Fire Station No. 1 in Arlington would be nearly indistinguishable from the television store and delicatessen that flank it, if it were not for the red-and-white facade and the American flag waving over it.
But No. 1, as it is known to local residents, has become a familiar landmark for the central Arlington community it has served since 1930, a fixture that ranks right alongside neighborhood schools in sentimentality and attachment.
And when county fire officials recommended last spring that the station be closed July 1, the same anger and emotion that accompany school closings erupted in the neighborhoods served by No. 1, the busiest station in Arlington.
"It's an emotional issue," said Percy Scott, president of the Central Arlington Civic Association. "We feel strongly we've been hurt."
Fire officials, however, contend that the 51-year-old building has outlived its use, and is no longer needed in an area that could be served just as well by another station about a minute away.
No. 1, at 1041 S. Edgewood St., covers almost four square miles, from Joyce Street on the east, Arlington Boulevard (Rte. 50) on the north, about eight blocks of S. 16th Road on the south and up to the Fairfax County line along Columbia Pike on the west, according to Capt. David Bell, one of three shift commanders at the station. Included in the territory are nearly 550 homes and businesses, including 39 highrises, for which No. 1 has primary responsibility.
Last year, the 21-member crew at No. 1 handled 1,221 calls, including 854 backup calls for other stations, according to Bell.
Under a proposal by Fire Chief Thomas W. Hawkins Jr., the station's responsibilities would be transferred to Station No. 9, on Walter Reed Drive about 4,000 feet south of No. 1, with a specially equipped rescue ambulance at No. 1 going to No. 9 and the two engines going to No. 5 in Crystal City. Personnel at No. 1 would be assigned to stations 9 and 5. i
Although citizens disagree, Hawkins says the response time from No. 9, which would have two engines, the rescue ambulance and a three-shift 11-member crew, would be no longer than 90 seconds from any home or business in the expanded territory, well under the four-minute maximum response time set up by the fire department.
"It's not a situation where you're closing a fire station and people are saying, 'Hey, I'll have to wait 10 minutes,'" Hawkins said. "There will not be a drastic reduction in service."
County Manager W. Vernon Ford, who supports the plan, agrees: "We aim to be able to get to any place in the county within four minutes. With a shift in resources, we'd still be able to reach (people) within the objective."
However, many central Arlington residents disagree with Hawkins and Ford. Recently, the Central Arlington Civic Association sponsored a meeting with the fire chief, where nearly 250 residents showed up to protest the plan.
"Personally, I feel that if they move (the engines and ambulance) even three-quarters of a mile further away, I'd feel unsafe here," said Ethlyn Quass, a resident of a nearby garden apartment. "They should keep them where they're at because they're on the scene faster."
At the meeting, Hawkins outlined the reasons he believed No. 1 should be closed, and backed up those reasons with the results of a long-range study of county firefighting needs.
The most crucial, he said, is the shifting population pattern in the county. For example, he said, the area now served by No. 1 is growing only slightly, while Crystal City, where the two No. 1 engines would go, is booming.
In addition, he said, the building that No. 1 uses is showing serious signs of age: Walls are beginning to sag and separate; the floor under the two fire engines is beginning to break apart and, because of the station's design, only one of the three bays can be used for the engines. In fact, Hawkins said, the bays are set up so that the engines have to be parked one behind the other, and a malfunctioning truck could block the other trucks parked behind it.
But the many residents who depend on No. 1 say there are just as many reasons for keeping the station open as for closing it. And in recent weeks, the residents have won support from volunteer firefighters and officials at the professional firefighters' union.
Stephen McClure, a lawyer who lives a few blocks from the station, says central Arlington, because of the type of buildings in the area, is in more crucial need of No. 1's engines than Crystal City. For example, he says, many of the homes in central Arlington are wood-frame, older houses built before stringent fire and building codes were enacted. If a major fire hit the area, it could be more devastating than in Crystal City, where there already is a station, and where many of the buildings have sophisticated sprinkler and smoke detector systems.
"We're (central Arlington) the stepchild," McClure maintains. "Whatever they can get to us, we'll get."
Professional and volunteer firefighters in Arlington contend that closing No. 1 could put a dangerous strain on firefighting resources.
"I doubt if you would find 10 firefighters in the county who want (No. 1) closed," said John M. McPherson, president of the Arlington chapter of the International Association of Firefighters. "By moving No. 1 out altogether, you create a gap and have to fill it from farther out. So the entire county is affected by taking No. 1 out. It's robbing from Peter to pay Paul."
Station No. 1 is owned by the local volunteer firefighters group, a holdover from the days when most stations were manned by volunteers. The volunteers group leases the station to the county for $2,100 a year. The fire department itself is staffed by professional firefighters.
Edward Dodson, president of the No. 1 volunteers organization, opposes the plan to close the station and agrees with McPherson that the loss of the station could put an undue strain on firefighting services.
"It's spreading the county too thin," said Dodson, a retired firefighter who lives in central Arlington. "The central part of the county is in great danger (if No. 1 closes) because No. 1 is centrally located and can get any place in the south side in no time."
The volunteers group has been offered $150,000 for the building, Dodson said. Although the volunteers would like to preserve the building, Dodson said it probably would be sold if the closing is approved.
The fate of No. 1 will be decided next month, after a public hearing June 20 before the County Board.Last spring, the board informally agreed to the recommendation to close the station. Strong opposition to the closing from area residents, however, has caused "quite a concern" among board members, according to the County Board Chairman Stephen H. Detwiler, who refused to predict the final outcome of the issue.
County Manager Ford continues to support the plan to close No. 1, and seems resigned to the thought that few people will be pleased, whatever the final decision.
"Fire station location is an emotional issue," Ford says. "People want it, but not next door to them. But when the alarm rings, they want them right there."