Arlington: What’s the Hurry? Where’s the Fire?

Arlington: What’s the Hurry? Where’s the Fire?

Questions raised by Task Force on Station 8 still need to be resolved.

Betsy Forinash, Richard Lolich, and Alexandra Bocian and other North Arlington residents believe Arlington County Deputy Manager Jim Schwartz must have some other agenda for pushing the relocation of Fire Station 8 from Hall’s Hill to Old Dominion and 26th Streets, because if he had read the report of the FS#8 Task Force, he’d know that doesn’t make sense.

The tenor of citizens’ remarks rose last week when word leaked out that the county was leaning towards the Old Dominion site because it was said to be more cost effective.

“What?” asked Betsy Forinash. “On what would they base that conclusion? The numbers Mr.Schwartz cited for the cost of building a temporary fire station while rebuilding a new station at the current site were cut and pasted from figures given by a developer on a proposed development in a different part of the county — and they don’t incorporate any of the cost-saving measures the task force recommended. The county failed to do its own independent analysis of the cost of a temporary station, or factor in the fuel pump move, which raises serious questions about how it can claim any savings from the Dominion Green site,” said Forinash.

This is the second time Arlington County has asked a task force to research a fire station move; the task force for Station # 3 did not recommend the current location or design of that station, and many, including firefighters, believe the result was “a disaster,” causing longer response times, because the planning was short sighted.

“The beauty of task forces,” Noah SImon said, midway through his tenure as Fire Station #8 task force chair, “is that in reviewing an issue independently, often new information comes to light, and the solution reached is better than it would have been if there been no task force.”

That’s what happened when Task Force FS#8 reached cruising altitude: they realized that the there were many factors involved in response times, and some of those needed to be addressed even more urgently than location. There were missing data points. The county was still guessing on the actual running time from Old Dominion to Chain Bridge Forest. “They literally have never done the physical run from Old Dominion to northernmost Arlington,” Alisa Cowen said, “They just ‘think’ they have reduced the time, by what? Thirty seconds?”

“What is still missing in this effort is due diligence,” said Alisa Cowen. There were not enough projections by the county on what the Lee Highway corridor would look like in 50 years, not enough independent cost estimation.

The EPAC (Emergency Preparedness Action Committee) realized this lack of data and effort as they learned more during the task force process. In a June 22 letter to the County Board they spelled out their concerns.

“EPAC learned a lot in the course of the task force,” said Cowen. “We actually educated them, and at the end of the process their representative said he came into the meetings thinking they should move the fire station but realized it wasn’t that simple.”

EPAC’s post task force feedback noted that rebuilding at the current site on Lee Highway was determined to serve the highest number of residents with a four-minute response times measured from station departure to arrival on scene. They asked the county board to consider reviewing, immediately, fire/EMS performance metrics, standards, and goals. There is a need for a common set of metrics and standards for Fire/EMS response and for a strategic goal to assist with future planning, they wrote.

In its letter, EPAC also noted the task force paid close attention to density and call volume (present and future) to specific areas of the county impacted by the alternative sites considered for Fire Station 8. EPAC representatives identified two items they believe warrant more detailed analysis by the County Board: given the concern that moving the FS8 further north would move away from the high volume of calls stemming from the Virginia Hospital Center (VHC) call box, EPAC recommended the County Board enhance its understanding of EMS response times in the affected areas and assess the risks of moving FS8 north to the Old Dominion location. Residents have said the need to do this is before a board vote, not after.

EPAC’s recent letter focused on Lee Highway Corridor Growth as a third issue that was left unresolved at the end of the task force effort, but is crucial to the decision-making process. They called for a more detailed assessment by the County Board given the concerns of task force members about projections of future growth along Lee Highway and theorized negative impacts resulting from moving FS8 farther away from Lee Highway. Without a more precise analysis of projected growth impacts on response times, including the impact of increased traffic along Lee Highway on site selection, and traffic along Old Dominion as well, it is hard to understand how good the decisionmaking could be.

“The County Board did a presentation for us less than a year ago showing a lot of apartments and heavily populated areas along the area where Fire Station 8 is located now,” said Wilma Jones. The propensity for fire is higher in apartments and older frame buildings is higher. It doesn’t make sense to take away the fire station given those projections.”

