Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fire Station No. 6: A Contrarian Argument

As I was driving to work westward on the Athens bypass one morning last week at about 8:15, I noticed a series of three fire department vehicles (two engines and another rescue-type vehicle) complete with lights flashing and sirens wailing, coming down the ramp from North Avenue headed east on the bypass toward Old Hull Road. I assume they were dispatched from Fire Station No. 1 on College Avenue. Though I do not know precisely where the fire engines were heading, it appeared to be toward the Athens Technical College and Athena Industrial park area – you know, right where the closed Fire Station No. 6 is located.

Of course this immediately aroused my interest, as I (apparently) have been the only person in Clarke County concerned about the obvious gap in local fire protection created by the indefinite closing of Fire Station No. 6 – which has now been vacant for four full months with no projected reopening in sight.

My concern was how the indefinite closing of a station would affect property insurance ratings – a question that proved quite a chore to answer. Over the course of the past few weeks, I spoke to all manner of folks in all manner of places. To make a very long story short, I eventually got hold of a real live person in the “mitigation” section of the Insurance Services Office (ISO) regarding its Public Protection Classification ratings, the group that to a large part determines what I pay for property insurance. I was told that information pertaining to the ratings was “proprietary” and that I would have to go through the local fire chief in order for them to talk to me.

That being the case, I had an informative chat with Chief Iby George of the Athens-Clarke County Fire & Emergency Services Department a week ago today.

The gist of that conversation is that the Unified Government has until 10 June to submit its application for that “economic stimulus” grant it wants from the Obama Administration to rebuild Fire Station No. 6 (of course, one may argue as to how this constitutes economic stimulus in any meaningful manner – as opposed to routine government spending – but that is another matter concerning which I did not quiz the good chief). About 30 days after that, the folks down at City Hall should then know whether the grant will be forthcoming.

If the grant does not come through and the Unified Government elects to repair the existing roof, the process to make the station fully operational again should take from six to nine months after the bid process is completed (partial operations could resume somewhat sooner). Even if one assumes the most optimistic of circumstances, Fire Station No. 6 will be closed for more than a full year at the very least.

If, on the other hand, the Unified Government secures its desired federal largesse, demolition of the existing structure and building of a new station is expected to take between 18 and 24 months after the bid process is completed (as it was explained to me, the grant has a limit of three years). Given that scenario, Fire Station No. 6 may be closed for more than three years.

The prospect of such an extended closure is what prompted my concern in the first place. I am told that, given the distribution of the county’s other fire stations, the absence of Fire Station No. 6 should not affect “prescribed” response times to a significant degree, certainly not enough to cause concern. The nearest stations are Fire Station No. 1 on College Avenue and Fire Station No. 9 on Danielsville Road though, in my opinion, it is a long haul from either to the more remote portions of the county formerly served by Fire Station No.6.

Apparently, as long as the prescribed response times are theoretically maintained though other stations and Fire Station No. 6 is back in operation at the time of the Department’s ten-year ISO renewal, no one seems to share my concerns as to its lengthy closure. To me, at least, this calls the accuracy and utility of the ISO’s ratings into serious question – but that is just me.

Also, I am told that Clarke County has agreements with regard to neighboring “mutual aid responders,” which means the volunteer fire departments in Winterville, Madison County, Oglethorpe County, etc. No disrespect intended, but if a school (e.g. Winterville Elementary School, Coile Middle School, Athens Technical College) or an industry (e.g. Nakanishi Manufacturing, Certainteed, Carrier Transicold, Invista, Merial Limited, Noramco) or some other such structure in the Clarke County hinterland goes up in flames, I’m not counting on much help from a volunteer fire department located half an hour away (okay, the one in Winterville is local, but the point remains).

For those interested, I confirmed that Fire Station No. 10, located at Athens-Ben Epps Airport, is operated as part of the airport rather than as part of the Fire & Emergency Services Department. Its staff and equipment are required for the conduct of flight operations, so neither leave the airport’s property.

With the caveat that I think that repairs should be made to the existing structure so as to get Fire Station No. 6 operational again as soon as possible, that station being the closest one to a large portion of the county’s industries and to those homes and schools in the northeastern part of the county, here comes the contrarian argument:

1. If Fire Station No. 6 is a vital part of the county’s fire protection system (as the Unified Government’s intention to either repair or rebuild it – not to mention common sense – would indicate), the objective should be getting the station back up and running as soon as possible. Thus repairing the roof of the existing station would be the correct course of action.

2. If Fire Station No. 6 is not a vital part of the county’s fire protection system (as its closure for a period that may well stretch into years
and the claim that such an absence does not substantially degrade the level of fire protection across the county – would indicate), why repair or rebuild the station at all? Why not save the taxpayers a substantial sum by permanently closing the station?

It seems to me that the Unified Government is maintaining diametrically opposed positions merely because it may have the opportunity to get a new fire station on someone else’s dime. But of course, all of those government dimes, be they local, state, or federal, ultimately come from the same pocket don’t they?

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