Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

Old San Antonio fire station begins its last days

SAN ANTONIO — Town Square has been home to a fire station since the mid 1930s.

People love to drop by for a visit. They bring plates of cookies during the holidays, leftovers after a big dinner. "That's just what firemen need," jokes longtime firefighter Greg Gude. "More food."

Some people need directions or their blood pressure checked. Kids want their picture with a fire truck, especially during the Rattlesnake Festival each fall.

"It's a unique place right now," Gude said. "It still has the presence of an old town, hometown fire department."

That's about to change. Nostalgia aside, firefighters say this is a good thing.

Soon they will give up their cramped quarters for a sparkling new 7,200-square-foot firehouse. Unlike the old 3,576-square-foot facility, it will have room for an ambulance.

Next year's county budget likely won't include extra medical personnel, but when the money does come through, residents around San Ann won't have to wait those precious extra minutes for an ambulance to arrive from Dade City or Blanton.

The station isn't moving far, only about a block away at the southwest corner of Curley Road and Pennsylvania Avenue — but away from the historic square.

Mayor Roy Pierce acknowledges the nostalgia but is upbeat: "We are excited about the new facility and that they are going to stay in the city."

Others are wistful. They love the charm of the town, having City Hall, the post office, the community bulletin board and City Park all within spitting distance.

Barbara Sessa, San Antonio's city clerk for 21 years, said she occasionally walks next door to the fire station with a few ice cream cones. She's not sure if she'll make the walk to the new station.

"I'm not saying people won't bring them goodies to the new place," she said. "But it won't be passerby traffic."

The first permanent home for San Antonio's fire department was the Depression-era stone City Hall. The exact construction date is unclear, but meeting minutes show the City Commission reviewing plans for the building in January 1934. Look closely at the building today and you'll see the board room is slightly higher than the rest of the building. That was the bay for the fire truck.

The volunteer fire department moved next door in 1976, during the 38-year tenure of volunteer fire Chief Frank Hill Jr. His son, Frank Hill III, remembers riding in a 1914 American LaFrance fire truck with his sister. They got to ring the bell. His mom was the dispatcher, and she relished the day the department bought CB radios so firefighters would never lose contact while on a call.

Long before 911 systems, emergency fire calls went to the Hill home and also to the post office, where Hill was postmaster until 1982. A chalkboard at the station showed the address of a fire for any volunteers who arrived late.

Gude, now a battalion chief with Pasco Fire Rescue, was one of about 40 volunteers when he joined as a teenager in the mid '70s.

"A lot of the locals worked right there in and around town," he said. "I worked construction, and my uncle would let us off for fires."

Over time, Gude said, medical calls became more frequent and older volunteers couldn't keep up. Younger members replaced them, but he said, "the problem with the younger generation is, they worked out of town."

After Hill retired, Mike Morgan took over as chief. He later moved on to positions with Pasco Fire Rescue and the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District. He had rejoined a volunteer organization for several east Pasco communities before recently taking over as Wakulla County fire chief.

"The volunteer numbers were getting very low," he said, referring to the years before the county took over San Antonio's fire service in 2001. "My biggest concern was, what happens when the call goes out and there's nobody available?"

The station was never intended to house career service firefighters. Some actually sleep in a room that was Morgan's office.

"Those people that are serving, they still spend a third of their lives in that facility," he said. "Every third day they're there for 24 hours. They don't need a Taj Mahal, but the quarters have to be livable."

County Commissioner Ted Schrader, who calls San Antonio his home town, said "we currently don't have the money" to add an ambulance and related staffers at the station. But he promised to push for that funding in future years. Right now, a paramedic is on a fire engine during each call. That person can provide medical care, but the department must send an ambulance from a nearby station to take an injured person to the hospital.

• • •

Mayor Pierce said he's not sure what will happen to the city-owned fire station building, but he wants "to see it stay exactly like it is." If the city continues to use it, he said, it likely would retain its historic feel. City commissioners might also rent the building to a business, such as a restaurant that incorporates a firehouse theme.

Morgan mentioned a retired firefighter who would like to dedicate a wall in the new station to the history of San Antonio's fire department.

That leaves the big question. What happens to the old-town presence in San Ann's town square?

"When the fire station moves even a block away, you may lose some of that — but you may not," Pierce said. "It's really an unknown."

Said Hill: "I think it will slightly suffer. Right now they're in the main part of the hub there. They get to see everyone and everyone sees them. But the people who enjoy the firefighters, they'll still stop by and say hi."

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

   
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