HOLT, Fla., Aug. 27, 2019—The Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners approved a funding priority request for a new fire station for Holt during its Aug. 20 meeting.
Approved is an $813,000 legislative allocation for the construction of a new fire station.
While there’s no guarantee it will be approved, the request will be sent to the Florida state legislative delegation for support in Tallahassee during the upcoming session in mid September.
“The Holt Volunteer Fire Department works with a very limited budget providing fire and first-responder services to a large but sparsely populated area of our county,” wrote County Commissioner Nathan Boyles in his recent email newsletter.
“The department operates out of a dilapidated facility on Highway 90 that would be unfit for sheltering during an emergency such as a hurricane,” he continued.
In addition to the rural Holt area, the fire district is also responsible for 9-plus miles of Interstate 10, 9-plus miles of the CSX railroad and 9-plus miles of U.S. 90.
“Because their service area includes the Holt interstate exit, Holt VFD members are often the first responders to emergency calls on Interstate 10 and log an average of 360 calls a year with no full-time staff,” Boyles wrote.
Holt Fire responded to 411 calls in 2018.
Holt’s current fire station shares headquarters space with the community center building once owned by the Ruritans in the mid-1970s.
Originally built as a meeting center for the service club, it donated the building to be used as a community center when it disbanded.
Truck bays for the fire engines were built as add-on space in later years. As a result, the overall complex is a hodgepodge of mismatched structures.
Nestled in between the community center and the truck bays and attached to the cinderblock building is the Holt Water Works Inc. business office.
Because creating a water utility was one of the Ruritan’s biggest projects in the 1960s, the club stipulated that Holt Water could remain there for as long as it needed.
And, if someone wants to use the community center as it was intended, the fire station has to vacate while the center is in use, leaving sensitive fire equipment such as radios and computers behind.
Needless to say, the structure on the property has seen better days.
Because of the age of the building, nothing meets current building codes, said Fire Chief Scott Chesnut.
“The building code has changed tremendously since the [1970s],” he said. “Nothing meets the minimum standards. The electricity isn’t up to code in the truck bays.”
“We’ve been keeping this place together with duct tape and good intentions,” said Holt Fire Commissioner Angie Holland.
Holt Volunteer Fire District has been looking for ways to fund either repairs or a new building.
Initially, and probably most urgently, it was looking for a way to fix the roof across three separate sets of rafters covering the original community center, Holt Water and the truck bays.
But no contractor wanted to touch the structure.
“A contractor said he wouldn’t even take the job, but for $15,000, he would demolish the building and haul it off,” said Fire Commissioner Jim Connors. “That’s the only bid he gave us.”
Besides not being up to code, there are other issues with the building: mold, mildew, lack of ventilation in the truck bays and a huge rodent problem.
Mold and mildew
There are signs of water intrusion everywhere in the truck bays. The ceiling is covered in water stains and panels of ceiling board have fallen in places.
Water getting into the attic is causing the eaves and rafters to rot near the truck bay roll-up doors, causing them to come off the tracks.
As a result, mold and mildew grows everywhere.
“Mold and mildew is on our uniforms and personal equipment,” Chestnut said.
When responding to a call, firefighters have to wipe mildew out of their oxygen masks before donning the protective equipment.
Moisture mixed with no ventilation in the bays is causing truck headliners to detach in the cabs and a thin coating of mildew in the interior.
“We’re in a position to get grants to replace our trucks, but it would be the same problems with mold, mildew and rats,” said Chestnut. “There’s no use going after those types of grants if we can’t protect the equipment.”
“There’s no place to store the trucks like they need to be,” he said.
A rodent problem is probably the biggest challenge facing Holt Fire.
“Exterminators won’t bid on getting rid of the rats because we can’t keep them out of the building,” said Conners.
Rats get into the truck bays through the rotting roof eaves. And because the bay doors don’t close all the way, leaving gaps at the top and bottom, it allows rats access.
“Because the doors won’t close all the way and the building isn’t sealed, rats get into the trucks,” said Chestnut. “We pulled a truck out the other day and two rats dropped out.”
Rats get into personal protective equipment, so the Fire District purchased lockers to keep them out.
“They’ll eat anything cloth,” Chestnut said. “They’ve eaten the wires on all the trucks.”
Rats chewed through the wiring harness of Engine 32 in mid 2018 causing $11,000 worth of damage, putting the truck out of commission while it was in Mobile, Ala., for repairs.
They tried standard rat traps but that didn’t work.
And if they poison the rats, they have to deal with the smell of dead rats in the ceilings. And the blood.
It’s not uncommon to see a thin red line of blood beginning at the ceiling tile dripping down the wall inside the station.
The latest, and somewhat productive method, is using industrial strength sticky traps—a sticky, gooey glob on a plywood slab baited with peanut butter and placed under the trucks.
Once a rat is stuck to the board, someone has to kill it and then put on gloves to pull it off the trap.
“These rats are bigger than squirrels,” Chestnut said. “It’s a tough bet whether water or rats will damage the truck wires.”
To keep the rats out means replacing the roof—new trusses, new ceiling, new eaves—everything. But that leads right back to no contractor wanting to take on the gargantuan job.
“We’ve done all we can do. There’s nothing else we can do. Nobody has any good ideas,” said Connors. “At some point, this building is going to fall.”
The next Florida state legislative session is from Sept. 16-20. There’s no guarantee funding for a new fire station will be approved during this sesson.