Fire Training Facility Near Cincinnati Elementary School Draws Scrutiny

The Cincinnati Fire Department says it has made some immediate adjustments to scheduling at the site and is exploring longer-term options to mitigate complaints from Millvale residents

May 21, 2019 at 4:56 pm

click to enlarge Fire Training Facility Near Cincinnati Elementary School Draws Scrutiny
Nick Swartsell

Less than 700 feet from Millvale’s Ethel M. Taylor Academy, a Cincinnati public elementary school, bombs have been going off and a building is often on fire.

Don’t call emergency responders. They already know.

For years, the Cincinnati Fire Department has been setting cars and a specially-designed $3 million building alight to train fire recruits at 1898 Mill Creek Road. CFD also performs bomb training and explosives disposal in a special facility there. 

Lately, some residents of Millvale and nearby communities — especially those with children at Taylor — have complained about the noise, smoke and potential health and environmental impacts associated with the site. In addition to the elementary school, a Cincinnati Recreation Center and a daycare are nearby.

Residents' worries are just the latest in a long line of concerns with pollution and air quality in the low-income, predominantly African American communities nestled next to the one-time industrial corridor along Beekman Street and the Mill Creek.

CFD says it is listening and working to mitigate problems  — but a complete fix may take a long-term effort.

At a public meeting last week in neighboring South Cumminsville, CFD Chief Roy Winston pledged to stop bomb detonation during school hours and said the department alerts the schools when fires are burning. That, Winston says, triggers the school to close its vents and recirculate air instead of letting it in from the outside.

But that won’t solve all the problems, some residents say.

“My son goes to Ethel Taylor, and I’ve heard a lot about how he’s scared because he hears bombs,” Millvale resident Trista Davis says. “And it’s hot inside when the air isn’t circulating. Teachers want to open windows. Some children have asthma. All that is going on during the school day. How do we tell the children in the school that they can’t do their regular activities because the fire department is burning materials?”

Students recently wrote letters to Winston and other officials about the smoke and detonations.

One student, whose parents asked that he not be named, said he was glad the explosions would stop during school hours.

“I can hear the bombs go off,” he said. “Not all the time, but I do hear them sometimes.”

The smoke is an issue too, the student said, recounting times that teachers sprayed air freshening products to mask the scent and avoided opening windows on burn days.

“There are multiple times when I’ve gone down Beekman and you can see kids outside at recess while the fire department is doing a burning and you can see the whole smokestack going up,” South Cumminsville resident Iyah Brown said. “Until really recently, there was no signage there. There is still no fence, nothing stopping any kid from walking in and playing in there.”

CityBeat has reached out to Cincinnati Public Schools to find out if teachers have made complaints about the facility and to get comment from the district.

The department has had a training facility near the current site since 1954, but in 2010 built its new facility about 40 yards closer to Fricke Road, the street the school is on.

There are a number of reasons the training and bomb mitigation activities at the site may have become more of a nuisance in recent years, Winston says.

For one, requirements for firefighter training have doubled since Winston went through training in the 1980s. It used to be that firefighters needed just 14 weeks of training. Now, they need 28 weeks.

That’s a double-edged sword, Winston says. It means better-trained firefighters, but also more time needed for training with real fire and real explosives at the Mill Creek site.

In 2017 and 2018, there was even more training occurring there due to a $1.3 million federal grant CFD received for professional development opportunities for the department’s current firefighters.

Added to all that, Winston says, outside agencies also use the site for training. The chief says the department is looking into halting that practice, however.

“The easiest thing we can do is limit the outside agencies that use the site,” he said. “We do get some revenue from that, but it’s not necessarily worth being  a nuisance to the community.”

Moving bomb detonation to times after school hours was also a quick fix, Winston says, and the department is looking into handing off emergency destruction of especially unstable material — acids, pipe bombs and other hazardous items — to a site in Butler County.

But the fires and potential smoke they bring will be a tougher fix, he says.

“With the fires, we don’t have that same luxury” of moving to another time of day, Winston says, “only because we have to train for 28 weeks. I brought it up to my boss, the city manager… looking long term at some other sites. That will take some capital money. The problem with Cincinnati is that, with only 76 square miles, there isn’t a lot of open land. But some of the land where there are old landfills might do the trick.”

It’s not just school students who have noticed the smoke.

Scott Fleckenstein works for the Johnson Doppler Lumber Company, which sits just across Mill Creek Road from the training facility. The company has been at the location for almost 100 years.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re not against the training — we’re for the training,” Fleckenstein said at the meeting last week. “But in the last couple years, it has gotten pretty bad. It’ll give our guys headaches, it makes their eyes burn. Our mill sometimes will fill up with smoke.”

Winston says the department should only be burning straw and untreated wood pallets at the fire training facility, and that it also strips tires and other components containing toxic materials from cars burned there. But some who live and work nearby have expressed doubts about that.

Some residents say they’ve seen cars with tires still on them burning. And Fleckenstein said the company sells the training facility OSB board, which is treated with a number of chemicals that can be hazardous when burned.

“We’ve sold a lot of it there,” he said. “I’ve been over there delivering it and I’ve seen where it is burnt. I’m not saying it’s really bad all the time, but there are a lot of times when it is really intense.”

CFD says it applies for yearly permits with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to conduct its activities at the site. The Ohio EPA says that aggregate data from an air quality monitoring at a site about 3,500 feet from the training facility meets federal standards. CityBeat is seeking to review data from that site on a day-to-day basis, however, which could show whether pollution increases on training facility burn days.

Winston says the site is specifically designed to avoid other environmental hazards related to runoff into the Mill Creek — a big concern for a waterway that has seen more than two centuries of pollution. A catch basin under the facility catches runoff.

That hasn’t stopped those nearby from worrying about the potential health impacts of smoke and other pollutants. That’s especially pertinent in Millvale and other spots along the Mill Creek, where the intersections of environmental and socio-economic disparities run deep.

The areas up and down the Beekman Street corridor were long heavily industrial, causing long-lingering pollution while the plants and mills were running and unemployment and poverty when they stopped.

Millvale is largely comprised of a 532-unit Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority Complex and has a median household income of about $15,500 a year. It is 93 percent black.

The neighborhood nestled just below the city’s western hills is working to reestablish a community council to tackle a number of concerns, from landslides and sewage backups to crime and the fire department training site.

At a recent meeting introducing community council candidates, several spoke on the neighborhood’s challenges.

“I want to sit on my porch and enjoy the quiet and watch children play,” Theresa Thomas, a candidate for council president, said. “I care about this neighborhood. If you want to see a change, you can’t just sit there.”

Davis, another candidate for community council president, has vowed to continue pursuing answers around the training center and her concerns about health and pollution.

“I really respect the fire department,” she told Chief Winston at last week’s community meeting. “It’s a job I could never do. But I also need my own good health. I’m working hard on changing my health around now, just to find out I’m living in an area that might be damaging it.”