The fire department is committed to mitigating threats to life, property and the environment through education, prevention, and effective response to fire, medical, and environmental emergencies. - Mission statement
Today, the Arlington County Fire Department - led by Fire Chief James Schwartz - employs more than 300 firefighters and civilian employees and operates 10 fire stations, a fire academy and a logistics center. Fire administration is located at the Arlington County Courthouse. The volunteers of the Arlington County Fire & Rescue Association assist the career fire department.
Annual runs total about 30,000. Emergency medical calls account for about three-quarters of the yearly total, generating roughly $2 million in revenue. (The fire department has billed for ambulance service for many years.)
In fiscal 2004, the fire department budget totaled $29.9 million, according to county budget documents. That was up from $19.8 billion in fiscal 1996. Federal grants increased in the aftermath of the Pentagon attack.
The fire and rescue budget for fiscal 2005 is $31.6 million, a 5.7 percent increase from a year earlier. The proposed budget for fiscal 2006 is $31.7 million.
During fiscal 2004, Arlington County Fire Department employment - uniformed and civilian combined - totaled 305, up from 267 in fiscal 1996.
The rank structure and chain of command is fire chief, assistant chiefs, battalion chiefs, captains and firefighters. (The rank of lieutenant was eliminated in the 1990s.)
According to the county government's web site:
Arlington is an urban county of about 26 square miles located directly across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. No incorporated towns or cities lie within Arlington's boundaries.
Originally part of the ten-mile square surveyed for the nation's capital, the portion on the west bank of the Potomac River was returned to the Commonwealth of Virginia by the U.S. Congress in 1846. This area was known as Alexandria City and Alexandria County until 1920, when the county portion was renamed Arlington County.
Arlington had an estimated population of 198,739 as of January 1, 2004, reflecting an increase of 5% since 2000. It is among the most densely populated jurisdictions in the country with a population density of 7,700 persons per square mile more than cities such as Seattle, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
County Manager Ron Carlee's proposed fiscal 2006 budget painted a picture of prosperity:
Arlington is once again extremely fortunate to have a thriving economy that has resulted in high incomes, low unemployment, and increased values in all classes of property.
Firehouses and apparatus in 2005
Each engine/quint company is staffed by a captain and three firefighters. Each truck and rescue company is staffed by a captain and two or three firefighters. Medic units are staffed by two paramedics or a paramedic and a firefighter. All firefighters are certified as emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
Each platoon is commanded by two battalion chiefs - one for the northside and the other for the southside.
Station 1 - Glebe Road
Engine 101, Medic 101, Hazmat 101, Battalion 111 (southside duty chief), EMS 111 (southside medical supervisor)
Station 2 - Ballston
Engine 102, Medic 102, EMS 112 (northside medical supervisor), Metro Support Unit, Ambulance 102 (volunteer)
Station 3 - Cherrydale
Station 4 - Clarendon
Quint 104 (Plans called for a new aerial ladder company, Truck 104, to replace Quint 104, a combination pumper and aerial ladder), Rescue 104, Battalion 112 (northside duty chief), FM 114 (duty fire marshal and logistics coordinator)
Station 5 - Crystal City
Engine 105, Tower 105, Medic 105
Station 6 - Falls Church
Engine 106, Truck 106, Medic 106, Ambulance 106 (volunteer), Utility 106 (volunteer), Canteen 106 (volunteer)
Station 7 - Fairlington
Station 8 - Hall's Hill
Engine 108, Medic 108 (part-time), Light & Air 103
Station 9 - Walter Reed Drive
Quint 109, Rescue 109
Station 10 - Rosslyn
Engine 110, Medic 110
Two other career fire departments operate in Arlington County - the U.S. Army's Fort Myer Fire Department and the airport authority's fire department at Reagan National Airport. Both of the departments work closely with the county fire and rescue service.
The Arlington County Emergency Communications Center - ECC - dispatches fire and police units and answers the county's 911 emergency telephone line.
Among the priorities in the 2005 fire and rescue budget:
Maintain timely, efficient and quality responses to requests for assistance from the residents of Arlington County by maintaining a sufficient number of trained Firefighters/Paramedics and officers.
Continue to implement the paramedic engine concept to improve response time to the increasing number of medical emergencies and the overall effectiveness of the Advanced Life Support (ALS) program; and improve training and supervision for all Firefighter/Paramedics.
Continue to expand our Smoke Detector, Public Education and Life Safety Programs and the Confidence Testing Program for fire protection systems.
Enhance the information systems capabilities and technology applications within the Department.
Continue comprehensive ambulance billing collection and implementing a human resources system.
Maintain and enhance effective response elements for response to terrorism events and natural disasters.
Today's modern fire department had humble beginnings.
Organized firefighting in Arlington County began in 1898 with the establishment of the Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Department. Arlington, then called Alexandria County (the name was changed in the 1920s), was rural in the 19th century. Those first volunteers pulled their hose carts to fires. They didn't use horses.
