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January 14, 2009

Backdrafting

Old Louisville firehouse closes as residents await a judge’s decision

The firefighters manning the Engine 7 station on its last night of operation are sifting through kitchen appliances, personal lockers and food pantries, trying to decide how to dispense the items they’ve accumulated over the years.

“I know Jack would want some oatmeal,” fire Sgt. David Richard says, emptying the wooden cabinets that store massive rations of popcorn, mustard, pickles and iced tea. A pair of firefighters moves a vintage soda machine out the front door. As they load it onto the truck, they wonder aloud where it will land: Maybe one of them should buy it, or perhaps it should go to another firehouse.

Over the years, firefighters have contributed almost every component of this dorm-life aesthetic.

In December, Mayor Jerry Abramson announced that Engine 7 would be closed to help save the city more than $500,000. The closure was part of a series of cuts made by Abramson to counteract a projected $20 million revenue shortfall.

The announcement of the closure sparked outrage from firefighters and residents, who say it will weaken fire protection in the area. Abramson said an outside consultant determined that response times would not be adversely affected by the closure; as well, the city deployed its own study almost three years ago, achieving the same result.

The 138-year-old firehouse will close in a little less than 12 hours, but the four men on duty — Capt. Scott Hogan, Sgt. Richard, firefighters Will Smith and Jacob Souza — remain steely and prepared, at a moment’s notice, to make a fire or medical run. It’s their last night together. The 12 firefighters who work at Engine 7 will be redeployed to fill vacancies across the city.

“You going to what station?” Richard asks Smith, lifting a box full of food. The bottom nearly falls out as Smith answers. “That’s station 9, right?”

Helping Smith and Souza, firefighter Jon Lucas hoists a full-sized refrigerator into the back of a fire department van. He grips the sharp bottom edges and maneuvers it tightly. The outspoken union member, who has worked at Engine 7 nearly half of his career, is off-duty tonight; he says he came to help the last shift move out.

“Honestly, a firehouse is a family in the purest sense of the word,” Lucas says. “Closing the house, it splits us up, and you hate that because you do build such close relationships. It feels like my family’s getting evicted.”

No emergency calls came tonight; the only flickering lights were from the candlelight vigil that members of the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council held in front of the firehouse. Since learning about the station’s closure, members and other residents served by the downtown company have tried to resist the mayor’s decision, from neighborhood meetings and letters to the editor to, finally, legal action.

Last week, members of the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council and the Camp Zachary Taylor Historical Society filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that the firehouse should not be closed because it provides critical public safety services to several vulnerable neighborhoods.

The station responds to about 2,000 fire and medical calls a year, but the mayor’s office maintains there is no greater risk to public safety now that Engine 7 is closed.

Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Abramson, says three years of run data show that calls to Engine 7 can be absorbed by surrounding fire stations.

“The major improvement will be reassigning those firefighters to other vacancies within the city limits, and we will free up $500,000 in very expensive unscheduled overtime for our firefighters,” she says.

On Monday, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge McKay Chauvin briefly heard a motion for an injunction filed by the neighborhood groups. He scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday. Engine 7 will remain closed at least until the hearing next week.

“If Engine 7 closes, the health and public safety of the residents and businesses will be lost, which is primary,” says Greg Moore, president of the West St. Catherine Neighborhood Association. “The public has to stay camped at City Hall until this is resolved. We’re going to give them hell.”

When Engine 7 officially closed Sunday morning at 8 a.m., a few demonstrators considered blocking the doors. They balked at the last moment.

Firefighter Lucas has been transferred to the new, state-of-the-art Engine 6 firehouse in the Portland neighborhood, which cost Metro government nearly $1.9 million of the current capital projects budget.

Unlike the historic firehouse at Sixth and York streets, which opened in 1871, when the latest firefighting technology was horse-driven wagons, Lucas’s new station is an energy-efficient building with a geothermal heating system and motion-activated kitchen lights.

Beyond the technology, and underneath the professionalism and training, a sentimental side emerges. It’ll be a tough transition leaving a station that still has gas lantern outlets and so much historical character — and leaving the men who’ve become his brothers.

“Moving out of this firehouse and to another neighborhood is just like once you move to another neighborhood in the city,” he says. “You have to make new relationships I guess. You kind of become a different person.”

After the hearing Monday, Lucas told LEO Weekly that even without the downtown company, other surrounding stations would do their best to serve the neighborhoods as fast as they can on every run.

“I never intended to tell anybody that the city would burn down,” he says. “When a run comes out, somebody will respond. The question is will the service be as good as when Engine 7 was there.”