The ragged cracks and sagging walls at Studio City’s Fire Station 78 are nearly invisible from outside the yellow stucco building. Area residents might not even know firefighters were forced to abandon the quake-damaged station--unless they have to call 911.
The 47-year-old firehouse was one of two closed by the Jan. 17 temblor--the other was Fire Station 70 in Northridge--and firefighters say their response times have risen because they are driving from stations located farther away.
Although there have been no problems so far, authorities say, some response times in Studio City’s hard-to-negotiate hillside neighborhoods have doubled, and the issue is a continuing concern. One fire captain said it has been taking his crews an average of 10 minutes instead of five to arrive at the scene of an emergency.
“And that’s the difference between life and death,” said Capt. Thomas Jefferson, one of three commanders at Fire Station 108 on Mulholland Drive.
A 10-minute response time is the exception, however; most have increased by one or two minutes, from an average of four to six minutes, fire officials said. Until the quake-damaged stations reopen, four other firehouses including Jefferson’s are covering their districts, with a computer routing calls to whoever is closest.
Though Fire Station 70 near the epicenter suffered the worst damage, including a garage door that jammed shut trapping firefighting apparatus inside, city officials expect the rebuilding of Fire Station 78 in Studio City to be a far greater task.
Built in 1947, the tiny firehouse was a prime candidate for replacement even before the temblor cracked its walls and separated its hose tower from the main building. Initially green-tagged, city inspectors re-evaluated the building last month and decided to close it because of more damage caused by aftershocks.
Located near the intersection of Ventura Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon Avenue, the station has been regarded as a community anchor and symbol of safety in a burgeoning city. But at 4,200 square feet, it is less than half the size of most of Los Angeles’ modern firehouses. And it sits on a 10,000-square-foot lot, while the preferred size is 25,000 square feet.
“Considering the size and age of the station, it wasn’t cost-effective to rebuild it on that site,” said Battalion Chief Robert J. MacMillan, who oversees the district.
Building a new fire station on a larger, yet-to-be-found site could take as long as three years, said Fire Department spokesman Roger Gillis. He added that the department hopes the estimated $2.5 million to $3 million cost will be covered by funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Until then, protecting the five-square-mile district plagued by heavy traffic as well as narrow hillside streets will be a challenge. The densely populated area stretches from Hazeltine Avenue on the west to Laurel Canyon Boulevard on the east, Riverside Drive on the south and Potosi Avenue on the north.
“It only takes a minute or two longer” to reach emergencies, said Capt. Erick Lauridsen, who has been working out of Fire Station 86 on Vineland Avenue since Fire Station 78 closed. “But in the fire business that’s an appreciable amount of time.”
The district is also one of the Valley’s busiest, with paramedics answering 10 to 15 calls a day, according to MacMillan. So fire officials are considering razing the old fire station and installing temporary, modular structures at the site to have apparatus closer. That would take two to four months, and carry a $500,000 price tag, Gillis said.
There is also talk of reactivating a defunct electronic system that would allow emergency vehicles to change traffic lights to green along Ventura Boulevard, hastening their travel. At one time, the technology was used for city buses, but has since been deactivated, officials said.
While the Studio City station remained open three months after the quake, the Northridge station suffered severe damage and was closed immediately. An interior brick wall crumbled and crews had to take one engine out a back door because the main door was too damaged to open. But repairs there will be relatively straightforward. Located near the intersection of Lassen Street and Reseda Boulevard, the 14-year-old structure is undergoing a $750,000 renovation and is expected to reopen in late July.
In the interim, the district’s flat geography and relatively wide streets may make it easier to cover than the Studio City district, spokesman Gillis said.
Community leaders in both areas said they had not heard of problems caused by the closures. But Polly Ward, executive vice president of the Studio City Homeowners Assn., said some residents were slightly uneasy about not having a local fire station for the first time in nearly five decades.
“I think we had a great sense of security because it was here, right in the midst of a big community,” Ward said.