The Sam M. Zerkowski Fire Station that recently opened on Steele Road east of Slidell boasts a commercial-grade kitchen, a spacious lounge for firefighters and three bays for firetrucks, but what might be the most important feature is hardly noticeable: a sprinkler system and smoke alarms in the ceiling.
The $1.1 million building replaces a station on the same site that was heavily damaged in a fire a little more than two years ago, an irony not lost on fire officials. “If it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone,” said Chad Duffaut, chief of fire prevention for St. Tammany Fire District No. 1.
Building codes were less rigorous when the first station was built in 1980, on land donated by developer Pat Miramon. The lone firefighter who was there when the fire broke out didn’t realize what was happening until he heard a crash in one of the engine bays.
An electrical outlet had shorted, Duffaut said, and with both ends of the bay open, there was plenty of oxygen to feed the flames and no time for the firefighter to act — not even to move the $90,000 firetruck that was parked in the bay and also was lost.
The station, named after the first chairman of the fire district’s commission, had to be demolished. For about three months, the area was without its own station and was covered by another station on Brownswitch Road.
Then the fire district brought in a double-wide trailer to house firefighters and a pole barn garage for the firetrucks. They were placed on land owned by the parish adjacent to the old site and functioned as the fire station until the new one could be built.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday, Fire Chief Chris Kaufman recalled meeting at the scene of the destruction with Parish Councilmen Gene Bellisario and Chris Canulette.
He thanked parish officials for their support in helping the district protect the area during the interim, noting that the new 6,000-square-foot station was built to meet the community’s needs into the future.
While the old station had two engine bays, the new one has three, and the third will eventually house a ladder truck, something that’s required when an area has at least five commercial buildings that are 35 feet tall at the eaves.
Bellisario recalled the day of the fire and his concerns about how to protect the thousands of homes in the area without the station. The rebuilding process itself faced hurdles, he said, including landscaping requirements in the parish’s zoning code. Residents appeared before the St. Tammany Board of Zoning Adjustment to argue that the station was far more critical than the requirements.
The end result, he said, is a new fire station that fits in with the neighborhood and ensures fire protection.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.