The Los Angeles Fire Department has begun deploying a new division in the recently vacated Echo Park Fire Station, its mission to build a citywide network of volunteers to respond to major disasters.
The development represents a quiet end to the hopes of the Friends of the Echo Park Library. The group hoped to move the library from its cramped and often-vandalized building near the Hollywood Freeway to the handsome old fire station just a few blocks away.
Fire Station No. 6, a stylish and sturdy example of 1920s public works, commands a prominent spot on the curve of East Edgeware Road about a block from Carroll Avenue, where the city's highest concentration of surviving Victorian homes is found. It was raised from its foundation and moved there from Temple Street in 1949 when the Hollywood Freeway went in.
Its fate was set on a converging course with the library's by the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.
Damage to the branch library building, then at Temple Street and Glendale Boulevard, led the city to demolish it. The library moved a few blocks east to temporary quarters in a leased office building on a cul-de-sac abutting the freeway.
In the next 15 years the building fell victim to graffiti and arson, and a tunnel that was supposed to bring children from across the freeway became a hangout for gangs and drug pushers.
The Library Department planned to buy land and build a home for the branch. Any hope that it could afford to do that faded after the Central Library was closed by a fire and four other branches were closed by the 1987 Whittier earthquake.
The Fire Department meanwhile had begun replacing and upgrading 15 stations whose construction predated the 1933 seismic standards. Though it sustained no damage of note in either the 1971 or the 1987 quake, Fire Station No. 6 was replaced by a larger, more modern station last year.
Initially, there were nostalgia-driven protests over the move.
"Then the people in the community started thinking," said Karen Jaeger, an Angelino Heights resident and member of the Friends of the Echo Park Library. "We evolved the idea of having the fire station enlarged to become a library branch."
The idea got a lot of support. John Ferraro, then the area's councilman, gave his approval. After redistricting, all four candidates for the new 1st Council District seat endorsed it.
But the Library Department raised objections. A report last January concluded that the building was too far from the main source of walk-in patrons on Sunset Boulevard and that it would be too small and too costly to recondition.
After receiving only a tepid inquiry from the Library Department, the Fire Department began looking for another way to use the station.
Along came the Oct. 1 earthquake and, right after it, Assistant Chief Frank Borden, who had made disaster preparedness his specialty.
In a report he wrote that same month, Borden warned that the earthquake "has demonstrated the need to expedite the training of the community in preparing for earthquakes and other major natural disasters."
Heeding the warning, the City Council approved a $1-million reorganization of the department to create a division of emergency preparedness. Its immediate goal will be to recruit and train 15 teams of volunteers--one for each council district. The volunteers will be trained to treat minor injuries and deal with emergencies such as broken gas lines in houses.
Late last year Borden and a skeleton crew moved into Fire Station No. 6. His 36-person division will take shape by June, taking their stations around the two brass poles in the now deserted second-story dormitory.
Borden planned to make a splash with public announcements to begin recruiting next month. But he broke the news gently to the community at the Angelino Heights Christmas house fair, where he ran into Jaeger.
She accepted the new role for the old fire station but still feels protective about the venerable building. Borden, she said, "solemnly promised that he would take care of it for us. I said to him with a perfectly straight face, 'Mister, we covet your bricks. You may put your fire engines there and your firemen may sleep in that building, but, believe me, it belongs to our community.' "
Jaeger, a speech specialist with the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools, thought it over and decided that it probably wasn't becoming to grouse about emergency preparedness.
"I am pleased with this training program because I see our community being able to take strong advantage of it," she said.
Now the search for a library begins anew, without much hope.
"Quite frankly, we don't see the library administration being in a position, with all the troubles they've been having, to help us," Jaeger said.
"They could say to us, 'You shouldn't be a spoilsport. At least you have an open branch.' "