For the past three years, a little D.C. fire station at 2119 G St. NW has been the target of city budget cuts. But each year, the residents of Foggy Bottom, a neighborhood served by Engine Co. 23, have rallied enough support and political pressure to persuade the mayor and the City Council to keep the station open.
Their most recent success in keeping the station open one more year is a story of persistence and outrage, and an example of what can happen when citizens know how to lobby their elected officials. Joining them in their lobbying were officials from the D.C. Firefighters Association, one of several politically active unions in the city, and George Washington University students. Their claims that the station was vital to the safety of the area around Foggy Bottom were boosted by questions that followed the Air Florida plane crash at the 14th Street Bridge two months ago about the city's ability to respond to emergencies.
"We were able to rally such a large voice . . . that we were able to pull it off," said Ed Terry, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2-A member and George Washington University student.
"It is invariably an implied threat that the community will not vote for you in an election year when you publicly state that you want to cut a form of protection," said ANC 2-A Chairman Steve Levy, noting that community residents wrote letters, made phone calls and met with City Council members.
Says Ken Cox, vice president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, "In this case, you had people willing to roll up their sleeves and sign the petitions, write the letters and make the phone calls to save their station."
The recent controversy erupted last May when Mayor Barry proposed redistributing about $940,000 from the fire department's budget to the D.C. Superior Court, according to the City Council's budget committee. To do so, a fire station had to be closed and Engine Co. 23 was chosen. But the City Council, responding to citizen complaints, refused the mayor's request to redistribute the money and allowed the station to stay open.
But its future was threatened again several months ago during the 1983 fiscal year budget hearings. Once more, the mayor's office recommended that the station be closed.
Residents argue that Engine Co. 23 is important because of where it is. The station covers an area from 16th Street NW to Rock Creek Park and from K Street NW south to the Potomac River. Within this area are the White House, the State and Interior departments, the Federal Reserve and many other government buildings, two major hospitals, the Kennedy Center, international organizations and embassies, high-rise apartment buildings including the Watergate, and George Washington University--with more than 16,000 students, and 13 dormitories housing aproximately 2,500 persons.
According to the Mayor's Statistician's Office, about 26,000 people live in the area protected by Engine Co. 23, and nearly 11 percent of them are over age 65. Neighborhood leaders say the station becomes even more important when the area's daytime population swells because of the many downtown office buildings.
Those opposed to closing the station say that it has been getting more calls than ever and that of the city's 32 engine companies, 11 others had fewer calls last year.
Barry proposed closing Engine Co. 23 on the recommendation of Fire Chief Norman Richardson, who has said that it would pose no threat to the safety of Foggy Bottom residents.
"It's hard to cut back on anything and have service remain the same," said Richardson. "But every time they cut my budget, I have to recommend from a professional point of view what would have the least impact on fire protection in this city, and we felt that was Engine Company 23."
According to Barry's budget proposal, the station's closing would add only an additional one minute and two seconds to the time it would take another station nearby to respond to calls in Engine 23's area.
Critics of the proposal charge that it assumes that the closest company to Engine Co. 23, Engine Co. 1 at 2225 M Street NW, would not be responding to another call. If Engine 1 were out on a call, the closest companies to the Foggy Bottom area would be Engine Co. 16 at 13th and K streets and Engine Co. 9 at 16th and U streets. Those two stations were the fourth and fifth busiest in the city last year.
"It would be a criminal act if that station was ever closed," said Mary Healy, 68, a member of the Foggy Bottom Citizens Association and area resident for 25 years.
Foggy Bottom leaders say that the residents' safety would be endangered beyond the threat of fire if the station were closed. Because of a shortage of city ambulances, engine companies are becoming increasingly important in medical emergencies. The average response time from the moment a call is received until help arrives at the scene is approximately two minutes for engine companies. Because of the shortage, the ambulance response time is 10 to 12 minutes, according to city officials.
As a result, all firefighters are now trained as emergency medical technicians, and respond to all medical calls to assist victims until an ambulance can arrive. Engine 23 responded to 200 medical calls in 1981 and is averaging 30 calls a month this year.
"We really need it," said Martha Drew, 70, who lives in an apartment building for those 62 and over, and was one of 150 residents in her building who signed a petition to keep Engine Co. 23 open.
Student groups also joined the drive. Doug Atwell, George Washington University Student Association president, said that along with letters and personal lobbying, the student senate passed a resolution to save the firehouse, located in the heart of the university's urban campus. If the City Council had agreed with the mayor to close the station, Atwell said, students would have organized a "great protest on the city hall steps."
Neighborhood organizations believe that closing the station would actually waste taxpayers' money since the city spent $328,000 to renovate the 71-year-old firehouse in 1979.
At a January 26, 1982, Foggy Bottom Citizens Association meeting, one resident asked Barry how he could justify closing a station that cost so much to renovate only two years ago. Barry, who attended the meeting, answered that he had not heard about the renovations.
Two weeks later, in a letter to Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, Barry announced he no longer was considering closing the station. He wrote that Engine Co. 23 "protects a wide and significant population and an area where a delay could be significant," and that it "became necessary to reevaluate the firehouse situation."
The mayor's budget director, Gladys Mack, explained that additional information changed Barry's opinion about Engine Co. 23. She did not elaborate.
Nevertheless, those concerned with the station's closing took the mayor's turnaround as a victory for citizen pressure. "I think they underestimated the political power of the residents surrounding the station," said Cox. "The city tried to determine which station they could close without taking the most heat politically--and they were wrong."
The person to whom most of the pressure was directed was City Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2), whose ward includes Foggy Bottom. He said citizen pressure this year played major role in keeping Engine Co. 23 open.
But Fire Chief Richardson, who recommends which stations should be closed, said he would give the same proposals next year as he had for the past three. "If my budget is cut by the same percentage next year," he said, "I'll stick with the same station, and not hopscotch around the city to find one that would be the least popular to close."
The possibility that Engine 23 could be targeted again next year angers many residents in Foggy Bottom. While they are frustrated that the station has been an issue for three straight years, most are dedicated to doing battle with the city again next year if that's what it takes to keep their firehouse open.
"We're not going to let them close that station even if we have to go down and stand in front of it," said Mary Healy. "They can't play with people's lives."