Thursday, May 31, 2012
By John L. Guerra
Conch Key Volunteer Fire Rescue proudly protects 4,500 people living in a 15-square mile area in the Middle Keys. The department consists of paid and volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
The fire department in January was in the midst of building a new hurricane-strength bunker in which to park its firefighting equipment when one of the construction workers noticed the doorways were only nine feet high. Ambulances are at least 10 feet tall and won't fit inside the planned bays, emails between county officials show.
I have a contact at the work site who has managed large construction jobs, including spanning bridges over rivers, pouring new concrete for power plant cooling towers, and building hundreds of commercial and government buildings.
He said he just wants the firehouse at Conch Key to be built correctly. He has read the blueprints as he took part in the construction.
"The mistake caused construction to stop for a couple of months," said my source, who showed me emails between the construction company and county engineers discussing in the problem. In one email, an architect associated with the job suggested low-cost solutions: removing the air conditioning units on the roofs of the ambulances to make them short enough to fit or relocating shorter ambulances from other Keys firehouses to the Conch Key building. Because those ideas aren't plausible, work was halted in March, my source says, so the construction problem could be engineered. That also meant the job had to be rebid to take into account the cost of the extra concrete needed to fix the problem.
Engineers and construction workers restarted work about two weeks ago, my source says. Until it's finished, the firetrucks and ambulance are parked outside and the emergency workers live in a house trailer, my source says.
To fix the too-short entrance ways, the builders will have to lengthen concrete support pilings that already have been built. In other words, they'll have to splice vertical iron rods through the top of the support columns and then pour more cement to make the support columns taller.
"It is going to cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars at least," my source told me.
My source said there are other problems with the new station's design, including the fact that fire trucks wouldn't be able to back all the way in to the station, even if they could fit under the doorways.
"There is a work space on the inside back wall that makes the station too short horizontally, too," he told me.
These seem like giant oversights by someone, either by the architect or by engineers. How could such a simple miscalculation occur?
Not only that, the owner of a lobster trap yard next door to the firehouse has threatened to sue the county to stop the relocation of a power generator near his property. The generator is designed to provide power should hurricane winds knock out electricity to the station. Without the new generator, the communications equipment on Conch Key will be useless after the power goes out. One need only remember the 1935 hurricane to remember how it all could end if help isn't found fast once a storm passes.
Not to mention communicating with firehouse equipment and EMTs in the field who need to radio vital information to emergency managers.
The cement pad upon which the generator is to be built is to be surrounded by a fence that should keep the generator's noise from disturbing neighbors. If the lobster trap owner next door convinces a judge to halt the project, that could lead to new delays, my source said.