By Chris Teale (Photo/Erich Wagner)
At 8:30 a.m. last Saturday, the city officials were scheduled to cut the ribbon to mark the opening of Fire Station 210 on the West End, near the Van Dorn Metro station. But City Manager Mark Jinks abruptly called off the ceremony after feedback from citizens and city councilors, with a rescheduled time and date yet to be determined.
It was another difficult moment for the fire station, which officially opened last week with a paramedic unit, a truck and a fire engine, but no crew of firefighters assigned to man the engine itself.
“Fire protection is not the only intended purpose of Station 210; the station currently houses an active medic unit (i.e. ambulance and crew), EMS supervisor, field training officer, SCBA service center, the fire protection systems office and training and outreach facilities,” said city spokeswoman Andrea Blackford in an email explaining the original decision to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony. “The presence of a new medic unit in the area is particularly important, since there are far more medic calls than fire calls in any community. The city is actively working to staff the fire engine at [Station] 210.”
Fire Chief Robert Dubé indicated at a fiscal 2016 budget work session on last month that even if the fire department were to overhire new recruits — temporarily add employees to fill a staffing shortfall — and train them, they would still be unable to staff the station until December 2016 at the earliest due to a number of factors, including a larger number of retirements than anticipated and an overall lack of staffing.
Officials currently are examining a number of different options, most notably the use of overhire to temporarily swell the numbers of firefighters above normal levels, and cross-training medics so they also can be qualified to operate fire apparatuses.
“[Overhire] would accelerate the process, but keep in mind that, as we didn’t have them to start with a year-and-a-half ago, we’re going to start the recruitment process now for a school that we can’t run until February because we’ve already got a school in the middle of [training] and in the late summer we want to run another school that will cross-train medics,” Dubé said at the session. “Statistically, we can’t do all that training with a very small staff, so we can’t get that school in until February next year.
“If we got an overhire for this coming year, which currently is not in there, and we got the number we needed, and we didn’t have a significant amount of retirements that we didn’t plan for, we could get that engine in service in December 2016. That would be the earliest.”
Since then, two budget memos from Morgan Routt, the assistant director of the city’s office of management and budget, have indicated that with an accelerated hiring plan, the station could be staffed between December of this year and March 2016 if there are enough qualified applicants to go through recruit school.
In the second of those memos, dated April 17, Routt notes that there were approximately 500 applications for firefighter/medic positions, and of those, 29 are already certified as medics so could be expedited through the process. It means staffing the engine may be a possibility far sooner than originally thought, although it is still a long process to ensure every recruit is fully prepared for the demands of the job.
The document notes that while approximately $900,000 would be required to staff the engine by December 2016, the city will need to spend an additional $400,000 to place firefighters at Station 210 by March of that year.
“Basically, it’s amping up our hiring process to see if we can get a recruit class sooner, looking at expanding overhire, which is where we temporarily expand the workforce to staff the engine now and then once the cross-training model kicks in, we’ll catch up later,” City Councilor Justin Wilson said. “There are a couple of different options where we’re tweaking how we’re doing staffing.
“All of them have a number, it’s expensive, and that’ll be the council’s decision, how to allocate resources to make that happen and when it happens. There’s a couple of different timelines. We could continue to be patient [and wait] for the cross-training model to get implemented, that’ll take a while. It could take years. We could do the overhire solution. There’s a couple of different ways we could do it and we’re looking at all those different options.”
As the Times reported last year, the West End has some of the slowest fire responses times in the city of Alexandria, given that the city’s goal is just five-and-a-half minutes from the time a fire is reported. With the area’s expansion in recent years, many feel that it is more important than ever to ensure it has more adequate fire suppression available.
“This is the area that really needs a service, not only because we are expanding but because we already have a longer response time,” City Councilor Del Pepper, a West End resident, said. “You can be sure that the neighbors that live all around here are really very concerned that this had not been completed so that we could have something here.
“I think there’s also in addition to the concern what would happen if we had a fire, not only is there that concern, there’s a feeling that something was promised and it’s not being delivered. That’s why we’re moving forward. You can be sure I’m out there putting all the pressure I can to make sure we get this.”
“I think more than worried, [people are] exasperated that so much time has passed and we’ve seen lots of excuses as to why things couldn’t be fully operational, why a fire truck couldn’t be there, why the foam equipment to combat an ethanol fire could not be located there,” added Arthur Impastato, president of the Cameron Station Civic Association. “We just want to see that station there up and running as an efficient and fully staffed station sooner rather than later, particularly in light of [the planned expansion of] Norfolk Southern’s ethanol transloading facility.”
Impastato said that residents have expressed their concerns in a number of ways, including signing an online petition that has so far garnered 345 signatures since it was published on March 15. He added that the civic association have had board meetings on the issue and are looking to reach out beyond their active members to other residents of Cameron Station to make them aware of current developments.
The frustrations of residents in the West End are shared by other city councilors, John Chapman in particular believing the city should have been better prepared for the neighborhood’s expansion and the inevitable strain on existing firefighting resources.
“I think we looked at it, and staff looked at it, as a balancing act where it should have been an expansion,” he said, referring to a failed effort by city leaders last year to move some staff from North Old Town to staff the new station. “When you open up a new fire station, you don’t shut down one. … We’re in a mode where we’re going to be expanding, and I think that hesitation on a number of fronts to fully have a conversation about what expansion really means, what it means in resources, what it means in logistics, what it means in staff has really brought issues like this to bear.
“[I] think staff did lay out options for that expansion but I think there’s hesitancy on a number of fronts to do it and do it fully because it does require new resources, and we all know resources are scarce and folks don’t like their taxes going up.”
Thanks in part to their shared frustrations, Impastato gives city council credit for taking West End residents’ concerns into account, especially as they search for a way to fund firefighter staffing at Station 210.
“I think we’re getting our point across in terms of very recent correspondence that I’ve seen,” he said. “I think that the mayor and city council are taking our concerns seriously, I do see some movement, which we’re very pleased to see, in terms of moving more rapidly to getting the station fully staffed and operational sooner than the end of next year.”