This morning the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. is withdrawing its firefighters from UCSB because it is concerned for their health.
The department is moving the three-firefighter crew to a station on Storke Road. The move will add an extra minute and a half to the crew’s response to on-campus emergencies. After complaints from firefighters, the university conducted tests and found that the campus fire station’s heating and ventilation system is contaminated.
Until the ventilation system is replaced and the firefighters return to Station 17, the fire department also plans to handle campus emergencies with a second fire engine from a station on Calle Real, near Patterson Avenue.
“Although no chronic health hazard has been identified, my position is to err on the side of caution when it comes to personal safety,” Chief John Scherrei wrote in a department memo Thursday.
The fire department plans to continue staffing Station 17 for non-emergency work during business hours and is only withdrawing its firefighters, Scherrei wrote. Firefighters work 24-hour shifts and suffer greater exposure to any contaminants.
In November, firefighters complained of eye and throat pain, said Bruce Hanley, biosafety officer with the university’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Dept. The department investigated the complaints and tracked the problem to the building’s ventilation system.
“As soon as we got our first calls from building occupants, we were there the next day,” Hanley said, “and then we shut it down within the next couple of days as that system emerged as the most likely suspect for people’s health symptoms.”
The ventilation system is contaminated with dirt, minerals and water, Hanley said. The building is 35 years old and the ventilation system is beneath its floor. Groundwater occasionally seeps into the ducts.
“It subsides and dries out because there’s a high volume of air from the air handlers. It’s happened time after time and what we ended up with was this film of material inside the air ducts, and there’s actually a high water level in them,” Hanley said. “Our strong assumption is that these are finely divided mineral particles – they’re dust-sized particles. The microscopic result analysis came back and sort of confirmed that for us. They’re small, angular particles that we feel people have inhaled.”
The sharp angles of the particles caused them to irritate firefighter’s mucus membranes, Hanley said. So far, EHS has not found any mold or asbestos contamination. Hanley said Dr. Elliot Schulman of the county Public Health Dept. confirmed EHS’s findings. Schulman could not be reached for comment.
EHS is planning to conduct further tests and will have the results by the end of next week, Hanley said.
No other personnel will be transferred out of the station, which also houses the University of California Police Dept. and an ambulance, said Paul Desruisseaux, associate vice chancellor for public affairs.
In April, an office worker made the first complaint about the air in Station 17, Hanley said. EHS installed a filter on the vent in the worker’s office and that seemed to solve the problem until November.
The contamination had not been a problem for years, Associate Vice Chancellor of Administrative and Auxiliary Services Everett Kirkelie said, but resurfaced after the university replaced the building’s heaters.
“When they replaced the furnaces a while back and increased the velocity of the air going through there it dislodged some of these salts and whatever that were left in the air ducts,” Kirkelie said.
Kirkelie said he did not know when the firefighters would return to Station 17 because it will take some time for the university to replace the central heating system. Kirkelie said the university has begun designs for a new central heating system.
“I can tell you one thing for sure, and that’s that we have a heating and ventilation problem in that building and we want to fix it,” Kirkelie said.
Fire department spokesman Charlie Johnson said the problem is an unfortunate inconvenience.
“It’s kind of like if you have termites,” Johnson said, “and you need to tent the place.”