A presentation by Fire Chief Buddy Martinette on the plan to replace four aging fire stations with two new, larger stations will happen Tuesday, July 8 at the Wilmington City Council meeting at 6:30 p.m.
The history of Wilmington's Fire Department pre-dates 1846, when it became a named, organized volunteer organization.
As the city has grown to well over 100,000 residents, so too has the WFD. Today the department encompasses 11 fire stations, 207 uniformed personnel (189 responding to calls), 12 engine companies and a host of other specialized units.
Now, the WFD is gearing up for a historic change: the closing of four fire stations and the replacement of just two of those facilities; along with a major redeployment of staff and equipment.
The physical footprint of the WFD will transform over the next two years with the closing of:
• Station 3 at 3933 Princess Place Drive
• Station 5 at 1502 Wellington Avenue
• Station 6 at 3939 Carolina Beach Road and
• Station 4 at 310 Wallace Drive
Taking their place will be two new state-of-the-art fire stations located on new plots of land.
Fire administration presented this new deployment plan to City Council on June 6, 2011 and the changes have been in motion ever since. While the proposal does not include any reduction in personnel, vocal members within the department are pushing back.
Recently, off-duty teams have gone door-to-door in affected neighborhoods handing out fliers, asking residents to contact City Council if they have concerns.
The need for change was initiated by a 2008 facility study conducted by Stewart Cooper Newell, based out of Columbia, South Carolina. The study looked at five existing stations (Stations 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6) and three divisions (Logistics, Training & Fire Prevention).
The purpose was to determine whether or not each of the five stations met the department's needs both at present and in the future.
For the purpose of this report, Station 2 was not considered as it has already been rebuilt on the existing property after mold issues forced the building to be vacated.
After considering the feedback, Chief C.V. "Buddy" Martinette ultimately decided to reconfigure the deployment of the station's trucks and manpower entirely, instead of addressing specific issues at each individual station.
This includes moving Station 4's company into Station 8, combining Stations 5 & 6 into a new facility on Shipyard Boulevard and moving Station 3 into a new facility on Cinema Drive.
"The idea is to look at the system as a whole and decide where these stations need to be located to provide the greater good for everyone," said Martinette.
His prerogative, however, has not been embraced by his entire department. Although the plan is well underway firefighters have started flier campaigns and social media initiatives (http://on.fb.me/UMTZJ7) in protest, hoping to garner public support against the changes.
While no jobs will be lost in the process, only reassigned, these men and women are skeptical over the decision to eliminate stations entirely, which have served the area for decades. In addition, they do not agree that the service standards they are currently meeting will be retained. Under the proposed changes, some residents are predicted to see an increase in response time.
"Our job is to continue to promote change that provides a better system and the vast majority of our employees understand that," said Martinette. "We're going to continue to mentor the ones that don't."
The outspoken firefighters believe that rather than building new facilities, the department should instead renovate and/or rebuild stations on the city-owned property they currently sit on. They feel this is the most cost-effective and performance-preserving approach. They point out that while some facility sites are small; others have an adequate two acres providing room for additions.
Moreover, they're concerned that a "hole" will be created by removing stations which will soon necessitate the building of yet another two stations – exactly where the original structures were shut down.
Chief Martinette counters that renovating is a "BandAid approach" that will require ongoing and unforeseen costs associated with maintaining aging structures. He adds that modern storm water standards make it impractical to use the current plots of land.
In regards to the "hole" created by shutting down a station, Martinette counters that other nearby stations will be able to move into those territories and provide coverage.
The City has already purchased new plots of land where the future stations will be. The fire station on Cinema Drive is being built on two parcels, $357,000 and $355,000 each. These are adjacent and almost identical in size (1.13 acres and 1.12 acres).
The prices paid where 2.89% and 3.47% higher than the appraised value, respectively, but the added cost is being attributed to the lack of options available to meet the service needs of that geographic area. The City says the 3% premium was worth the location and the slated road improvements will increase property values along the road.
The Shipyard property was appraised at $620,000 and the city paid $615,000 for it.
The construction budget for each fire station is between $2.5 and $3 million. Station 3 is predicted to be more expensive as the facility is slated to be larger. Formal construction bids have yet to come back to the City, but the Cinema Drive bid is expected by June 19th.
According to Martinette this plan will save taxpayers $6 million plus on-going operational costs of running four stations. His math comes from comparing the cost of rebuilding four stations as compared to two. He estimates the cost of replacing all of the stations at $15 million, which would have included the now rebuilt Station 2.
