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Station sounds mold alarm

Pillow was the last straw leading to the closer of Station 76 until problem can be resolved
by: Matthew Ginn, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis, right, looks at Captain Cindy Thompson-Baird’s pillowcase, which became saturated with mold over just two weeks in January while she was away. She had washed the pillowcase before leaving for a training assignment.

Fresh from two weeks at the national fire academy in January, Station 76's Capt. Cindy Thompson-Baird reached into her locker for her pillow. The once crisp, clean white-and-green striped pillowcase was covered in dark mold.

Ever since arriving at the station in August, she'd seen mold on the interior and exterior walls, and along the windowsill of the bedroom. The carpet and bedding always felt damp. Firefighters complained of everything from headaches to ticking coughs.

But the pillow, teamed with a health complaint from fellow firefighters, led department officials to hire a company to test the air and take mold samples at the station on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

The next day, the entire crew complained of illness. Maybe moving lockers to reveal a mold-covered wall for testing disturbed spores. Maybe it was the recent work done on a chronically leaking roof.

'I think we need to get out of the building,' Thompson-Baird told fire officials.

They agreed and moved the crew out of the station, located at Southeast 302nd Avenue and Dodge Park Boulevard. The station is owned by Multnomah County Rural Fire Protection District 10, which contracts with Gresham Fire and Emergency Service for fire protection.

Now firefighters are working out of a mobile command trailer borrowed from the Multnomah County Department of Emergency Management and are sleeping in a $500-a-week trailer, ironically called the Captiva. Even better, the Coachman logo includes a jumping Dalmatian.

Results of the $2,000 mold and air tests won't be back until late next week at the earliest. Until then, firefighters joke about living out a 'Survivor' episode and laugh as they invite people over for s'mores.

With no kitchen, they're forced to eat out. They're also making do with bunks built for kids - the trailer is designed with a full-size bed for the parents and four short bunks for the children.

One firefighters has rolled out his sleeping bag onto a dining area bench, preferring its padding to the flimsy foam of the short bunks.

On Thursday, March 1, Thompson-Baird showed off the new digs and her now-gray pillow to Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis during a tour of the station.

Signs on the building tell visitors that the crew relocated.

'Please go to trailer for assistance.' Another warns: 'Please don HEPA mask before entering.'

In the former locker room, a soggy piece of rolled up paper is shoved against the corner of the moldy walls.

'This is the one that has most of the mold,' Thompson-Baird says, pointing to a network of black growing on the cinderblock. A dehumidifier hums in the background.

She also points out a hole in the ceiling where a leak produced as much as 10 gallons of water a day. Firefighters suspect the wetter-than-usual year, coupled with roof leaks, may have exasperated the ongoing mold problem, Thompson-Baird said.

Although she wonders what lurks behind sheetrock covering the cinderblock walls in the station's sleeping quarters, her main concerns are air quality and the lingering health effects potentially toxic mold can cause.

For years, the station's firefighters have complained about everything from headaches to respiratory problems, Thompson-Baird said.

'I had significant problems with my eyes,' she said. Every night during her 24-hour shift, she'd clean her contact lenses at least twice. After moving lockers for mold testing, she cleaned them eight times in four hours and resorted to allergy eye drops.

Bemis assured Thompson-Baird, Fire Chief Scott Lewis, Lt. Don Pierce and firefighters Mike Galvin and Dianna McGowan back in the mobile command trailer that the City Council is concerned about the station's condition.

'It's no way to be working,' he said.

Greg Matthews, president of the Gresham Professional Firefighters Union Local 1062, couldn't agree more.

'Whether it's toxic or not, it's still a problem,' he said of the mold. 'It doesn't matter, it's mold. How can that be good?'

Besides, firefighting isn't a regular 9 to 5 job. They work 24 hours followed by 48 hours off.

'Let's face it, they're fire houses,' Matthews said. 'We live there 24 hours a day. … It's our residence.'