City Council members were split when discussing whether to focus city funds on improving the existing Williamsburg Fire Station on North Boundary Street or building a second fire station in the city.
While some council members supported remodeling the existing station and exploring the need for a second fire station in the future, others said Williamsburg would be better served by using those funds to build a second station now to be able to respond more quickly to more areas of the city.
Discussions around new fire and police stations started in 2016, City Manager Andrew Trivette said at Monday’s meeting. The fire station and city’s police department on Armistead Avenue were both built in the 1970s, according to a past Virginia Gazette report.
The idea continued in 2017 when James City County architectural firm GuernseyTingle was hired to conduct a study on how best to renovate or replace the aging buildings. Also in 2017, the city set aside $13.1 million in General Obligation Bonds to fund the construction of new police and fire stations, he said.
“Where we are now is deciding if we going to invest primarily in our existing current central station or if we’re going to start looking at becoming a two-station model, and if we are, how are we going to do that,” Trivette said.
In a presentation led by Trivette and Fire Chief Pat Dent, city staff recommended City Council support moving forward with design plans to renovate and modernize the existing fire station, while also designating a future site for a second fire station in the city as need increases.
“The advantages of that is that we get to take the time to really consider growth patterns to make sure that those materialize,” Trivette said. “Also, over time, we can build the staff into the existing station that would be needed to staff that second station so that it’s not so much of a hardship all at one time when opening the second station.”
Dent said more staff is also sorely needed at the fire department. He said the Williamsburg Fire Department is staffed by 41 full-time employees, 35 of whom are firefighters, medics and other operations-related roles. The rest work in administration, he said.
With the current number of employees, a minimum of 11 people are on duty per each 24-hour shift at the station. The problem with that, however, is that growing call volumes cause fire department staff to devote most of their time to emergency response, leaving little time for necessary training or rest.
Adding more full-time employees to each shift would alleviate pressure on existing staff, Dent said. With added funds, the fire department could hire four new firefighters and medics and could promote three staff members to fire lieutenants, he said.
The hirings and promotions would cost about $300,000 annually in addition to an estimated annual building cost of $67,000, the presentation stated.
“That staffing is needed regardless of whether it’s a one-station solution or a two-station solution,” Dent said.
According to design concepts for a renovated North Boundary Street fire station prepared by the consultant, approximately 20,185 square feet would be added to the existing station in the form of a two-story dormitory for firefighters, two new garage bays and additional storage space.
The third floor of the nearby Municipal Building would also be converted into the new site of the city’s Emergency Operations Center and the fire department’s administrative offices. Trivette said the building’s third floor is currently used as storage space for the public works department and also includes a meeting room and a gym for municipal employees, but is otherwise underutilized.
The most recent assessment prepared by consultants puts the expected cost for renovating the existing station at $15 million, according to the presentation. Additional funding for the project could come out of surplus funds in the city’s budget, Trivette said.
Mayor Paul Freiling, Vice-Mayor Doug Pons and council member Barbara Ramsey supported Trivette’s recommendation.
“It seems like (the existing fire station) has great accessibility from Lafayette Street to get to other parts of the city,” Pons said. “I’m holding on to getting this one done, waiting a few years and working on our staffing and then find a second station site at the right time.”
Council members Benny Zhang and Ted Maslin disagreed with the recommendation. Instead, they argued, the city should focus its efforts on hiring additional fire department staff and building a second station somewhere else in the city.
Possible locations for a second fire station include city-owned parcels at the corner of Capitol Landing Road and Merrimac Trail, on Ironbound Road and at the site of the former Super 8 motel at the corner of Lafayette Street and Richmond Road, Trivette said.
Maslin said the advantages of focusing on building a new, second fire station would include improving response times in more areas of the city and having a back-up in the event of a disruption at the central station.
Zhang agreed, saying that a second fire station would allow city firefighters to quickly respond to emergencies at emerging population centers in the city including Midtown, High Street and Quarterpath.
“I think there’s some value to having the second remote station to anticipate these growth patterns, because they’re coming,” he said. “I think we ought to plan for the future and not necessarily wait to be reactive.”
During the meeting’s public comment period, retired firefighters Eric Stone, Troy Lapetina and Chuck White all voiced support for using city funds to construct the second fire station rather than renovating the existing station.
Trivette said city staff will continue to research possible locations and expects to continue the discussion at City Council’s annual budget retreat and monthly meeting in February.
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.