Some firefighters argue that based on the construction drawings, achieving the new Station 3's $2.5-3 million budget is highly unlikely at an estimated 10,000 square feet. Martinette says the design was largely created by a committee of fire fighters and will provided needed parking space and community areas.
Still, given its size, some firefighters question why just four men and women will be working on site at any one time.
While Stations 5 & 6 will combine at the new Shipyard Blvd. station, under the current plan, after Station 4 is shut down the company will not move into the new Station 3, but rather combine with Station 8 on Eastwood Road.
This will leave one company at the new facility, however; Martinette says that will likely change as the city and fire department grows in the future.
"The citizens are paying a fire Chief to come in and provide a modern, progressive, organized, efficient fire department that is appropriate for the size and that's affordable for the tax payers," said Martinette. "That's what we've done here at the Wilmington Fire Department."
"According to the study that was done by Stewart Newell - that the citizens of Wilmington paid for - they acknowledged all of that [storm water, ADA compliance, etc] plus they acknowledged that rebuilding would take care of everything," countered Donald Ragavage, President of the Wilmington Professional Firefighters Association. "It would bring the stations up to ADA compliance, it would give us the square footage that we need and the City wouldn't have to go out and spend $1.3 million on less than 4 acres of land to build just two stations!"
Martinette feels the effort led against his deployment plan is largely – emotional. He claims all decisions were made based on historical data and GIS information which supported the changes. After analyzing call data, Martinette says it's only logical to put more "muscle" where there is more activity.
"These firefighters, they are very emotionally attached to these facilities and that's what you're hearing here," said Martinette. "They love these places and they don't want these places to change."
"To some extent I agree with him," Ragavage responded. "But it's not emotional attachment to the buildings, it's emotional attachment to the people we serve."
The issue over money aside, it's the impact to service quality that some firefighters are most concerned about. The team that shared their frustrations with WECT has also been going door-to-door in the Winter Park and Echo Farm's neighborhoods handing out fliers.
Boldly titled "Your Fire Station Is Closing!" the announcement goes on to explain:
"You will be paying the same amount of taxes for a reduced service, decrease in safety and increased response times to you and your family. Do you think this is fair?"
At the bottom of the flier, phone numbers and email addresses are provided for City Council members and Martinette. They are asking each resident to get in touch with officials if they have questions and concerns about the changes.
Martinette says he has yet to receive a complaint call from a resident over the issue.
According to fire administration, both historical and GIS data was used to assess call volume and response time. He says while trucks currently have a 4:00 minute travel time 88-percent of the time, his plan will provide a 4:30 travel time at 90-percent of the time. The 4:30 time will be the department's new goal.
He argues that the 30 second addition to some areas will not put the public at additional risk during emergencies.
"Somebody who lives next to one of these facilities is going to get a good level of service," said Martinette. "It is not going to be the same level of service because obviously the fire station is not next door anymore, but it will be an adequate level of service for this community and we're comfortable that we're going to be able to provide that."
Some firefighters, however, strongly disagree.
"We're striving to reduce our response time, not increase our response time!" exclaimed Ragavage. "If you take one of those clogs out of the wheel, that response time goes up and the percentages go down and that's where it's so critical that we keep our stations open to give that blanket coverage throughout the city."
Ragavage points to the 4:00 minute travel time the National Fire Protection Association considers the national standard. He doubts the promise of an emergency vehicle being able to meet even a 4:30 travel time if it must turn out onto traffic-heavy roads like Shipyard Blvd, Carolina Beach Road, Market Street and College Road.
He says the current stations are built on back roads for a reason – to avoid battling car congestion.
"It's obvious this man has never tried to drive a fire truck up South College Road between 1:30 and 4:00 in the afternoon," said Ragavage.
If the future Station 3 needs to cross College Road to get to UNCW, Ragavage says based on his experienced, there isn't a chance the truck will make it in 4:30 minutes.
"To blanket the city under a national standard time is under four minutes," reiterated Ragavage. "Not four-and-a-half and not five minutes, but four minutes!"
While data was indeed used to generate the predicted 4:30 travel time to some areas of town, until trucks are actually running from the new buildings it can only be an estimate.
Martinette says the firefighters are overlooking the fact that the response time will actually improve in the areas where the new stations will operate from.
The Commission on Fire Accreditation International recently awarded the Wilmington Fire Department with accreditation after a lengthy review process.
The Commission explained that the WFD's accreditation was based on how their systems currently operate. The department will have to submit yearly data to show they are maintaining their standards.
It will be another five years before the WFD is up for accreditation renewal, at which time the scope of the change's impact will be better known.
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