PITTSBURGH - Though some have long predicted its demise along with horse-drawn fire trucks and male-only crews, the tradition-laden fire pole that has provided quick exits for firefighters for over 120 years is still being added to fire houses.
Fewer stations today have the shiny brass or steel poles for exit than they did 40 years ago. But there has been renewed interest in them thanks to technological improvements and rising land values that have forced fire companies to build up and not out.
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"It wasn't something where we had to discuss whether to put a pole in," said Steve Darcangelo, fire chief in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon where they recently installed a second pole in the 2-year-old station. "It was a natural with a multistory facility."
Because of property values in the posh suburb, where the average home sells for more than double the state average, finding more than 1 1/4 acres to squeeze the 47,000-square-foot building onto was financially impossible, he said.
But history is also a powerful part of the rationale. Chiefs who were trained in stations where there was always a pole to slide down — as Darcangelo was — continue to insist that they be included in remodelings or new fire houses, convinced of their safety and efficiency.
"If you have a pole, you generally keep it," even in a new station, said Kelley Needham, a California architect whose firm has designed nearly 100 fire stations.
Some fire officials have turned away from history, however. Many cities that used to have poles in every station — from New York, to Pittsburgh and Chicago — have started to get rid of them, citing injury concerns.
Yet where two-story stations have to be built, many say speed is one reason to put them in. In Mount Lebanon, for example, Darcangelo said poles save 25 seconds in response time.
"We looked at different ways of getting our firefighters downstairs faster, and nothing was as fast as a pole," said Pete Benesch, a battalion chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department, which is in the midst of building 17 new, two-story stations, which all use slide poles.
In a line of work where tradition can override reason — some departments build stations with towers where old canvas hoses would have dried in the past, even though new plastic hoses come with automatic driers — a few fire houses have even added poles they really don't need.
"The tradition of a fire pole is strong," said Arthur Anthony Jr., owner of McIntire Brass Works Inc. in Somerville, Mass., the last major manufacturer of the traditional brass fire pole. "We've even sold them to one-story stations, so they can put them in a corner with a hole in the ceiling."
The tradition stretches back to 1878 in Chicago, where the first "slide" pole was made out of hickory, before Boston made brass the norm.
A fire captain noticed his men using a pole to get down quickly from the third-story hay loft to the second-story sleeping quarters. Then they would use the stairs to get to the bay where the horses and fire wagon were kept.
There are no surveys that count how many stations still use fire poles. But fire officials say while there are fewer poles in use now than 40 years ago, there has been a resurgence in recent years.
McIntire Brass, which has been making brass fire poles in its foundry for 69 years, has doubled orders just in the last four years, from about 20 or 30 a year, to about 50 now, extending the wait time from two months to five months.
Anthony believes that's a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "A lot of money went into the fire service after that," he said.
Some fire service officials believe it is modern technology that is preventing the extinction of the old exit route.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many departments got rid of their poles and closed their openings because exhaust from trucks would waft up into firefighters' living quarters. But in the 1990s, fire departments routinely began to install automatic exhaust-control systems in their stations that latch onto a truck's exhaust pipes, sending the fumes out of a garage instead.
Even without the concern about fumes, though, some departments still worried about injuries from dropping over 20 feet down a pole.
Carl Peterson, assistant director of the Public Fire Protection Division of the National Fire Protection Association, said newer poles are a lot safer.
Modern poles typically have either closets enclosing them, or metal baskets, to prevent anyone from accidentally falling through, and shock-absorbing pads at their base.
"Unless there's clear evidence it's prone to accidents, (poles) won't go away," said Wayne Hughes, a Virginia architect who designed Mount Lebanon's station. "They're here to stay."
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