Task force members also noted that it remains the case in Arlington that the pizza delivery van can find your house before the fire department can. Why? Alisa Cowen explained: “Because the pizza companies have invested in expensive software (but less expensive than a new fire station) that link your incoming call to the geolocator in your phone. This, and other 911 call center upgrades, and opticon intersection control improvements, could reduce response times before a new fire station is even built. Why isn’t the County Board voting on a measure in the budget to address that software?”

Deputy County Manager Jim Schwartz agreed, but says these questions aren’t new: the Emergency Communications Center (ECC) is working on that. The TriData report came out in 2012, and the FCC approved in 2012 the “Next Generation 911” plan “which will change the way we respond from ‘Copper wire technology’ to the internet,” Schwartz said. “But this will require a major capital investment. And it’s a complex issue right now because of the number of 911 calls made from cell phones which don’t always grab the cell tower closest to where you are located.

“There are response time issues across the county; the fundamental factor comes from placing our stations as close to the demand as possible; after that, it’s how many units. The answer to shorter response times is to add another engine or ambulance,” Schwartz said.

Last week, the two heads of local civic associations who have been active in the issue addressed each member of the County Board to remind them that the task force was set up by the county to oversee the decision-making on the fire station move and provide an independent opinion on which location was best. If the county debates the task force’s recommendation, it negates half a year’s hard work and independent research, but worse, undermines the confidence of the community in the process of decisionmaking. Several residents noted that in school planning and fire station planning, the county has fallen short on farsightedness.

“Our view was that there had to be a total reset of the issue,” said Christian Dorsey, a newly elected board member who supported the oversight provided by the task force. “Everything had to be looked at and looked at again. The County Board did weigh in as far as saying: the Task Force has to be real: it can’t just go through the motions and act as a rubber stamp. You can always justify a course of action, but that is where accountability comes in. There has to be accountability for decisions made which affect the safety of Arlingtonians.”

The Task Force found that since the most calls for emergency services in FS #8’s service area originate from south of Lee Highway near Virginia Hospital Center, moving FS 8 to the corner of Old Dominion and 26th Street would degrade responsiveness to those high volume calls areas in favor of a slightly decreased (30 seconds less) response times to the lowest call volume area in the county. It would also remove the station from the area of proposed development and place it instead within a residentially zoned neighborhood and next to the environmentally sensitive Donaldson Run creek.

Other than performing more due diligence on the issue, residents like Forinash have disputed the budget figure of keeping the fire station where it is. The county estimated this at $3.7 million, but the did nothing to reduce the figure, despite many suggestions on how it could be reduced.

One option, using real estate on Lee Highway as a temporary station, was never acted on, and the final matrix of costs left out a major cost of moving the station to Old Dominion: a $1 million expense of moving fuel tanks. “Why didn’t the county want to do their own costing for this?” asked Alisa Cowen.

Dorsey views it a different way: the budget figure of $14.1 million for a new station was always just a placeholder. “There were questions from the beginning on whether that was a true number and reflected the actual amount the county thought a new fire station would cost. Of course, you can always find ways to cut costs when you are building something, but the cheaper option is not always the most sustainable and that is what the county is looking for: sustainable. If sustainable costs more, then you work around that.”

Schwartz defended his decision-making: “The task force said either site could work. By moving the station to Old Dominion, 3,000 additional households would be within the six-minute response time; if every single address in Arlington needs a 4-6 minute response time, we would need a total of 14-15 fire stations. I use the test: how can I do the most good for the most people?”

Schwartz also said that the development along Lee Highway would take decades: “I’m perfectly comfortable with the Old Dominion site handling that volume, he said, and if we find out later that response times are too long for that area, we will add more units.”

Schwartz stressed that he is sensitive to the Fire Station 8 issue; he wants to honor the community in other ways, but does not think the history of the station should be the most heavily weighted factor in deciding where FS#8 will be located. “But in the end,” he said, “I am very clear about who I work for, the people of Arlington and their elected representatives. The board will make a decision on this, and I will support either location based on that vote.”

The final CIP vote on the FS#8 recommendations is on July 19.

The Hall’s Hill Perspective

“Black Lives Matter” is common refrain in recent discussions among Hall’s Hill residents. But even before the Task Force started its job, Hall’s Hill residents were questioning the deputy county manager’s strong interest in relocation.

