Fire Station 210, 5255 Eisenhower Avenue, cost the City of Alexandria and it’s taxpayers roughly 15 million dollars. The station is a 45,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility. The equipment and apparatus are there. As of April 1, 2015, paramedics are there. Firefighters are not.
Why are there no firefighters to staff the fire apparatus? The simple answer is city budget constraints. Then you might ask yourself as I have, why would the city spend 15 million dollars to build a fire house and not have considered the money it costs to staff the firehouse? This is where the waters get murky. Unforeseen firefighter retirements is one answer. Lack of planning ahead seems to be the better answer.
Councilwoman Del Pepper, the longest serving council member, has stated that “building a firehouse and not having firefighters would be like building a library and not having books”. Quite perceptive I think. Perhaps the cart before the horse. If you build it they will come. The Station is built. Firefighters are not coming.
Alexandria Fire Chief Robert Dubé has stated that if funds aren’t approved to staff the firehouse then it may be 5 years before the newly built firehouse will be operational. He further stated that if he can get the money he can hire, train and position a crew of firefighters to be in place by December 2016. The City of Alexandria has posted a job announcement for the hiring of new firefighters. Hopefully, they will take into account Station 210 as well as the necessity for firefighters in other parts of the city.
Residents of the west end have started a petition in an attempt to persuade the city to fund the staffing of firefighters for Station 210. There are over 300 signatures to date. The residents are upset that they have to wait over 10 minutes in some instances for a fire crew to respond to calls. This is well over the average response time in other parts of the city. Residents are also concerned about the Norfolk Southern’s announced plans to expand their ethanol off loading facility. This facility is in close proximity to Station 210.
Budget officials have estimated that it would cost $866,000 to fully staff Fire Station 210 for 2016 and incrementally increasing each year after. Alexandria Firefighters work in three shifts for 24 hours. Their work schedule is 24 on, 24 off, 24 on, 24 off, 24 on and then 4 days off and the cycle repeats. Paramedics have four shifts with their work schedule being 24 on, 48 off, 24 on, 48 off, 24 on, and then 4 days off and the cycle repeats. Each fire apparatus that needs to be staffed requires 4 personnel per shift.
One of the proposals suggested to staff firefighters at Station 210 would be to shift a crew from another fire station to staff Station 210. This is not the answer because then residents of the community where the crew was transferred from would be without fire protection. It would be like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Another idea that has been tossed around would be to reduce the minimum staffing on fire apparatus from 4 personnel to 3 personnel. This is inherently unsafe for the firefighters and the residents they protect. Numerous articles have been written on this subject. National Fire Protection Association Code 1710 mandates that a minimum of 4 personnel are required to staff a fire engine or fire truck.
Perhaps a valid “fix” until funding is obtained and/or more firefighters are hired is to rehire off going firefighters to staff Station 210. There are issues with this plan as well. Firefighters could work too many hours causing an unsafe work environment. The amount of hours worked can be effectively managed by fire officers in a way that would not endanger firefighter safety. This has been done effectively in the past where short staffing had caused firefighter rehires. Once again though you have the budgetary constraints of paying firefighters overtime at the rate of time and a half. Although, Captains, the officer in charge of an apparatus, are not paid time and a half as in other jurisdictions. They would only receive extra straight time pay (this is a highly debated issue in itself and well beyond the scope of this article). The City would not have to pay benefits to rehired firefighters as they are already being paid their benefits. Captains would be paid straight time as opposed to time and a half. This is still a costly fix but would work for an interim period. Hiring more firefighters is the end answer but until that can be accomplished rehiring current firefighters is a very plausible solution.
The City was going to hold a ribbon cutting ceremony for the grand opening of Fire Station 210 on Saturday April 18, 2015 at 8:30 a.m.. However, that has been postponed perhaps due to the numerous articles written on this subject, such as the “Alexandria Fire Drill ” editorial written in the Alexandria News.org, or perhaps because the city realized that a grand opening without staffing is ludicrous, or perhaps because NBC 4 Washington recently aired a piece on the non-staffing of Station 210.
Fire Station 210 must be staffed for the safety of the residents that live in that area. 10 minute plus response times to an emergency are unacceptable. Waiting 5 years to staff a newly built firehouse is unacceptable. Waiting one year to staff a newly built firehouse is unacceptable. Eisenhower corridor and west end residents deserve the same quality and timely fire service as residents who live in other parts of the city.