For firefighters working 24-hour shifts, the fire station can come to feel like home. For Capt. Jim Palmer at La Jolla’s Fire Station 13, that familiar feeling may be even stronger: The blinds on the station’s kitchen windows came from his house.
Malfunctioning blinds is just one item on an extensive list of deficiencies at the station, which was built on Nautilus Street as a temporary facility in 1976 and remains in full-time use 30 years later. Men and women firefighters share bedrooms separated only by makeshift curtains.
Palmer’s office at the station is little more than a corner of the living room, just steps away from the television and across the room from the small kitchenette where firefighters eat their meals and relax with the newspaper. There are two bathrooms in a 1,000-square-foot station sometimes occupied by eight people.
“There really is absolutely no privacy,” Palmer said. “Other stations have kitchens and dining rooms that are as big as our entire apparatus floor.”
With San Diego in a serious financial crisis, the temporary station that has lasted 30 years will certainly have to be used for many more. With that in mind, Palmer recently went to his boss, San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman, to ask for funds for minor improvements around the station such as new blinds, window screens and doors. That prompted a visit to the station by City Councilman Scott Peters.
“We gave him a tour of the place,” Palmer said. “That took about 30 seconds. He took one look at it and said it was deplorable.”
Peters discussed the situation with Trip Bennett of the La Jolla Sunrise Rotary Club, and Bennett is now leading a fund-raising effort for much-needed improvements at the facility. Bennett created and donated plans for a renovation of the facility that would create four individual bedrooms, renovate the existing bathrooms and add a new bathroom that would be compatible with the Americans with Disabilites Act, something the station currently lacks.
The plans also call for the complete renovation of the kitchen, the addition of a new living room that would allow the old living room to be used as a dining area, and the creation of a separate office for Palmer and other captains. The work would add about 450 square feet to the facility.
“It would make the supervisor’s job a lot easier,” Palmer said, “because it would provide some privacy for conducting business. Right now, if I’m on the phone and guys are talking, I can’t very well ask them to go to their rooms. It would also be a lot more privacy for rest and sleep than we have now, which is important with men and women firefighters. It would be more comfortable and more professional, a little more 21st century.”
A fund-raising goal has not yet been determined for the project. Bennett said his club would facilitate a capital improvement campaign in response to needs he called long overdue.
Maurice Luque of San Diego Fire-Rescue said the department estimates that renovating the kitchen and bedrooms at Station 13 would cost about $80,000. The department has a long list of other work it would like to complete at Station 13 that will simply have to wait until funding becomes available.
“There is some deferred maintenance, things we’d like to do that there is no budget for,” Luque said.
Among the most important items is a new exhaust evacuation system for the station’s garage.
“When they start up those diesel rigs before going out on a call, that exhaust all goes into the garage, which is connected to the living quarters and the kitchen,” Luque said. “The system is meant to evacuate it by way of a hose put on the exhaust itself, but the one there is very old and not working very well."Luque estimated a new system would cost $7,500. The city would also like to resurface the driveway and parking areas in front of the station at an estimated cost of $35,000 and treat the station for termites at an estimated $5,500.
It would cost about $15,000 to fence in the station and create a gated parking area, which Palmer said is needed.
“We hear homeless people come up at night and turn the water on out front,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re washing up or filling canteens, but we’ll hear them out there at 3 in the morning sometimes.”
Palmer said the other stations that service La Jolla - Station 9 on La Jolla Parkway and Station 16 on Via Casa Alta - are plush in comparision.
“At 9, they have very nice accomodations. They have square footage we don’t,” Palmer said. “Sixteen is newer, but it could use some alterations as well. But, they do have curtains.”
Beyond the need for upgrades at existing stations, Palmer said the real crisis facing the city is a need for many more fire stations. He said that by any measure the city needs more than 20 more fire stations and about 200 more firefighters.
“In Mission Valley, they just got a new station,” he said. “They’ve had the same coverage since 1974 and the population has probably multiplied 10 times. They just got that new one, and they probably already need another one on the west end.”
Palmer said he believes La Jolla is fairly well-covered compared to many other parts of the city. The fire department has a set goal of responding to calls within six minutes, and he said that stations in La Jolla usually beat that mark. At times of day with more traffic congestion, however, response times can often exceed the goal, he said.
“On the whole, we do (respond within six minutes),” he said. “But it depends on the traffic. There’s a bottleneck on Torrey Pines that can be a big problem depending on the time of day. Oftentimes, we will radio in a delay due to traffic.”
Palmer said La Jolla could probably use a new station near UCSD.
“With traffic getting more difficult, they might be able to use something up there,” he said. “It’s so dense up there and that would probably be the place to put another one if the powers that be could crunch the numbers.”
With his own small station in disrepair, Palmer knows it’s unlikely those numbers will be crunched any time soon.
“We’ve done so much with so little here, it’s kind of ridiculous,” he said. “This station just shows how things are operating.”