The Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department is facing some big changes. Some they want, some are being approached with trepidation. All involve rebuilding the existing fire station and replacing it with a more modern and accessible building.
The current fire station was built in 1959 as an all-volunteer department. Today it houses both volunteer firefighters and career firefighters who work for the county. Staff live there on 24-hour shifts in order to respond immediately to emergency calls for fire and medical assistance and for swift water response in the Potomac River.
But that is not how the building was designed to be used. “It was built as a station that would store the apparatus while firefighters worked from home,” said Volunteer Chief Homer Johns. “I remember when the bell would ring and everyone would leave their jobs and come to the station and go out from there.” Johns has been with the Great Falls Volunteer Fire department for 36 years.
The Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department owns the land and the building that the station sits on.
As the staff and the vehicles have grown over time, the firehouse has been unable to keep pace and is, in places, ripping at the seams. Because the bays that house the trucks are tight and also serve as a makeshift exercise room, firefighters sometimes have to move one emergency vehicle out of the way to get another one out. Also, unlike most fire stations, the Great Falls facility does not have a light outside the station that stops traffic to let go trucks responding to an emergency. “There are times when we have to wait to get out, which doesn’t make sense since the cars just have to pull over down the road anyway,” said Johns.
THE INTERIOR OF THE STATION has been remodeled several times to accommodate staff but it makes for close quarters. “The kitchen serves as the dining room, the conference room, the meeting room and the kitchen. There’s no separation between the food prep area and the eating area,” said Johns.
During last year's hurricane and the winter snow storms staff were held back at the station to enable them to respond adequately to emergencies. “There aren’t enough sleeping facilities for everyone. This has an effect on morale,” Johns said.
There is one bunk for a female firefighter that is less than spacious. “I’ve seen better homeless conditions,” Johns said. Additionally, to make room for the female bunk, the volunteers' staff’s office was taken to make room for the control room.
“We need a better facility. That’s why we are trying to raise funds for a new firehouse. This place was not built for 24/7 operations,” said Johns.
The Volunteer Fire Department paid for the design plans for the new facility. They wanted to ensure the facade would be in keeping with the town's history. The new station is modeled after a dairy barn, which harkens back to Great Falls beginnings as dairy and pasture land. They even included a bell tower on top of the building that will house the old town school bell.
THE VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT has been trying to raise the $4 million they need for a new station for several years without much success. “We’re not getting the big money, explains Ali Jian, a volunteer firefighter. What little money they have been able to raise goes into daily operational expenses. One of those expenses is having to pump their septic system several times a week, at a cost of nearly $200 each time, because the septic system has failed.
Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois would like to see the county enter into a partnership with the Volunteer Fire Department to rebuild the station. “It’s in the Capital Improvement Program. It’s a low priority but it’s still in there,” said DuBois. “It’s early in the process of figuring out how we can work together to get a new firehouse. It’s definitely something that’s needed for the volunteers and for the paid firefighters,” said DuBois.
“The idea would be to get them moved up in the program and find a funding mechanism,” DuBois said. She told citizens at a recent town meeting that a cost analysis for the fire station was being done and that she didn’t “know how it was all going to sort out but you’ve definitely got your foot in the tent. The chances are good.”
The volunteer department isn’t so sure they want to get into bed with the county in order to get a new station built. “If the county gets involved it’s going to take longer than if we do it ourselves,” said Jian.
They are also fighting a perception problem because the building they are currently in is not crumbling or unsound; they’ve simply outgrown it. “Do we need a new station. That looks fine to me. That’s the way it’s always been,” said Stephen McLeod.
There is also an underlying issue of whether volunteer staff is being phased out. Several Great Falls Volunteer firefighters say the effort by the county to help re-build the facility is really a chess move to phase out the volunteer staff. “A lot of volunteer stations in the area, after turning over to the county, the volunteers disappeared. If the county takes over they control it,” said Johns.
At one time there were 23 volunteer fire departments in the county. That number is down to two, according to Johns, and both are partnered with the county in some way.
DuBois points to nearby McLean, which has a hybrid of the two departments, as an example that the partnership model works. “They are doing it in McLean without problems. I think it can be done in Great Falls as well,” said DuBois.
Still, said Johns, “If we could raise the money ourselves we would prefer it.”
“People living here now came from big cities and don’t realize there’s a difference,” said Johns. He points out the difference is in the act of volunteering only. Both are trained the same way and have similar capabilities.
RAISING THE MILLIONS NEEDED for the new firehouse is not the Volunteer Fire Department's forte. Annually they send out requests for funds but barely cover the basic operating costs with that money. Johns is beginning to target individuals who might be able to make the substantial contributions they need and is thinking about a gala fund-raiser. The Great Falls Women’s Club holds a Casino Night for the station that Johns said “helps, we appreciate it. Every dime counts.”
If the county were to take over the station, many of the events residents have come to know would disappear. “A lot of the things we do — the fruit sale, crab feast, youth mulch sale — would cease to exist because the county doesn’t allow it so it’s in the community's interest” to ensure the station stays with the volunteers, said Jian.
The Volunteer Fire Department does little things for the community that often go unnoticed. “Last year we took the pump truck and filled up the horses' water troughs in the area when the power was out and people on pumps couldn’t get any water,” said Johns.
Should the Volunteer Fire Department raise the money, they expect rebuilding the new station to take about 14 months. “This would be torn down. Firefighters could live in trailers out back while it was being rebuilt,” said Johns. “It’s unfair to have these guys live in trailers longer than they have to. The career guys spend a third of their lives here,” Johns added.
Activity at the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Station can be sporadic. “Some days we won’t turn a wheel, others it’s six times a day,” said Johns. “That may not sound like a lot but if they live here, sometime during their lifetime they are going to call us. I hate to say it but even when you die, you’re going to need us. We’re the one that gets that call.”