July 18, 2002
The City of Fairfax’s fire department responds to so many calls that sometimes baffled residents of distant communities like Fort Belvoir will ask, “Why are you here?”
Named as one of the 150 busiest career-, combination career-volunteer-staffed fire departments in the United States and Canada in Firehouse magazine’s National Run Survey, Fairfax’s fire department answered 11,332 calls for assistance in 2001, according to department figures. According to Assistant Chief Tom Owens, the department’s high volume of responses stems from local population growth as well as participation in the Northern Virginia Emergency Services Mutual Response Agreement, a mutual-aid agreement between the fire departments of the cities of Fort Belvoir, Alexandria and Fairfax, Arlington and Fairfax counties, and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
Some 278 fire departments from 49 states, the District of Columbia and seven Canadian provinces took part in this year’s survey, said Firehouse’s assistant editor Peter Matthews. For the survey, the magazine collected data from fire departments in the 150 biggest cities, larger counties, and every state capital in the United States, and also allowed other departments to submit their data, according to Matthews. “[Fire] departments around the country can get an idea of what similar departments are doing,” based on the survey’s results, said Matthews. Nearly 3,300 career and career/volunteer fire departments operate in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Capt. John Ahrens quantified and submitted the City of Fairfax Fire Department’s data for the survey. “I’m proud of this department,” he said.
BEFORE LOCAL fire chiefs and elected officials enacted the mutual-aid agreement about 25 years ago, local fire departments “didn’t dare” send assistance across political boundaries, even for fires just across the street, said Owens. The agreement allows participating departments to share resources, saving taxpayers and local governments money, and supports “increased incident capacity.” enabling a coordinated response by several departments to critical situations, such as the response to Sept. 11’s terrorist attack on the Pentagon, said Owens.
Owens objects to the idea that firefighters “sit around the firehouse playing checkers” when not out on a call. “Contemporary fire departments offer a full menu of services that keep our members very busy,” said Owens. In addition to emergency situations, preventive duties include fire-code administration, building-code administration, preventive fire inspection and life-safety education for the community.
DUE TO THE GROWING workload, the City of Fairfax’s fire department is “very much in need” of volunteers for everything from fund-raising to firefighting, according to Owens.
Members of the Department must also keep their skills sharp. All of the Department’s members train for over a year to become fire-medics, or certified firefighters and paramedics, and are required to attend a certain number of continuing-education classes each year like other medical professionals. They must also perform daily equipment drills and pass a biannual work performance evaluation of their physical fitness and skill levels as firefighters, according to Ahrens.
Though the work is hard, there are perks. “We’re the only fire department in this area that I’m aware of that’s allowed to wear shorts,” said Ahrens.