A $4.1M fire station rehab, but where are the fire fighters?

When the $4.1 million renovation of Fire Station No. 5 is completed, there will be plenty of reasons to boast. The station, located on a crumbling, 32-year-old pier overlooking Commencement Bay along Ruston Way, will include a joint police and fire maritime operations center, additional moorage for fire boats and other emergency vessels, a building with expanded space for law enforcement, and structural fixes that went unaddressed for too long.

But with the city in the midst of a budget shortfall, and police officer and fire fighter positions in jeopardy, will there be enough money to staff the new station?

That question was raised Thursday by members of Tacoma City Council’s public safety and human services committee.

“We don’t have plans to staff it at this time,” said interim Fire Chief James Duggan. “When the fire boat was needed, we would take existing crews that are already out at their stations and draw them to the fire boat station, and from there they would take the fire boat to the incident.”

Roger Edington, a medical services officer in the Tacoma Fire Department, echoed the point: “Station five is not currently a staffed facility so, obviously with budget constraints, there is no current plan to staff that station.”

Last year, officials announced the city’s General Fund budget faced a $26 million shortfall through 2012. One proposal called for balancing the budget by eliminating 56 positions within the Tacoma Police Department and 44 positions within the Tacoma Fire Department.

Still, the renovation is moving forward.

Last spring, city council awarded a $411,105 contract to Reid Middleton for design and permitting work on the project. The $4,088,000 renovation is being paid for by using $3 million in bonds issued by the city three years ago, and $1,088,000 from a federal port security grant awarded last year. During the meeting last week, the council committee approved a recommendation to amend the city’s contract with Reid Middleton by spending an additional $57,374 to develop plans related to ground improvement, mitigation, and site monitoring. The city is tentatively scheduled to advertise for competitive bids in July, award a construction contract in August, and begin construction in September.

The project’s recent history dates back to Feb. 24, 2011, when Edington and Jeff Jensen of the Tacoma Fire Department, as well as Tacoma Public Works project manger Joshua Clarke, briefed the same committee on the plan. The trio told the committee the fire station, located at 3301 Ruston Way, is in need of seismic retrofitting, and the pier’s pilings suffer from “broken brace timbers, marine borer damage, split sections, and heavy fungal damage.” The damage is so severe, a fire boat typically moored at the station was relocated to station 18 on the Tacoma tide flats.

“It’s of pretty significant importance in terms of the Tacoma Fire Department providing marine services,” Edington told council committee members. He also noted that fire boats located at Station 18, beneath the Murray Morgan Bridge, must travel a significant distance in a five-mile-per-hour zone before they can increase their speeds and respond to emergencies on Commencement Bay and near Point Defiance Park and Tacoma Narrows Bridge. A boat moored at Station No. 5 can be on the scene within minutes. Renovating the fire station would also help to maintain the accreditation the fire department was awarded in 2009 by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.

During the council committee meeting last week, Tacoma Public Works Director Richard McKinley said one of the realities of Station No. 5 is that it really is not in good shape — a factor taken into consideration when the city used bonds to pay for the upgrade. “If you are in that building, you feel every wave, the thing moves around — I mean, it’s really not safe,” said McKinley. “So the city was in a position of probably facing tearing it down and doing all of the environmental cleanups and remediations, or retaining that structure and making it safe. So the decision of the council at that time was let’s not lose this thing. Let’s save it, let’s make it good and keep those options open in the future. It fits into the response plans very well to how police and fire serve that area on hot busy summer days. It is an important piece of the system.”

“Adding the moorage back is a very important piece,” said Edington. “We do continue to have marine services provided through the Tacoma Fire Department. Our current moorage facility at Station 18 is in need of repair also. So we really have to have somewhere to moor our fire boats. This really addresses that.”

Still, several councilmembers noted that with Station No. 5 unstaffed, it would still take time for personnel at land-based fire departments nearby, such as Station No. 1, No. 13 or No. 14 to reach Station No. 5, board a fire boat, and respond to the incident.

“So, it may not reduce our response time because we have to get someone there and get them on the boat safely,” said Councilmember Joe Lonergan.

To that end, Duggan and Edington noted the obvious: the easiest solution, of course, is to staff Station No. 5.

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Tacoma City Council OKs contract for fire station renovation (03/31/11) — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1951158&more=0

Tacoma moves forward on $4.1M waterfront fire station renovation (03/01/11) — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1934086&more=0