built in 2001 at East Nifong Boulevard and Bearfield Road.
The Fire Department wants to place the new Station No. 7 on land at Green Meadows Road and Green Meadows Circle that belongs to developer Don Stohldrier.
Assistant city counselor Susan Crigler said the city could not negotiate a price with Stohldrier and in July filed an eminent domain lawsuit. Crigler said Stohldrier and the city have agreed to appoint a commission of landowners to determine the value of the property.
South Columbia is not the only area where the Fire Department wants to improve response times.
“Columbia is (growing) more all the time,” Sapp said. “Not only is it expansive (growth), but the number of citizens has also increased.”
Sapp said the goal is to respond to 80 percent of calls within 4 1/2 minutes.
Using a computer program that charts the location of fire stations and estimates response times across Columbia, the department mapped out three regions in need of quicker response: northwest, north-central and east Columbia. The department has neither identified specific station locations nor decided which regions will receive stations first.
“We’re not trying to be wishy-washy,” Sapp said. “It’s harder to project out farther in time.”
Larry Hine of the Valley View Gardens Neighborhood Association said it isn’t hard to see that his neighborhood needs faster emergency responses.
“At 5 (p.m.) if you live out in Valley View and you have a heart attack, with the traffic at I-70, you might as well forget it,” Hine said, because traffic on Interstate 70 and Stadium Boulevard would delay an emergency response.
Valley View Gardens is north of I-70 and west of Stadium Boulevard. Station No. 2, south of I-70 on West Worley Street, is the closest fire station. There are two stations on the north side of I-70 — Station No. 4 on Oakland Gravel Road and Station No. 5 on Ballenger Lane — but they’re better located for responding to northeast Columbia.
A fire station in northwest Columbia could respond to the Valley View Gardens neighborhood in time to meet the 4½-minute goal, according to a map generated by the Fire Department’s computer program.
If Proposition 3 is approved, Sapp said the first new station would be built by 2008 and the second by 2013. Each would cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million. With land and equipment, that cost could rise to $2.5 million.
Hine said he and the neighborhood association favors Proposition 3.
“All of us that live in this part of town would love to have a fire station in this area,” Hine said. “There is a difference between three, six and eight minutes.”