Housing Complex

New Firetrucks Don’t Fit in Old Firehouses. Why Can’t We Widen The Doors?

The Cleveland Park firehouse's too-narrow doors.

Fairly or not, historic preservation often gets pitted against other priorities: Energy efficiency, for example, and economic development. Lately, though, it's the ability to put out fires.

The problem is, federal environmental regulations passed in 2010 require certain bells and whistles—no, not literally—on the sides of fire engines, which makes them just barely able to fit through the doors of some of the District's antique firehouses. On several historically protected buildings, the Historic Preservation Review Board has allowed the doors to be widened, reasoning that the buildings wouldn't be unduly harmed.

But the board couldn't quite stomach the change for two firehouses: One at 4811 MacArthur Drive in the Palisades, and another in Cleveland Park. As the technophobic Northwest Current reports this week, those were both deemed so historically significant that making the doors taller and wider would be incompatible with the preservation of a landmark.

That puts the Fire Department in a pickle, since they now have to appeal their cases to the Mayor's Agent, who could take anywhere from a few months to a year to decide. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Park firehouse is closed, which means the Palisades one has to cover a huge area. That's making lots of neighborhood residents nervous—what if a few minutes is the difference between a the fire being doused and a gas tank exploding?

Not to be melodramatic, or anything. But it's a consideration.

Ultimately, I suspect the Fire Department will get what it wants. The Historic Preservation Office hinted as much in its staff report on the Palisades building, noting that while the board must make its determinations based on preservation law and precedent, the Mayor's Agent is empowered to consider factors like economic hardship and public safety, and so could easily pardon the widening of a door.

All of that amounts simply to more delay, enough to make you wonder: Should the Fire Department just simply have sold the buildings for redevelopment as retail space or condos, saved themselves the expense of a historically-sensitive retrofit, and built new state-of-the-art firehouses somewhere else? That would probably turn out to be more expensive in the end, given the cost of property in those neighborhoods.

Which means running the historic preservation gauntlet is simply the cost of doing business.


UPDATE, Friday, 10:08 a.m. - It's worth noting the Board's full summary decision, which encourages compromise:

The HPRB passed a motion to advise the Mayor's Agent that the expansion of the vehicle-door openings, as proposed, is incompatible with the character of the landmark property and is thus inconsistent with the purposes of the preservation law, but strongly encourages the applicant to explore the alternatives discussed in the staff report so as to make available to the Mayor's Agent alternatives that may necessitate less alteration and be more compatible. Approved 7-0.

  • DC Guy

    Can't anyone use common sense and let the DCFD do what it needs to do?

  • seeseehpounder

    Get that firetruck from the Carribean

  • Drez

    Ward 3 houses the only two fire stationsother are so historic they can't be modified?

  • Drez

    "...fire stations that are so historic..."

  • biggie

    Can't they just get smaller trucks like most European cities...and even other cities in the US?

  • Barrie Daneker

    HPRB needs to be eliminated period! These idiots are stopping a firehouse from providing public service. FIRED ALL THOSE IDIOTS on the board. The last thing we need is HPRB to cost us more money

  • Eric

    @biggie "...federal environmental regulations passed in 2010 require certain bells and whistles—no, not literally—on the sides of fire engines..." European cities aren't exactly a good comparison since it's federal regulations that are mandating this.

  • Alex

    The Onion hits reality.

  • WOV

    "Can't they just get smaller trucks like most European cities...and even other cities in the US?"

    There's a significant difference in many Euro vs. US firefighting operations - viz. we build our structures out of wood so they burn down more quickly and fiercely The Euros are far far more likely to encounter a concrete or stone structure, and thereby can generally get away with a 400 gpm pump. Smaller pump, smaller tank, smaller truck.

    Also they sort of *have* to get by with a smaller truck w/r/t tiny streets in older cities - I'm not sure that would be their choice absent that restriction, or that it should be ours without that restriction.

    Also, the specific thing sticking out of the side of the truck is a hose that sucks the nasty black plume of diesel startup exhaust out of the firehouse. Keeps the firehouse clean, but also makes things less cancer-y for the firefighters, for whom before this device probably most of their day to day smoke exposure came from being in the firehouse while that thing started up and belched a plume out a dozen+ times a day. This is still the dominant smell in firehouses...

  • Thayer-D

    I agree with Lydia (think) that the simplest solution is to sell the old firehouses and build new ones in a cool and slick technophantic style. Everyone would be happy. That being said, if you apply this logic to some of the narrower streets of Georgetown and Old Town, we should widen them, thus destroying the fabric. There's some merit to letting people be the center of life and letting technology work around our preferences, rather than the other way around, but you might be accused of being technophobic, yikes!

  • Bob

    The problem is the fire department wants to buy larger standard trucks. The door width is probably the least of the problems. The historic firehouses are inefficient for the large trucks. Either DCFD should use smaller equipment in the smaller firehouses, or consider another location. The other problem is that the trucks have to back into the historic firehouses, rather than driving through them like in modern houses (or having room for a driveway staging area. In Cleveland Park, for example, busy Connecticut Ave. is blocked when ever a truck needs to back in to the firehouse. It might be best if the Cleveland Park firehouse were sold -- I've been to several cool old firehouses that were turned into arcade shops or restaurants. Better to build a larger, state of the art firehouse a few blocks north on the UDC campus, which is already full of ugly modern buildings, where DC already owns the land. and would afford better access, egress and staging for the trucks.

  • http://dcjack.org Jack

    The HPRB did what it was compelled by DC law to do -- advise denial of the permit, historic preservation taking priority over virtually anything else, including the needs and well-being of the people living in any so-called "historic" structure.

    Recognizing that public safety ought to be considered, the Council modified the District's draconian, preservation-ueber-alles historic preservation law in 2005 to allow public safety facilities to appeal to the Mayor for exemption from a historic-preservation ruling.

    As for the fire department, the Mayor's Agent will routinely overrule the HPRB on February 24, and that will be that.