A new fire station near Alexandria’s southwest corner opened last week with a crew of paramedics, their truck and a fire engine. But there are no firefighters assigned to the station — and it could be as long as five years before they arrive.
The decision to leave the station short-staffed has upset residents, who point to the need for better fire coverage in the area, especially since Norfolk Southern announced plans to expand its nearby ethanol transfer yard.
Residents in that area have the longest wait in the city for a fire crew to respond to a call for help — about 10 minutes on average. The station equipped to fight chemical spills is across town, at Potomac Yard. There are eight other stations in the city.
“How can we build a $15 million fire station in the most under-served part of the city and then supposedly have no funds to staff or equip it?” civic activist Don Buch wrote on the petition. “Can you imagine Jefferson Houston [School] opening and the community being told there is no money to hire/pay teachers? Or we can’t afford any books for a new library?”
The quickest and cheapest way to staff the station would be to transfer a crew, which, was the city’s original plan. But residents of the North Old Town area, which would have lost the truck, protested, and the City Council backed down.
Budget officials estimate the cost of hiring, training and staffing a crew to be $866,000 for fiscal 2016, with costs increasing each year. It takes 12 firefighters to staff a truck, working in 24-hour shifts of four people. In contrast, three paramedics work each shift, for a total of nine per crew.
Fire Chief Robert Dubé said Monday that if he can get the money, he can hire, train and position a crew of firefighters at the new station in 20 months, by December 2016. He said the fire engine that has been placed at the station is being used for training and as a backup engine for other stations.
“This is not over yet,” said Redella S. “Del” Pepper (D), the longest-serving council member and an avid defender of the city’s west end. “It’s an embarrassment to be opening a fire station without firefighters there. We’re going to have to find a way to fund it that won’t break the budget.”
In a memo provided to the council Friday, Acting City Administrator Mark Jinks suggested a partnership with Arlington County to hold joint recruitment and training classes, which would accelerate hiring in a department that had an unexpectedly high number of retirements this year.
If the city does not shift a crew or hire and train a new one, it is likely that the new station will not be staffed with firefighters for five years, Dubé said. That is how long it will take to cross-train the city’s paramedics as firefighters, which would allow the department to shift its staffing in a way that would provide firefighters at Eisenhower Avenue.
Any proposed budget changes will get their first vote before the council on April 28, with the final budget vote set for May 7.