The brass fire pole, that abiding image of firehouse tradition, may be going the way of the Dalmatian.
No one knows how many of the poles in the nation’s 49,200 stations stand idle or have been removed, but clearly their use is on the downward slide.
A few poles have even been replaced with slides. Many poles being installed in new fire stations are mostly decorative.
“The pole has become something of an anachronism,” said Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters. “If you’ve got a midnight call and ... you’re still groggy--trying to get adrenaline flowing--a jump on a sheer drop of 30 feet might not make that much sense.”
Others say modern safety measures defeat the notion of sliding for speed. The holes surrounding the poles at a Santa Monica station, for example, will be sealed with doors, a now customary safety precaution.
Still, Wills said, “It’s a fire station and, by gosh, a station should have a fire pole.”
The image has endured so strongly that firefighters giving station tours almost always ride the awe-inspiring brass pole.
When asked recently, all the students in a third-grade class at Roosevelt Elementary in Santa Monica said that they believe polished brass is the route of choice among the nation’s bravest. And one of the coolest parts of the job.
But when kids are out of earshot, firefighters will say they usually spend more time polishing the brass poles than riding them.
Kelley Needham, an architect who specializes in firehouse design at WLC Architects in Rancho Cucamonga, said most of the poles in his latest designs are firehouse chic requested by city administrators, not firefighters.
“I’m putting two in Santa Monica, although they weren’t used in the station we tore down,” Needham said. “Some cities are asking for three or more poles in a single station.”
Fire poles date back to the late 19th century, when firefighters’ living quarters were built above garages in urban stations where land was scarce. In the firefighting game of seconds, it was quicker to grab the pole than to stagger down a staircase.
Poles were first made of wood and, later, of brass. At least one turn-of-the-century brass pole is still used in New York City.
One State Outlaws Poles
Since then, the cool and daring concept of poles has crashed into the reality of fragile ankles and burning hands. Pole sliding isn’t even in some fire academies’ curricula.
“No one tells you the brass pole heats up your hands,” said a Clemson University architecture professor, Don Collins, who is also a captain in the university’s fire department. “New guys have a tendency to let go and fall. I know of one firefighter who was so eager to slide on the pole and broke his leg the first day on the job.”
(For the record, you’re supposed to control your speed with your legs, not your hands.)
The state of Washington in 1997 outlawed poles altogether for new stations.
Louis Flores, who specializes in fire station safety for the state’s Department of Labor and Industries, said Washington also requires rubber landing pads in old firehouses with poles.
“There are inherent hazards in sliding down a pole--like the landing can cause compression and shock on the back,” Flores said.
Collins is scheduled to lecture on the shortcomings of single-story firehouse design during a September symposium sponsored by the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization.
Collins and a group of East Coast fire chiefs got the idea to meet from a bunch of Southern California chiefs who met 15 years ago to discuss the advantages of one-story stations.
Nothing requires cities to build flat fire stations, but the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs for two decades has recommended them as a safer alternative to multistory stations.
“I think the decision to move away from poles has forced communities into one-story fire stations that are not always the best design, either,” Collins said.
“It wasn’t a single event, like a pole sliding death, that started it,” he said. “It’s more like a series of little events and conversations that told us we are in a different era.”
The Los Angeles Fire Department has wavered on the poles.
Firefighters use them in about 40 of the 112 stations where the living quarters are above the truck bays, 30 feet above the ground. But in the 15 stations built since 1985, the dorms were lowered, allowing firefighters to easily take the stairs.
Now, with Proposition F funds, the city will return to a two-story design with brass poles for 19 new stations and will add separate poles for paramedics.
“Multiple poles are an efficient way to transition from upper to lower floors when you have as many people in a station as we do,” said Capt. Norm Greengard of the Los Angeles Fire Department. “Plus, it’s 200 years of tradition unhampered by progress.”
Turning to Steel Slides
Arthur Anthony, manager of the Boston-based McIntire Brass Works, the nation’s leading maker of brass poles, said the world is divided into two types of firefighters--polers and non-polers.
“The type of fireman who says he hates poles and will never use them is the same type of person who’ll say he will never drive a Chevy just because it’s a Chevy,” Anthony said. “They say that, but there’s really nothing they can think of to beat it.”
Looking for another way to hurry downstairs, the Ontario International Airport Fire Department installed 30-foot stainless-steel slides into its garage, a pair of only a handful around the country.
They’re not just fast. They’re almost too fast, according to Capt. Robert Helsom.
“We probably [will] have a couple of injuries down the road,” Helsom said. “Other than the novelty of the slide, it’s probably just as good to take the stairs.”
The novelty of the slide also has worn off in Birmingham, Mich., believed to be home of the first firehouse slide. Chief David Edginton said the city put in slides in 1955 and five years ago spurned poles and slides.
“I believe liability is the case with both Dalmatians and poles,” Edginton said.
You might wonder what Dalmatians, spiral staircases and brass poles have to do with firefighting anyway.
Before the internal-combustion engine, horses tugged fire wagons. Dalmatians, which have an affinity for horses, ran off other dogs that might spook the horses.
In the station, the horses sometimes tried to climb the stairs, so firehouse designers in the 19th century responded by building spiral staircases--too difficult for horses to go up, and not much better for firefighters going down. Hence, the poles.
Los Angeles replaced its last horse-drawn wagon in 1921. Dalmatians have been relegated mostly to children’s books.
But “I don’t think we’re going to get away from poles completely,” said Collins, the architect and firefighter. “It just makes sense in most cities to build two stories. And whether or not people use it, poles are going to be there.”