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Decision on Fire Station 8 Location Is Nearing

Fire Station 8 (Courtesy of Arlington County Fire Department)The Arlington County Board is holding a work session this afternoon that will include discussion of the county’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and, along with it, Fire Station 8.

Last year, after a proposal to move the station from Lee Highway to county-owned land near Marymount University prompted an outcry from both residents who live near the current station and the proposed location, the county established a task force to consider the issue. With input from the task force, Board is expected to make a decision on the station location by the time it approves the CIP next Tuesday.

Residents near the fire station want it to remain where it is largely because of its historic significance to the community. Those near the proposed site are worried about noise and traffic issues, as well as a loss of green space. A majority of the task force agreed, voting in May to recommend keeping it at its current site.

However, supporters of the move — including fire department officials and County Manager Mark Schwartz — still say that it’s necessary to improve fire and EMS response times in northern Arlington and to modernize the fire station.

Additionally, keeping the station where it is will cost more money: because the land it sits on is smaller than the proposed site, a new station there must be built higher. It would also require the construction of a temporary fire station.

Among those supporting the move is long-time local civic figure and former Fire Station 8 task force member Jim Pebley, who says it’s the right thing to do from both a safety and financial perspective.

Pebley recently wrote the following letter to the County Board.

Dear Ms. Garvey and County Board Members,

This letter is provided to you as my personal input (not representing any extant group) with regard to your considerations about relocating/replacing the County’s current Fire Station Eight facility. As you will recall, I served as the EPAC representative on the Ad Hoc Task Force (TF) that was asked to provide recommendations about the location and building of a new Fire Station Eight. In that capacity, I attended 8 of 10 TF meetings but had to step down to undergo surgery for lung cancer. Now recovering, I find myself personally very strongly in support of the County Manager’s recent recommendation for relocating the fire station.

Had I been able to complete my TF service, there certainly would have been a dissenting opinion regarding the TF’s site recommendation along with an alternative rationale supporting relocating the fire station to the 26th Street North and Old Dominion (26th/OD) location. No other site, including the current one comes close to being as well suited. My rationale is as follows:

  • The current location is too small to site a modern facility planned intended to last for 50 or more years. The County planning documents presented to the TF clearly recommended a 1.5 acre site. The current site is 0.8 acres or less. While it may be feasible to double-deck the new station, the front apron space, rear parking and maneuvering space for vehicles will be highly constricted – not to mention constraining parking for station personnel.
  • The task force expended significant amounts of time dissecting the nature of “response times.” I concluded early on that there are no locations in the Fire Station Eight service area where all locations could be reached in 4 or 6 minutes. The point of emergency response is to arrive at all locations in the shortest amount of time possible. That would dictate, as indicated in two successive Tri-Data studies (by paid subject matter experts), that the station should be located nearest to the center of the service area – making the 26th/OD site clearly best suited. Several task force members indicated a belief that serving the largest portion of the population within a 4 minute response would dictate the current location. But – by that logic, to reach the largest population statistically, the station should be located farther south; a conclusion that proves the latter viewpoint (keeping the current location) illogical and indefensible.
  • Rebuilding on current site will require establishment of an interim site through use of tents to protect vehicles and gear as well as temporary buildings to host all the functions currently required (sleeping, training, galley, laundry, protective gear storage, breathing apparatus recharging, vehicle refueling, and the list goes on…) The additional cost to rebuild on the current undersized lot was estimated at more than $3M, and no estimate was made regarding how the delay might inflate contracting estimates by the delay incurred in demolishing the current facility.
  • I believe that asking our firefighters and emergency medical technicians to operate under such temporary conditions for one to two years in all weather extremes in order to squeeze a new station into the wrong location is unjustifiable and probably harmful to station crew moral.
  • Future growth along Lee Highway was cited by the task force as a rationale to stay put. That logic ignores the impact of locating the station along an increasingly busy thoroughfare where rush hour traffic jams multiple intersections for more than 6 hours daily. Increased population density along Lee Highway will undoubtedly exacerbate traffic congestion and further impact response times. The site relocated at 26th Street and Old Dominion (26th/OD) would facilitate answering calls along less crowded routes that cross Lee Highway at single intersections to reach calls. Unfortunately, this aspect was not considered by the task force.
  • While the County Manager’s office has conducted extensive outreach to the North Arlington community, the make-up of the task force membership as appointed in effect, destined the group to come to only one conclusion, since community representatives were appointed only from civic associations vigorously opposed to the move (with the exception of one community representative whose association lies completely outside the fire station’s service area). No representatives from any of the other 10 plus civic associations whose service would be affected by the site selection were included as TF members. Moreover, it was also unfortunate that 2 of the 4 county-wide representatives chose not to indicate a preference. Members of unrepresented communities whom I have spoken with appeared unaware of the impact keeping the current site will continue to have on response times to their homes. In other words, without serving on the TF, they did not have the benefit of considering the information provided only at the TF meetings.

Finally, I would urge our County Board members to carefully read the recommendations of your Emergency Preparedness Advisory Commission (EPAC) on this matter. The EPAC is the commission whose charter is devoted to advising you on such issues and whose membership included numerous subject matter experts with professional backgrounds in public safety and preparedness. They have twice voted unanimously to recommend the 26th/OD site; once before the task force was formed and again after reviewing the task force’s report. To ignore their recommendations, in my own opinion, brings into question the value of their efforts on the County’s behalf.

While the efforts of the Fire Station Eight Task Force’s members were well intentioned and the Chair, Noah Simon’s leadership efforts at pursing a balanced view was highly commendable, I must conclude that County Board’s best counsel has been offered by the County Manager and the EPAC. I would urge you all to resist the pressure to accommodate three vocal community groups and not place their various motivations ahead of sound public safety management — since ultimately the welfare of all of our county’s residents is your responsibility as our elected leaders.

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