HYANNIS, MA Several months ago, Vicki Yefko found herself unable to move properly.
“I woke up one morning and wasn’t sure what was going on,” said Yefko, a firefighter/emergency medical technician with the Hyannis Fire Department.
After being taken to the emergency room, and then an ear, nose and throat doctor, Yefko was diagnosed with vertigo as the result of ongoing sinus infections and migraines.
Yefko believes her illness is related to deteriorating building conditions at the station on High School Road in Hyannis, and she isn’t alone. She is one of four staff members who have been stricken with vertigo in recent months, and only just returned to work this week after a two-month recovery period.
While no diagnostic connection has been made between building conditions and the illnesses, many who work in the station believe that poor ventilation, moisture problems from leaks and mold are to blame.
Hyannis Fire Chief Harold Brunelle said that three of the employees who are ill use the same bunk during their shifts, and the other bed is also in close proximity.
“It just seemed very peculiar to me,” he said of the collective illnesses. “I believe there’s something to it.”
The illnesses, the deteriorating station house and how best to move forward to address necessary repairs and renovations were all topics of discussion Monday at a meeting between the executive board of the firefighter’s union, the IAFF Local 2172, and the Board of Fire Commissioners.
Union President Mike Dalmau said the main purpose of the meeting was to allow union members’ voices to be heard regarding the effects of a new station having been voted down three times, and the urgent need for repairs to the existing station.
Built in 1965, with some renovations in the 1980s, the station’s problems are many, but Dalmau and emergency medical services supervisor Mike Medeiros agree that the top priority is the health and safety of those working in the station.
“Living quarters would be No. 1,” Dalmau said. “The project manager, Paul Griffin, recommends we shouldn’t even be in the bunkroom right now.”
The living quarters at the station are cramped. Men and women share the space, and privacy is provided primarily by rows of lockers between beds. Water from a leaking skylight drips onto the beds and rugs, and down the walls of the living quarters, as well as into the main radio room, which houses the technology that is the district’s 911 call center.
Brunelle said that if anything happens to the electronics in the radio room, the call center could be compromised.
“These issues have to be addressed,” Brunelle said.
The question is how.
With voters rejecting the proposed new station three times, the focus now is on rehabbing the current station, but even much-needed repairs have some residents balking.
Hyannis resident Deb Krau attributed the problems to poor upkeep.
“Blame it on the fact that you haven’t taken care of the building for your firefighters,” Krau said. “People want you to have a building, but they want you to be realistic in what you’re asking.”
Linda Rowell, also of Hyannis, argued that the fixes needed at the station weren’t as significant as stated.
“The water leaking could be because of bad flashing,” she said. “Why go into a big hoopla when it could be a simple fix? There needs to be some logical thinking here.”
A tour of the building following the meeting revealed asbestos tile that was chipped, cracked and in some spots detaching from the floor; water marks on walls, carpets and ceilings; and the odors of diesel fuel and mold were pervasive throughout the station.
“I understand the money,” said Yefko. “But the public was also told the choice was either a new building or put repairs into an old building. They chose to put repairs into an old building.”
Medeiros also added that when a new building was a possibility, repairs were put off to save money, rather than spend money to repair the current building and then build a new station.
“We didn’t want to spend money if we didn’t have to,” he said. “The illnesses are bringing this to a head. These problems have to be addressed.”
Of concern for both union members and the commission is that the longer the repairs are put off, the more expensive they become. Convincing the public of the need for the repairs has become an ongoing challenge, they said.
“People are comparing us to 19 other departments and how out of line we are in our budget,” said Paul Sullivan, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. “Some don’t even do ambulance service. Things have been said that are not accurate.”
“We did more than 6,500 calls last year,” said Medeiros.
“What we’re asking for tonight is for you to work with the project manager to get that pricing to make a plan,” said Dalmau to the board regarding temporary living quarters for firefighters. “We need you guys to give direction to the project manager.”
“We’re not talking about cosmetics,” Brunelle said. “We’re talking about health and safety. This isn’t something we can twiddle our thumbs on. We have to act on this now.”