Last updated: Monday July 13, 2009, 5:45 PM
ENGLEWOOD — Poison traps don’t make a dent in the mouse problem. The basement pipes are rife with asbestos. The ceilings leak. The urinals are broken. And the shower is overrun with mold.
But the opossum foraging in the kitchen of the William Street firehouse was the last straw. The size of a house cat, the marsupial was waddling near the water cooler, forcing firefighters to put down their sandwiches and kill it.
“It definitely becomes a morale issue when you have to clean up possum blood near the water cooler the next morning,” said Patrick Florio, president of the local firefighter’s union.
The third-largest in Bergen County, the Englewood Fire Department operates out of an 85-year-old firehouse beset by leaks, faulty wiring and crumbling infrastructure.
After decades of debate over whether to renovate the dilapidated firehouse, or simply tear it down, Fire Chief Robert Moran said plans are in the works to build a new headquarters on city-owned property at the corner of South Van Brunt Street, adjacent to the police station.
A preliminary proposal for the new building, which will house the fire department, code enforcement officials and the ambulance corps, is likely to be heard by the council in the next few months, Moran said. City officials applied for $5 million in funds from President Obama’s stimulus package to pay for a portion of the project.
“There’s an overwhelming need for a new space,” Moran said recently as he pointed out the cramped locker room, the moldy shower area – intended to be shared by 52 firefighters – and the broken urinals in the bathroom.
“It’s tough to work here in this environment and it affects the morale… it’s not conducive to being happy and productive and wanting to come to work every day when you’re battling various issues, from repairing the toilet to dealing with the mice,” Moran said.
The mouse infestation is such a known problem, it has turned into a joke among members.
“That right there, between the refrigerators, is known as the Mouse Turnpike,” Deputy Fire Chief Gerald Marion said, pointing to the route the rodents travel in the kitchen.
“There’s poison everywhere, but it doesn’t eliminate the problem,” Moran added, noting that as he sat at his desk one recent morning, he watched as a mouse scurried across it.
Perhaps the most imminent concerns are the building’s obvious health hazards. The pipes in the basement – where records are stored — are contaminated with asbestos, the floors contain puddles of stagnant water, and the infrastructure is collapsing.
The building is not up to code, there are no elevators or ramps, and ironically, it does not have a sprinkler system.
The department has also been cited several times over the last five years with violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Florio said.
“It’s just deplorable. … You come back from a fire and you’re scared to get in the shower because you don’t know what kinds of germs or diseases you might catch,” Florio said.
The opossum incident occurred about six months ago, Florio said, and the firefighters took care of it themselves.
A few years ago, the city spent $4,000 to eradicate a pigeon infestation in the old hose tower, Moran said, estimating that the city spends up to $15,000 on maintenance each year.
The building does not have appropriate storage for gear and apparatus, including a HAZMAT vehicle and decontamination trailer that remain outside, even in inclement weather.
A few weeks ago, firefighters had to put out an electrical blaze when old wires caught fire, Moran said.
“There was a fire in the firehouse,” he said. “We’ve been really lucky no one has gotten hurt in the building.”
Councilman Gordon Johnson called the conditions “unhealthy” and said firefighters should have received a new facility a long time ago.
“There is no reason to subject city employees to the unhealthy and unsanitary conditions in the fire department,” Johnson said.
City Manager Daniel Fitzpatrick said he is working closely with Moran on the plans for new building and that officials will apply for stimulus funds this summer. The overall cost of the project is still being determined, officials said.
But Florio said most members will believe it when they see it. There was talk of getting a new building back when his father was a firefighter. His father retired in 1982.
“I’ve been on the job for 15 years and there’s always been the promise of a new firehouse, so at this point, we’ll believe it when the shovel’s in the ground,” he said.