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Alexandria Worries About Mark Center Response Times

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A red light bulb marks a vintage piece of equipment in an outdated Alexandria fire station. It's something Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel says most responders don't use any more.
Michael Pope
A red light bulb marks a vintage piece of equipment in an outdated Alexandria fire station. It's something Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel says most responders don't use any more.

Officials in Virginia are concerned about traffic gridlock that could be created at Interstate-395 and Seminary Road when a new Department of Defense building is fully operational early next year, adding more than 6,000 daily commuters as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. 

But Alexandria firefighters, who will serve the facility, have a different set of concerns. Stepping into his black SUV in the parking lot of the Alexandria Fire Department headquarters in North Old Town, Chief Adam Thiel heads toward the west end of town -- a part of the city he says the department is lacking the manpower and equipment to quickly respond to. The ride takes about 20 minutes without his emergency lights turned on.

"Well, for us, response time is really everything," he says. Thiel's firefighters should be able to respond to calls within five to six minutes, but a lack of manpower and equipment has pushed that back to the seven to eight minute range.

"If you are in cardiac arrest, and you stop breathing and your heart stops, then if we are not able to get there and provide advanced life-support intervention with our paramedics, irreversible brain death occurs in four to six minutes," Thiel says. 

When the new location of DOD's Washington Headquarters Service is at full capacity at the Mark Center complex next year, projections show that firefighters will add another 11 to 12 minutes to respond to that area. "And then there's time to get through the building, ride the elevator, locate the patient and basically go to work," Thiel adds.

Pulling into Station 206, the Mark Center is visible rising over the horizon. But it might as well be a million miles away -- separated from the station by an already dysfunctional intersection that is expected to be jammed with traffic when the DOD building is fully staffed. Only about one-third of the 6,400 employees expected to move in have actually started working there so far.

Station 206 is slated for renovation. The 1960's-era firehouse is falling apart and filled with antique fire fighting technology. Toward the front of the station, an old pedestal with radio equipment and a red light bulb indicates that the unit is receiving electricity.

"These are sort of museum pieces or they are museum pieces elsewhere," Thieel says. "We still rely on these to accomplish our station alerting for now."

But that's just for now. In the near future, Thiel is hoping to add staffing and equipment to bring down response times at the Washington Headquarters Service -- and the rest of the west end of the city.

Michael Pope also reports for Northern Virginia's Connection Newspapers.

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