Fire safety debate rages in Old Town

Fire safety debate rages in Old Town

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

North Old Town residents are adamantly opposed to a plan to transfer Engine 204 from their neighborhood to the West End. But fire officials say the truck’s intended destination is one of the Port City’s worst served areas.

City Manager Rashad Young’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget would see the engine based by Powhatan Park shifted to Station 210 when it opens along Eisenhower Avenue later this year, leaving just a ladder truck and an EMS supervisor at the Old Town firehouse. And that has neighbors, who worry about longer response times, on edge.

Still, according to statistics compiled by the Alexandria Fire Department, the stations covering the area to be served by the relocated engine are two of the busiest in the city. Engine 208, located at 175 N. Paxton St., has received the most service calls every year since 2008. Engine 207, based along the 3300 block of Duke St., usually is ranked between second and fourth in terms of service call volume.

On top of the high call volume, Engine 204’s future home boasts the worst response times in the city. It routinely takes between eight and 11 minutes for first responders to reach the location of an emergency in the area.

Fire department spokesman Michael Gerber said that while the department would prefer to house engines at both stations, the need is greater on the West End.

“Obviously our first choice would be to open up 210 with its own engine and keep Engine 204, but with our limited resources we had to decide how best to cover the city as a whole,” Gerber said. “Will response times be impacted near station 204? Yes. But if you look at the Eisenhower Valley, it’s cut off from the rest of the city — that’s why we added 210.

“[In Old Town], you have 204, you have 201 on Prince Street, 205 is on Cameron and 209 is by Potomac Yard, and all of those engines can get [to north Old Town]. The West End has fewer resources.”

Gerber said the department doesn’t have hard data on how — if at all — response times would be affected when Engine 204 departs. But on days when Engine 204 was out of service — for training, repair work or other reasons — response times increased by around 30 seconds, up from between six minutes and 10 seconds and eight minutes and 40 seconds.

And Gerber said delays could be mitigated by technological upgrades in the area. The department wants to install Opticom systems, which let emergency responders change traffic lights, in north Old Town. Another option is switching to a dispatching system that sends the nearest vehicle to an emergency rather than alerting the closest firehouse.

“We think those things will make a positive impact,” Gerber said. “And [interim fire] chief [Andrew Snead] always points out that on any given day, our units are already out running calls or doing training all in different locations. People often think, ‘Oh, I live in 205, so that’s my engine,’ but it’s a very dynamic system so you’re not always getting a response just from the local firehouse.”

Tom Soapes, president of the North Old Town Independent Citizens Association, understands the budget constraints, but argued that public safety should be paramount regardless.

“It’s a basic issue that the fundamental responsibility of government is to provide security,” Soapes said. “It seems to me that if the response times in various parts of the city are not what they should be, there needs to be more resources given to the whole fire department to deal with that. Don’t just rob Peter to pay Paul.”