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Appalachia fire chief calls for new emergency services building

Mike Still • Feb 18, 2019 at 3:17 PM

APPALACHIA — For Town Council member and Fire Chief Travis Anderson, the trip back in time at the town’s fire department is not a nostalgic one.

The annex to the century-old former Appalachia City Hall lies in what used to be the bed of the Powell River. Anderson says local history and conversations with experts suggest that an underground spring runs under the fire station and may be causing parts of the structure to settle farther into the ground.

The back of the main vehicle bay once was adequate to handle a fire engine based on a Model T Ford chassis. However, today’s fire trucks and ambulances are taller and wider, and that growth is obvious as Anderson twists sideways to show how groundwater sprays through cracks in the bay wall when it rains.

“The bay is 10 feet high,” Anderson said. “Our pumper is 9 feet, 8 inches high.”

Because the truck has to climb up a ramp as it exits the bay door, the rear of the vehicle has been repaired several times after clipping the top of the door frame, he added.

Where the concrete apron outside the vehicle bay isn’t cracking and breaking away, it sags into the ground beneath. Because of the tight quarters in the main fire hall, the department has to store its ladder truck in a nearby garage, and that poses its own set of problems.

“We have to keep our ambulances in the old building because it’s fairly climate-controlled,” Anderson said. “They’re stocked with medicines and need to be above a certain temperature.”

The ladder truck does not have the benefit of a heated garage. Anderson said that means the hydraulic fluid used for the ladder’s lift and traversing system gets thick in the winter months, and that means raising and moving the ladder at an emergency scene becomes a slower process.

Having the department’s vehicles and boats split between different buildings — Appalachia has a federally certified swiftwater rescue team — also slows response times in emergencies, Anderson said.

And having a main building subject to constant groundwater exposure also means problems with dampness and mold in walls and ceilings. Anderson said that keeping turnout gear in the department’s equipment room free of mold is a constant battle requiring dehumidifiers.

The groundwater is not just a problem with the bay entrance.

“One day we were in the building and it shook hard,” Anderson said. “We got outside in a hurry and someone pointed to the railing outside the door.”

Anderson showed the exposed paint on the outside wall where the deck railing dropped more than an inch along the outside wall.

These issues led to Anderson’s appearance at Thursday’s Wise County Board of Supervisors meeting to ask for help with work on grants for a new emergency services building for the town. The concept he presented is based on a station in Weaverville, North Carolina, designed by Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects.

“They designed the Bristol (Tennessee) fire station near the Pinnacle,” Anderson said. “This would be a green fire station with skylights for daytime lighting inside, solar cells and low-power LED lights for nighttime.”

The concept would include a cistern-type system to collect rainwater and filter it to fill the department’s pumper truck, Anderson said. A helipad, town police station, training center for area emergency services, adequate garage space for all of the department’s vehicles and equipment, a substation for the Wise County Sheriff’s Department and an emergency operations center would round out the design.

Anderson said the only available site in town large enough to accommodate such a facility is in the parking lot across from the former Appalachia High School.

“It’s not the ideal location, but it’s the only site large enough that’s not in a flood zone,” Anderson said. “It’s about 400 feet by 250 feet, and that’s large enough for what we’d like to see for the town.”

Anderson told supervisors he would like to see the county help the town seek and apply for grant funds to cover as much of the cost as possible.

“Appalachia covers the largest territory of any town in the county, 83 square miles,” Anderson said. “We run about 50 to 60 percent of our calls out in the county, and our terrain is different from the other towns.”

Even facing difficulties in facilities and coverage area, Appalachia still has a strong insurance rating when it comes to fire protection because of a network of hydrants with good water pressure, Anderson said. Part of that strength comes from having the fire department oversee hydrant installations instead of leaving it to private contractors, he added.

That aspect of fire protection means Appalachia home and business owners enjoy better insurance rates, Anderson said, and that is an advantage for any economic development efforts by the town and county.

“We cannot progress the way we need — not want, need — to progress with what we have now,” Anderson said.

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