After Station Closure, Dallas Fire-Rescue Hunts for More Asbestos in Aging Buildings

After Station Closure, Dallas Fire-Rescue Hunts for More Asbestos in Aging Buildings
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What happened to Dallas Fire Station 57? Dallas Fire-Rescue announced its closure in early April after an inspection by the city revealed asbestos in the floor tiles. City officials claimed that it was a precautionary measure until further testing could be conducted and that a number of stations have been tested for asbestos issues.

"The safety of our employees is the number one priority of the city of Dallas," Dallas spokesman Richard Hill told the Observer. "Building materials, including floor tiles constructed before asbestos regulations, do not automatically pose a health risk, if the materials are deemed to be in good condition and non-friable."

Hill did not indicate why the city initiated the asbestos inspection in the first place, but he did say that the city's Office of Environmental Quality sent an inspector to Fire Station 57 on April 6 and then hired an environmental firm to conduct a comprehensive asbestos assessment on April 10.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that asbestos can be still found in many older buildings because it was a common material to use because of its fiber strength and fire resistance. It was often used as insulation until the 1980s and could be found in firefighters' older protective gear like their helmets and long coats.

Asbestos is a particularly nasty substance if it becomes airborne and inhaled over a long period of time. It causes illnesses such as asbestosis and mesothelioma and other lung cancers. Asbestos manufacturers eventually set aside $30 billion in a trust to pay individuals diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, according to the National Mesothelioma Claims website.

A source who wished to remain anonymous because her family member works for Dallas Fire-Rescue initially contacted the Observer, complaining that firefighters were living in unhealthy conditions. She claimed Fire Station 57 was shut down because the inspection found not only asbestos but also excessive mold, rat infestation and extreme foundation damage. She also said Fire Station 56 was facing similar issues.

"Do you know why firefighters are living in unhealthy conditions, working with outdated, broken equipment?" she asked. "Because the mayor would rather put the money towards parks and bridges (instead of spending it on fire station upkeep). This man wants to take no accountability for anything that goes wrong.”

The city spokesperson indicated in his response that fire station renovations or replacements have always been challenging in relation to the annual budget. In 2016, the city did replace Fire Station 6, built in 1954, and Fire Station 44, built in 1959. In 2015, the city replaced Fire Station 27, built in 1948, and, in 2014, replaced Fire Station 32, built in 1951.

Jim McDade, the president of Dallas Fire Association, said the lack of station maintenance isn't a new issue. He pointed out that many stations are 50 to 70 years old. “This is just another thing in a long line of why the morale is so low,” he said.

McDade said that Mayor Michael Rawlings’ “vendetta against firefighters” in regards to the pension issue isn’t helping matters, either. Nor is the low pay, lack of resources and personnel, which he says has caused Dallas Fire-Rescue to be more of a training ground, since many new firefighters are leaving for higher-paying positions at fire departments in the suburbs.

Scott Goldstein, the mayor's chief of policy and communications, said the mayor declined to comment. "Jim knows that he can call or visit the mayor in person any time to discuss any issues of concern," he wrote in an April 17 email. "We won't engage in a back and forth with him through the media."

But Dallas city spokesperson Richard Hill did agree that staffing has become an issue. "Although it has historically been rare to lose people immediately after training, we are seeing an increase in the number of people who leave the department after they have completed paramedic training," he said.

Hill said the 30 Dallas Fire-Rescue personnel were allowed to return to Fire Station 57 on Saturday after the city's Office of Environmental Quality and Office of Risk Management determined that the asbestos-containing material did not present a risk. "This determination was made after consideration of our consultant's initial asbestos survey results which identified only non-friable (non-hazardous) asbestos-containing materials in good condition," he said.

Asbestos in good condition and undisturbed is not likely to present a health risk, according to the EPA .

Hill said the city is conducting comprehensive testing on Fire Station 56 and expect to complete it in a few weeks.

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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.