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New Fire Station for Great Falls?

24/7 Nothing New for Volunteers

In Great Falls, it's time to upgrade the volunteer fire station that has stood at the crossroads of the community since 1947.

Seven men on a shift must share one shower, said Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) Chief Homer Johns.

And if firefighters are lifting weights as part of their daily physical training when one of the fire trucks with diesel engines is started, they breathe in the fumes.

The building has cracks in the foundation, and one of the brick walls is separating, firefighters say. The attic looks like a fire hazard.

"This station is more than 50 years old," John said. "It's becoming a high-maintenance building. It was never meant to house personnel 24/7."

The volunteers have developed a design for a new building that will cost from $2.5 to $ 3 million, Johns said. Next month, the Great Falls Woman’s Club plans a glitzy country club fund-raiser to benefit the VFD’s building fund.

If there is a downside for Great Falls residents, it may be that the footprint of the new fire station will require that the familiar “cut-through road” across the fire station’s parking lot between Georgetown Pike and Walker Road will have to be closed.

"It's not something we chose to do. It's something we have to do, because of the footprint of our building," Johns said. Traffic on the non-road is intensifying, he said.

"I did a traffic count over five days. It even astonished me," said Johns. "I counted 300 cars in 90 minutes on a weekday. On Saturdays, it's probably twice that," he said. "I even have tractor-trailers going through there. I put up new 'no truck' signs, and while I was putting it up, one almost ran over me

The volunteers own both the station and the land where local residents customarily cut through to avoid the central intersection of Walker Road and Georgetown Pike.

WHEN WOMEN FIRST became firefighters, there was nowhere to house them in Great Falls, so a control room was outfitted with two twin beds. "The women's facility there is totally ridiculous," Johns said.

And the men's bunkhouse isn't much better. After one of two showers was assigned for the females to use, the seven males on the other shirts must rotate the use of the single shower reserved for males, Johns said. "They work there a third of their lives," John said.

The station has equipment problems, too. With only four engine bays, "We play musical fire trucks when there's a river call, which results in delays getting everything out," Johns said.

Space in one bay is divided between workout gear and a fire truck. When the engine starts, either for maintenance or to leave on a call, the firefighters who might be using the equipment get lungs full of diesel exhaust.

Modern stations have hoses that draw off the diesel fumes, but outfitting the Great Falls station with such equipment would be wasteful, Johns said, when the need for a new building is so overwhelming.

"The station is old. It needs to be expanded and have safety upgrades. We've outgrown it. It needs to be brought up to the 2000s," said “A” shift Capt. Richard Roatch.

THE CONCEPT OF “24/7” is nothing new to volunteer firefighters and paramedics. Historically, they've maintained a close watch on their community, and not just for fires.

They hearken to a day when the volunteer fire department kept the pulse of the community, said Johns.

"The fire department used to be the heart of the community; a meeting place," he said.

In Great Falls, the VFD still owns the building where career firefighters paid by Fairfax County keep a 24/7 watch for fires, medical emergencies, and river rescues from the Potomac Gorge.

They have an access point at Sandy Landing, in Great Falls National Park, and the equipment to reach stranded kayakers or rock-climbers.

All the firefighters are trained in rope rescue. If necessary, they can assemble a rope scaffold that allows firefighters to descend from the sheer rock wall of the gorge to reach someone who may have slipped into the river.

In some communities, the role of a volunteer fire department has been overtaken by growth and transience. Newer stations never had the network of volunteers.

But in Great Falls and McLean, they continue close, and on occasion, competitive, relationships with the paid career firefighters who staff the stations.

In McLean, volunteers have a long-term lease on space in Station 1 on Whittier Avenue built after the Old Firehouse on Chain Bridge Road was outgrown and refitted for use as a teen club.

Volunteers have a workout room in quarters in the station on Whittier, but the fire station and the land it sits on are owned by Fairfax County, according to Volunteer Fire Department president, Clyde Clark.

THE GREAT FALLS Woman’s Club plans a fund-raiser at River Bend Country Club on April 6, a "Casino Night" that will launch a drive to fund construction of the new station. Johns said the Volunteers also hope for grant money to help.

Johns recently visited the executive board of the Great Falls Citizens Association, to inform them of the plan.

"We wanted to be right up front as to what's coming," Johns said.

Closing of the cut-through road will be the topic for discussion at a future meeting of the Great Falls Citizens Association.

At $90 each, tickets include dinner, casino play, and the chance to bid for items donated to a silent auction. To attend the Casino Night Gala, call 703-759-3447 or 406-4431.