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A Station for All Disasters

Penn Daw firefighters, rescue personnel put practice into action with Isabel.

September seems to be the firefighters at Station No. 11 at Penn Daw. Two years ago, they were at The Pentagon, where several of their members helped to unfurl the American flag from the charred roof. Early this past Friday morning, they were rescuing stranded residents of Belle View.

Located on Hulvey Terrace just off Richmond Highway and adjacent to Beacon Hill Road/Belle View Boulevard, they descended into the two communities being consumed by the Potomac's tidal surge shortly after 1 a.m. Once again, the firefighters found devastation.

"This particular storm severely impacted the county on all levels. But the Belle Haven area was the worst," said Capt. James Walsh, station commander. "We evacuated nearly 80 people from their homes in our Zodiac inflatable boat."

Walsh estimated that they made nearly two dozen calls over their normal workload during the height of the storm and its immediate aftermath. "The department was able to maintain all our regular services as well as the extra calls associated with Isabel," Walsh said.

As the largest station in Fairfax County in terms of personnel and equipment, Penn Daw has the capabilities to respond to practically any emergency. There are 20 staff per shift on three shifts.

That complement is trained in basic life support, advanced life support, hazardous materials, water rescues by boat, technical rope rescues, below grade rescues and weapons of mass destruction. This is all in addition to the normal firefighting capabilities, according to Walsh.

PENN DAW'S equipment consists of a ladder truck, engine company, heavy rescue, ambulance, paramedic unit, brush truck, Zodiac inflatable boat and a 22-foot Boston Whaler fireboat named "The Joseph Dove." The brush truck is a four-wheel drive vehicle that can get into places not accessible to large vehicles. "It can also provide transportation in winter storm situations," Walsh said.

With all the water in the inundated areas, there was not enough to utilize the Boston Whaler. "It is normally launched from the Belle Haven Marina," Walsh said last Thursday afternoon.

That launch site is now in shambles.

Beginning early last week the entire department was having meetings in preparation for the oncoming storm. "We have been developing evacuation plans with special emphasis on low-lying areas with large populations," Walsh said.

"We have swift-water technicians, and many of our regular personnel are trained in swift-water techniques. This storm is as much a training for us as the citizens. We are taking the same precautions here at the station as we are urging the citizens to do at their homes and businesses," he added.

AS THE FIRST rains of Isabel began to fall early Thursday afternoon, that combination of personnel, equipment and training preparedness began to intensify for the night ahead.

"We are geared up like we are normally," said Technician Bill Atwell "The areas we are really watching are Belle View and the Mount Vernon Estate."

Apparatus Technician Adam Brock, who lives in Montgomery County 30 miles from the Penn Daw station, said, "I've been through a couple of hurricanes in the Washington area, and this isn't the first I've worked through. We were advised to be prepared to be here for 48 to 72 hours."

The "A" shift started at 7 a.m., Thursday, and was due to end at the same hour Friday. "Some even showed up last night and they are prepared to stay for whatever time it takes," Walsh said. "That really shows their dedication to the citizens of Fairfax County." Normally each shift is on duty for a 24-hour period.

"If this storm is really whipping tomorrow morning, more than half this shift will stay. If the new shift can't get here on time, I don't get off. I could work another 12 hours till relief shows up," he said.

As it turned out, "B" shift did get in on time Friday morning, but certain components of "A" shift, with specialized capabilities, remained on duty for an additional 24 to 48 hours, according to Walsh. Many Penn Daw firefighters were still working with Belle View and New Alexandria residents Monday as Isabel claimed her place in the weather history of the Washington region.