ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Firefighters in Round Rock claim something other than fire is putting their health and safety at risk.
They said they’re getting sick from the moldy conditions at the Round Rock Central Fire Station, located at 230 Commerce Blvd.
“We’ve had roof leaks ever since I’ve been there in our dorm rooms,” firefighter Wayne Pietzsch said. “So there’s always been roof leaks.”
In the past few months, Pietzsch said he’s suffered from at least four sinus infections, while some of the other firefighters have dealt with serious issues like pneumonia and bronchitis.
“Guys were waking up with headaches every morning, not that they wouldn’t go to the doctor,” Pietzsch explained. “Just because they would push through for work for the citizens of Round Rock, yet not feeling 100 percent.”
Pietzsch serves as the secretary for the Round Rock Firefighters Association.
The union’s president, Billy Colburn, told KXAN that firefighters ordered their own air testing in Februrary, which showed high levels of mold within the fire station. They took their findings to the department’s administration, which prompted the City of Round Rock to hire the Austin Enviro Group to look into the same thing.
“Our own brothers are coming down and getting sick,” Colburn said. “And we see them getting sick and wondering why they’re not being taken care of.”
According to a “mold assessment survey” conducted on February 7, a consultant from the Austin Enviro Group recommended mold remediation “to remove the water damaged materials and fungal growth” from two areas in the fire station: a bedroom and an office closet.
The consultant’s report stated, “The indoor airborne fungal spore sample collected in the rear bedroom above the lockers contained elevated levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium fungal spores consistent with long term water damage on the wall above the lockers.”
It continued: “The surface sample of the apparent fungal stains in the lower closet walls contained significant levels of both Aspergillus and Chaetomium fungal growth.”
According to a spokesman for the City of Round Rock, the city spent $15,000 to remove the mold, which took about two months to complete. The city also reported that the contractor found a window covered with brick and mortar that was likely the cause of the water leak.
A “mold remediation assessment” conducted by Austin Enviro Group on April 4 revealed that “indoor airborne fungal levels…were within acceptable levels.” However, this report stated that the remediation contractor had to come back for an additional 24 hours of work to clean the bedroom and closet again after there was a “very slight amplification of several water damage indicator species” found.
Despite the completion of the mold removal, Pietzsch and Colburn said a fourth firefighter developed pneumonia around that same time, which raised concerns again about the building. On April 24, employees moved out of the Central Fire Station, and the city placed them at other city facilities.
“It’s one of those things, you don’t know who it’s going to affect,” Fire Chief Robert Isbell said. “Folks with allergies or that sort of thing, that’s the part that’s hard to track, but we did have folks that were sick at times. For that reason and the reason it was a work zone, we decided to move out.”
A third “mold assessment survey” conducted on May 1 found that once again, mold levels inside the building “were within acceptable levels.” However, the report shared with the city pointed out “extremely dirty” conditions within the aging air conditioning system. The consultant recommended that the system “be cleaned completely and re-insulated.”
Isbell said the city decided to take on a bigger project at that time to replace all the duct work in the building and get rid of a previously known presence of asbestos in the glue under the carpet. A city spokesman said this ongoing work is costing the city more than $100,000.
“We take firefighter safety, health and wellness very seriously, and it affects all of us. That’s my station. I work there as well, and we were all concerned in the beginning,” Isbell said. “Today, since April, it’s a safe building. We believe that the work the city’s doing to ensure the future safety is going to make that building habitable for several years to come.”
The fire chief expects the Central Fire Station to reopen as soon as August. Another mold assessment report shared with the city on June 10 found that mold levels were, once again, “within acceptable levels.”
Last week, however, the executive board for the Round Rock Association of Professional Firefighters sent a letter to the city administration. They are now seeking the city’s help after the firefighters’ requests for reimbursement for sick time and medical expenses related to mold exposure were denied.
“Round Rock firefighters are on the streets every day to take [care] of our citizens and those who travel through Round Rock,” the letter stated. “It is now the city’s responsibility to take care of those affected by this preventable exposure in a city building.”
Pietzsch told KXAN Wednesday that the firefighters are now working on appealing the decision. The union’s executive board, though, would like the fire chief’s assistance in resolving this issue. Isbell, however, said his hands are tied because this is now an issue with the workers’ compensation process.