Richfield firefighters Brad Bennett, left, and Dawn Nilsen demonstrated the fire poles at the city’s new fire station, which speed up reaction time.

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Fire poles are sliding back into popularity

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • October 8, 2011 - 8:59 PM

Fire poles haven't gone the way of Dalmatians and horse-drawn fire rigs yet.

Though many cities have eliminated the poles, they're making a comeback at Richfield's new fire station and in other places. Many cities no longer have room to build sprawling single-story fire stations that don't need poles.

And in multilevel stations, firefighters say, more than 130 years of tradition proves that the fastest -- and in some cases, the safest -- way to the first floor is to grab a pole, wrap legs around it and slide down.

"When the tones go off and the red light shines in the dorm, firefighters need to be out of the door in one minute," said Wayne Kewitsch, fire chief in Richfield, where two shiny brass poles thread the stairwell to the station's second-floor dormitory. "They need to wake up, get out and get their gear on. ... With the poles, it's 'boom' and you're down."

Richfield's new fire station replaces one that didn't have poles, and newer stations in Minneapolis and St. Paul also have fire poles. Six of Minneapolis' 19 stations have poles.

"It's a revival business," said Arthur Anthony, owner of the nation's only remaining major maker of the poles, McIntire Brass Works of Somerville, Mass. "They went out of favor for a while because, west of the Mississippi, they built all one-story stations. ... Now, roughly 75 percent of our business is west of the Mississippi."

Sometimes the riskiest steps for firefighters can be from a warm dormitory bed to a waiting fire rig. Seattle reportedly banned poles in new fire stations after a 2003 accident in which a firefighter fell 18 feet through the hole around a pole in the night, suffering multiple injuries. The city settlement was almost $13 million.

"I've had my feet come out from under me because I haven't been fully awake coming down the pole and I've ended up on my bottom," said Minneapolis Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn. "We have had some injuries, primarily with the ankles." But, she said, "You wake up a little quicker knowing you have to take the pole instead of walking out to the rig."

Richfield firefighters are delighted with the poles in their new station, which is part of the new City Hall-police station complex on Portland Avenue and 67th Street. "There's a lot of ... pride in being a station with a pole," Kewitsch said.

But it is practicality that is keeping the fire pole alive. Richfield's building site was too tight for a single-story firehouse. The city talked with its insurer and decided to go with poles because the station stairs have their own dangers, with two turns to get to the first floor.

Kewitsch believes drowsy firefighters could sprain an ankle or twist a knee running down those stairs, and says if one firefighter fell, others might, too. And the pole is demonstrably faster. When firefighter Dawn Nilsen ran down the stairs as her colleague Brad Bennett slid down the pole, Nilsen hadn't even reached the first of two stair landings when Bennett hit the first floor.

That speed makes a difference when fire doubles in size every minute, Kewitsch said.

Richfield firefighters work 24-hour shifts. The poles are just outside the doors of firefighters' individual sleeping rooms on the second floor, surrounded by a fence with heavy metal gates. The proper technique is to grab the pole, lightly wrap arms around it and control the descent speed with the legs. The feet land on thick foam pads.

Richfield bought its 30-foot poles from McIntire at a cost of $6,700 each, installed. The firm sells brass and stainless steel poles, a big improvement from the waxed hickory poles first used in Chicago in the 1870s.

There's a four- to five-month wait for McIntire's poles, which are selling in places like Qatar, Thailand, Ireland and Micronesia, he said. While the demand is great for business, the poles last forever. If another company entered the field, he said, "we'd both be starving."

He is confident that if firefighters train properly, the poles are safe. Stations no longer coil firehoses as makeshift cushions under the poles, Anthony said, and the horseplay that was common isn't acceptable now. Greasing the poles to fool the rookies probably would result in a firing now.

"Zap! [The rookie would] be on the ground," Anthony said. "People were blaming poles for injuries, but they don't get hurt on the pole. They get hurt landing."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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