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Work From Home

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Oviedo’s new fire station is a cutting-edge facility where local first responders will live, work, and prepare to keep the community safe

Oviedo’s new fire station is a cutting-edge facility where local first responders will live, work, and prepare to keep the community safe

It’s a project some 10 years in the making. Now, after a sometimes excruciating construction, Oviedo’s latest and greatest fire station opens for business this May.

And thanks to its strategic spot on State Road 434, adjacent to Boston Hill Park, firefighters and paramedics will be able to deploy in any direction quicker than ever.

“It’s a great location,” says Lars White, Oviedo’s fire chief. It also brings 65 years of firefighting history in Oviedo full circle.

The new firehouse, called Station 1, will consolidate the personnel and equipment of two older stations. One is the city’s very first fire station, which opened in downtown Oviedo as a volunteer unit in 1950. That station more than served its duty, but it recently gave way to the city’s dramatic growth and upcoming massive road expansion.

Station 1 will also replace an existing firehouse adjacent to Oviedo City Hall on Alexandria Boulevard. That station was nestled in so tightly behind the municipal complex that it sometimes took too many precious seconds to get the fire trucks and ambulances off the property and on their way to a call. The Alexandria station will eventually be repurposed by the City. By contrast, Station 1’s wide-open location on one of Oviedo’s main arteries means firefighters can zip off to a quick start when a call for help comes in.

“We can travel north, south, east, and west very conveniently. In just about every scenario we ran, we decreased response time,” says Chief White.

Construction on the 14,000-square-foot station began in December 2014. But it was not smooth sailing, given that the station was built on the site of a decommissioned water plant. Builders also wanted to keep the project isolated from citizens enjoying the popular park next door, so work was virtually halted on weekends.

“Things are always a little more difficult than expected when you move,” says the chief, who has spent 33 years with the fire department.

Fire stations aren’t just public safety facilities, they are also homes away from home for firefighters and rescue personnel who work 24-hour shifts. The crew of Station 1 will do all its work, training, exercising, and cooking on the first floor, which features a cozy living room and a large, modern kitchen. Upstairs is a 13-bedroom dormitory, much like you’d find on a college campus. A battalion chief and a crew of nine others will serve rotating shifts at the station, 24 hours on, 48 off.

The roots of Oviedo’s modern-day fire department lay in a devastating fertilizer plant fire in 1946, when all of about 1,100 people populated the city. That fire prompted the formation of an official volunteer fire department in Oviedo, which stored its first water pumper in a downtown barn.

It wasn’t until 1981 that the city hired its first full-time firefighter. By 1983, the department expanded to a crew of three, including a young Lars White.

In some ways, the job has not fundamentally changed over the last half-century. At Station 1, firefighters still slide down a pole, still jump in a truck, and still “put the wet stuff on the hot stuff,” as firefighters say. But Station 1 does boast advanced new technology, most of it designed to protect the health of first responders. The garage features a diesel exhaust-extraction system for the fire and rescue trucks, in which large hoses are constantly connected to the exhaust pipes of every truck, whether the engine is running or not. When a call comes in, the hoses don’t even have to be manually disconnected. As each truck speeds out of the garage, the hose assembly slides along rails hanging from the roof until it hits a special stopper that automatically kicks the hose off the truck before it reaches the door.

There’s also a special laundry room with its own ventilation system for clothes and other gear that has been exposed to biohazards. With so many synthetic materials used in the construction of modern houses and buildings, the toxic byproducts of a fire are sometimes more dangerous to firefighters than the flames themselves.

Despite the many dangers, a special breed of men and women are drawn to the firefighting/EMS profession. It’s a job and lifestyle unlike any other, where the lines between work life and home life are blurred during day-long shifts.

“You learn quickly if you’re cut out for it,” Chief White says.

It didn’t take Oviedo firefighter Lawton Thompson long to learn. As a 14-year-old Boy Scout, he attended a CPR class at a fire station and was immediately hooked.

“I really enjoy helping people it’s ingrained in me,” Lawton says.

The 24-hour schedule has its challenges, given that firefighters never know when a call will interrupt them, including late at night. Lawton says his fitful sleep at Station 48 is of an entirely different quality than what he experiences at home. Another challenge is the mingling of vastly different personalities for 24 hours at a time in such a confined living/working space. But the cooking and sharing of meals goes a long way toward building bonds, Lawton says.

Indeed, a recent Cornell University study of more than 50 American fire stations found that firefighters who dined together did significantly better on the job than those who dined alone.

Still, there has been a concerted effort over the years to improve privacy at modern fire stations. A traditional firehouse dormitory was once a large room of beds against the wall. Then came partitions to offer at least a semblance of privacy. But at Station 1, each firefighter will enjoy his or her own private bedroom, and the crew will share four bathrooms.

For those reasons and more, many firefighters like Lawton have their eyes on the new Station 1, with hopes their assigned duty station might one day be at Oviedo’s newest, most comfortable, and most capable firehouse.

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