Last Updated: May 16th, 2014 - 12:32:22


New fire station to boost response times
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Apr 28, 2014, 15:41

JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Construction crews recently erected the steel beams that form the structure of the new fire station.
CHESTERFIELD — The steel beams have gone up on a new fire station that will help improve response times throughout southern Chesterfield.

Station 21, located at 16901 Harrowgate Road, near the intersection of Route 1 just north of Colonial Heights, is expected to handle about 1,500 calls a year once it opens.

Chesterfield Fire Chief Edward “Loy” Senter Jr., who has been with the county for five and a half years, said the idea for the station came long before he moved from Norfolk.

He said he found a study that was done in 1973 that recommended this station be built sometime in the 1980s.

The construction process dates back to when it was approved as part of the 2004 bond referendum. The land was purchased and the designs were done in 2007 and 2008.

But the station was put on hold because of the impact of the Great Recession.

“It’s taken a long time to get to this point, so we are certainly excited about being able to get this station constructed and open,” Senter said.

The fire station is expected to open in early 2015. The original estimate was January 2015 but weather has set back that estimate.

The total cost of station 21 is $7,439,600. That includes land acquisition, design, engineering, site work, apparatus and furnishings. Building construction cost is $3,699,000 and land cost was $271,300.

Senter said this building is a different design than other stations in the county. This is a pre-engineered steel-framed building rather than the cinderblock stations that currently exist.

This new design will help bring down the cost and also allow for flexibility in the future if they need to make changes.

Senter said the county has looked at it a few times to try and move forward, but the biggest issue is the operating cost. The annual operating cost of the station with just a fire engine and 12 crew members will be about $1.2 million, which includes salaries, benefits, fuel and maintenance. If they add a medic unit in later years, that amount will climb to $1.8 million a year. The numbers depend somewhat on the experience level of the personnel. Some people will be moved around from other stations so that there is a good mix of the right people.

Fire officials were approached in fiscal year 2011 about opening the station with reduced staffing. If the station were fully staffed, it would have a fire engine and an ambulance and 21 personnel assigned to them to work around the clock.

“We looked at the demands in that area. We looked at what are the risks in that area and problems that we are having in response times and so what I recommended early on was that we could do a reduced staffing profile if we just put a fire engine only in there,” Senter said.

He said the reason is that a fire engine can cover all of the needs of any call. All personnel are cross-trained for fire and medical emergencies and fire trucks carry all the equipment you would find on an ambulance except for the stretcher.

The fire truck can’t transport a patient but can get there quickly and treat the patient while an ambulance is only a few minutes away.

The Board of Supervisors voted last year to move ahead with construction of the station. The county administrator’s proposed budget includes funding for the 12 personnel needed to man the fire engine, but not the ambulance.

Senter said there is still a lot up in the air with the budget process.

Response times

Senter said response time are longer than they should be in the southern end of Chesterfield and the demand for service is high.

“We’ve had some serious fires down there in the past six months with the VDOT multi-alarm fire and a fire in the Amherst Ridge neighborhood that destroyed one home and damaged three others,” he said.

Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal James R. Dawson said it took 10 minutes to get to the Amherst fire and it would only take about one minute to get there from this new station.

“We certainly would have been able to save adjacent properties,” he said.

Dawson said that in 1977 the “survivability” of a fire was 13 minutes. In new homes with lots of synthetic materials and lighter construction, that is now down to just three minutes.

“And now with modern construction, we are seeing flashover in three minutes and structural collapse in six,” he said.

“Seconds count. The longer it takes you to get to a fire, the faster things really, really go downhill,” Senter said.

Senter said the closest stations to the new one are the Chester fire station and the Dutch Gap fire station.

“Consequently, Station 1 and Station 14 are two of our busiest fire stations in the county,” Senter said. “That further compounds our response time challenges in this area.”

Those stations may be on another call when they are needed in the southern end of the county.

If it is a multi-alarm fire, it will pull in crews from further away, including Colonial Heights, which has an automatic aid agreement with Chesterfield.

“I think both localities are going to benefit from the station because obviously we are going to close response times in that area of the county, and we will be available with our mutual aid agreement to respond and back them up,” Senter said.

He said there is already great regional cooperation.

The area of the county is currently covered by Bensley-Bermuda Volunteer Rescue Squad for patient transport and there is a daytime ambulance deployed from the Ettrick Fire Station.

But Senter said that when an ambulance is on a call, they are tied up for an hour and 13 minutes, so it is very important to have overlapping coverage.

He said fire engines are typically tied up on calls for a lot shorter time unless there is an actual fire.

Senter said they are only hitting their response time goal about 12-14 percent of the time in the southern end of the county. He said the reason for that is these units are tied up longer because they are transporting patients, so other units have to come from farther away to respond.

Senter said the new station also helps with maintaining an effective firefighting force. He said while a house fire might require 20 or so firefighters, a large building might take 60 or more with multiple alarms.

Senter said with new large businesses in the Meadowville Technology Park such as Amazon and Capital One and other large developments such as the Walthall and Ashton Creek business parks, the additional crews will help protect business interests.

“We’ve got some pretty significant investments that have been made by companies there. … There’s so many to name that have invested millions of dollars into that facility and having a fire unit down there is going to help improve the response times,” he said. He said that can improve the rates they get for insurance.

Dawson said 18 percent of the industrial properties in the county are located in the area of the new fire station.

And the station will also help make sure there is enough manpower to fight fires in the eastern end of the county. “There are some very big and unique buildings that have never been built in this county before,” he said.

They will also help cover new developments to the west as Virginia State University expands with a new convocation center and other construction.

The station will also be where the fire department will store its mass casualty equipment because of its location to Interstate 295 and the rail corridor. The vehicle is like an ambulance-bus that is used to quickly set up a triage area in the event of a large accident, train derailment or other emergency.

“The personnel at the station will sort of be our team to get that equipment out the door in the event of a mass casualty event anywhere in the county or in central Virginia,” he said.

Senter said they received a grant for the equipment so its available anywhere in the region. He said the station’s location gives them good access to the interstates.

The station will also house some reserve vehicles.

Look to future

Senter said growth in the southern end of the county has been a factor in the need for the new fire station, but he said the county is behind the curve.

“We really haven’t been able to keep up with the growth rate in the county,” he said.

New subdivisions have already been approved and could add to this.

The Comprehensive Plan identifies other places in the county that will also need new fire stations in the next 15 to 20 years.

The next area of the county in need of a fire station would be Courthouse Road and Route 288. Land was purchased there several years ago with that purpose in mind.

Senter said that although that was a 2004 bond referendum purchase, he doesn’t foresee that station being built anytime in the near future with the budget situation.

Senter said the cost of construction is not the biggest expenditure, because it cost a lot more money for daily operations.

“That’s a lot of money to operate a station, but it’s certainly needed. We just need to make some choices as a county, what type of revenue do we have, what pressing needs have to be addressed first, and so over time we hope to be able to build some more stations,” he said.

He said growth in the county will have a big impact on where and when new stations will be built.

Senter said the county also needs to look at replacing some of its older stations.

The fire stations in Chester, Matoaca and Midlothian need to be replaced and may need to be relocated to better positions to make them more accessible. Senter said the Ettrick station is the oldest and the county has some land nearby to eventually relocate that station.

He said they may also add a station in the Highlands area, just west of Chester, but it could take many years.

Senter said the county has also ordered four new fire tankers that can help transport water areas where they can’t reach hydrants. He said design changes to fire engines in the past five year also allow them to carry more water.

He said the county will have doubled the capacity to shuttle water to a fire scene.

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