Last January, John Crone commented, as he leaned back in his seat at a local business: “No matter what you do in this situation, you are never going to make everyone 100 percent happy. But I grew up here. When you think about Hall’s Hill, you think about this fire station. So it doesn’t make sense why it would move. It seems like there is some other reason why the county would do this, not because it makes sense.”

Another customer named Keith, who didn’t want to give his last name because he was concerned about repercussions, said he had lived in Hall’s Hill a long time. He grew up around the Fire Station 8. “Think about Cherrydale,” he said. “That’s a historic fire station. They didn’t move that station. Hall’s Hill Fire Station is a historic place too. So, read between the lines. It’s all about taking safety away from this neighborhood. “

And last November, Andrew Dandridge said he was puzzled by the idea that Hall’s Hill would lose its fire station. “My aunt, Ms. Hicks, gave the land for that station,” he said. He had three uncles who were volunteer firefighters at the station. It’s not really that active, either, in terms of fires, he said. Most of the calls are for EMS services. “Why move it?”

Wilma Jones, who is a lifelong resident of Hall’s Hill said, “You need to look at this in the context of “Black Lives Matter. That’s the whole reason Fire Station 8 got started. When the Arlington government wouldn’t fight the fires in our neighborhood, we had to go fight them ourselves.”

Several Arlington residents, including Betsy Forinash and Jones, wonder if the county ever intended to honor the task force’s recommendation. Jones warned the board last year that they had to take this seriously: people were upset. She said, “Residents trust the County Board will follow through with their intention to honor the task force decision.” She noted the board, and the county, still have a long way to go to establish trust with the African-American community in Arlington, and that private Facebook accounts and social media buzz are already actively discussing the issue and watching to see what happens with the vote next week.

Another Arlington resident, Ellen Johnson, said it was her view that the County Board set up the task force to see if the decision to move the station was indeed the best move. She had confidence that the task force looked at everything, unemotionally. If the County Board entrusted them to say yes or no, and they did that after careful research, then that is the answer. There shouldn’t be a debate. And, she noted, “With everything going on in the country, the elephant in the room that people aren’t talking about is, this is a race issue. Black lives matter. The county has an opportunity here to show us that our lives matter just as much as the lives of people further north in Arlington. This is the oldest African-American fire station in the county: exactly what they are doing is taking it away from the black community and giving it to the predominantly white neighborhood. Let’s call it what it is: racism.”

One Arlington County firefighter, who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions, said firefighters in Hall’s Hill and other stations have been questioning Arlington County Deputy Manager, Jim Schwartz’s decision-making regarding medical staffing and medical equipment for Fire Station 8 and other stations for some time: requests ignored during his tenure as fire chief were approved within months of his departure by the new chief. Renovation for the firehouse, to include asbestos removal, was also not implemented, according to citizens who have toured the facility.

Schwartz said all fire stations in Arlington had state of the art equipment. “If the concern was about not adding a medical unit, then, yes: we asked repeatedly for that and it was only recently approved, but all requests are competing against other needs”.

Hall’s Hill representatives to the task force were sensitive to the concern that they would take an emotional view of the issue. The two representatives went out of their way to avoid emotion as they researched the issues of response times and EMS demand. “People are always saying we might base our views on the emotional tie we have to the station,” said Alexanda Bocian, “which is why we went out of our way to concentrate only on facts about response times and EMS needs and look at county-wide needs. The single greatest point of weakness if the station moves is Virginia Hospital Center, which will no longer have a fire station.” She noted the only “emotion” in the task force decision-making took place during the final vote, when a task force member who believed his son, a senior in high school, had died because of a failure of EMS to reach him in time to save his life, explained this was his rationale to vote for a move. Task force members said they were deeply moved, and shocked to learn of this member’s personal history only on the last day of their many months together.

“Yes, we care deeply about all residents in need of EMS,” said Alisa Cowen, a task force member, “but the sad thing is, moving the Fire Station #8 to Old Dominion and 26th Street wouldn’t have helped in that situation, and by moving the station instead of addressing the EMS response issue, the problem of getting anywhere faster is not being addressed.” This failure to address “all lives matter” is what concerns Hall’s Hill residents this week in the face of what appears to be a trend to vote against the task force decision to keep the station in place.