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Old City firehouse, damaged by fire, will take year to reopen

Union officials say the firehouse at 4th and Arch should be reopened sooner and creates a safety hazard when out of commission.

MORE THAN two months have passed since an ambulance's electrical wiring shorted, sparking a blaze that destroyed the vehicle and ravaged a firehouse at 4th and Arch streets in Old City.

But plywood still blocks the windows and garage doors of the Ben Franklin Firehouse, and the firefighters and paramedics who worked there remain reassigned to other stations.

That irks the firefighters' union, whose leaders complain that the shuttered firehouse leaves the city's historic district vulnerable because the next-closest stations are blocks away, increasing emergency response time.

"You're talking about the most historic real estate in the country. [Sites like the U.S. Mint, Independence Hall and Liberty Bell] would be the primary targets in the event of a terrorist attack, so having a firehouse closed in that area is significant," said Joe Schulle, president of the firefighters' union Local 22.

But Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers insisted firefighters still respond to calls in the area within national standards - four minutes for fire engines and eight minutes for medic units - in 90 percent of calls. Schulle isn't so sure, so he's directed union leaders to study response times around the burned station since the Sept. 27 blaze, he said.

Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said repairing the firehouse - known as the Ben Franklin Firehouse because the Founding Father's bust hangs on the station's brick facade - is a "high priority."

Still, the soonest it could reopen is next winter.

That's because design work for repairs won't be done until April 1, McDonald said. Ayers said construction likely will take six months.

The city already spent $24,000 to "clean and button up the site"; the design contract cost $70,000; and construction is expected to cost $650,000, McDonald said. The firehouse, across from the Arch Street Meetinghouse and the U.S. Mint and two blocks from Independence Hall, houses Ladder 2, Medic Unit 44 and Air Unit 2.

History shows such expense and delay isn't unusual for a fire-ravaged firehouse.

After fire nearly gutted the West Oak Lane firehouse that was home to Engine 73 and Medic Unit 33 in January 2007, it took 13 months to rebuild and reopen that station, Ayers said.

But Schulle said workers began fixing Engine 73's firehouse within two weeks, while repairs won't begin at the Ben Franklin Firehouse until at least April - six months after the fire. That suggests restoring Old City's fire station is not a top city priority, Schulle said.

But that building had significant structural damage.

The Ben Franklin Firehouse, Schulle said, suffered just "cosmetic" damage. Ayers disputes that, saying it sustained extensive interior damage.

"It's tragic," Schulle said. "For the community in Old City to be without a firehouse for over a year for relative minor damage is dangerous."

The next-closest firehouses to Old City are at 10th and Cherry streets and at 6th and South streets.