According to Kathy Holt-Springston, Cherrydale's resident historian:
During the first few years after the CVFD was organized, the equipment (consisting of leather buckets, bells, and ladders) stayed out in the open. By 1906, a small shed (later referred to as "House #2") on what is now Taylor Street was erected to house the County's first mechanized equipment - a hand-drawn water and hose cart. "Engine House #1," another small shed with a hose tower atop, was completed on the grounds of the old Cherrydale School in December 1912. It housed the first real fire engine in Arlington, a 60-gallon pumper engine which was purchased by the Cherrydale Volunteers in 1913. In 1914, "Engine House #3" was erected in the Maywood area. "Engine House #4" was completed a few months afterwards. These buildings housed additional firefighting apparatus owned by the Volunteers, including a ladder truck and chemical engine.
Other fire companies were organized in the early 20th Century: the Arlington VFD, the Ballston VFD, the Clarendon VFD, the Jefferson District VFD, the Falls Church VFD and the Hall's Hill VFD. The volunteer fire companies were often organized under the auspices of citizens associations. Other volunteer companies served Fort Myer Heights and East Arlington (also called Queen City) but were disbanded before World War II. The Bon Air VFD operated for a short time as a division of the Ballston company.
An article from the Sept. 5, 1923 edition of The Evening Star announced the formation of ``The Arlington Volunteer Fire Department, the latest fire fighting the body in Arlington County.’’ The Star reported a chemical engine ``of the latest design, carrying two forty-gallon tanks, with auxiliary hand tanks ands buckets’’ was presented to Chief Ralph Snoots by the Arlington Citizen’s Association and the Arlington Athletic Club.
In the 1940s, the Fairlington VFD was established. Because the county was racially segregated, the Hall's Hill and East Arlington companies were reserved for African Americans. (East Arlington, also known as ``Queen City,'' was leveled to make way for the construction of the Pentagon. A number of buildings in that old neighborhood burned in a conflagration shortly after they were condemned, according to old timers.)
The white-only volunteer companies formed an umbrella group, the Arlington Firemen's Association, in December 1935, as a predecessor to an earlier alliance called the Arlington-Fairfax Firemen's Association. That earlier organization represented the interests of fire companies in Arlington and neighboring Fairfax County. John Paul Jones served as one of the volunteer association's earliest and most influential presidents, and played an instrumental role in the effort to equip fire apparatus with two-way radios.
Volunteering was - and still is - a dangerous business, and at least three of the early volunteer firefighters died in the line of duty before the establishment of the Arlington County Fire Department in 1940.
Arlington County’s first paid firefighters went on the job on July 15, 1940 though the push for a career force started in the 1930s, with the chamber of commerce, civic associations – and even the volunteer fire companies – at the forefront of the lobbying effort.
The county's first fire marshal, Albert Scheffel, was appointed 13 years earlier in 1927. Scheffel, who got his start as a volunteer at Company 1, was named Arlington County's first paid fire chief in the 1930s.
Newspaper accounts from 1936 tell of a campaign to hire full-time paid firefighters in addition to the volunteers who had valiantly served the county since the Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Department was organized in 1898.
``The county has come to the point where it not only needs, but must have a paid fire department,’’ said Munroe Stockett, a member of the Arlington County Chamber of Commerce, quoted by the Jan. 16, 1936 edition of the Sun newspaper.
Benefits of paid department
The Sun’s reporter added that Stockett praised the volunteers for their ``efficiency and voluntary service’’ but that ``he believed the county would save money by paying for fulltime firemen, since it would mean a decrease in loss of property, lowered insurance rates and increased protection of fire equipment.’’
John Malloch, president of the Arlington County Volunteer Firemen’s Association, also expressed support for a paid fire department but expressed concern about the cost – an estimated $14,000 annually to employ 14 paid men, or two men for seven of the county's stations.
Still, to some it wasn’t proper ``to ask or expect the young men of our county to give their time in our behalf without compensation,’’ said Walter Varney of the Arlington County Civic Federation, according to Sun on March 5, 1936.
Discussions and planning continued into 1937, 1938 and 1939.
Group of 18
Finally in June 1940, County Manager Frank Hanrahan announced that the first career firefighters – a group of 18 from the volunteer ranks – would go on duty July 1, 1940 after passing physical examinations.
Chief Scheffel asked each volunteer company for a list of candidates. Bureaucracy and politics being what they are, the men didn’t actually go on the job until July 15, earning a starting salary $100 a month.
They were assigned as follows:
Arlington: Carl Scheffel, William McAtee and J.R. Snoots. (Snoots later transferred to the police department).
Ballston: William Stoneburner, Harvey Smallwood and Frank Biggs.
Cherrydale: Elmer Marcey, George Robertson and Maynard Howard. (Robertson drowned off duty and Howard transferred to the District of Columbia Fire Dept., according to retired Battalion Chief James Fought.)
Clarendon: Charles Padget, Samuel Krigbaum and Julian Georgie.
Jefferson District: Lawrence Finisecy, Herbert Tyler and Clarence Bly.
Falls Church: Herbert Sterling, Herbert Knox and Dean Blood.
None of the paid men were initially assigned to the Hall’s Hill station. (In the first part of the 20th Century, racial segregation was the rule in much of the country, and Hall's Hill -- Company 8 -- was staffed by African-American volunteers. The first paid black firefighters weren't hired until after the end of World War II.)
At least two of the career firefighters were expected to be on duty at all times, mainly serving as drivers for the volunteers. They weren’t outfitted with uniforms until August 1940 – when the county provided ``summer outfits of blue.’’ Hanrahan impressed upon the new hires `` the success of an ultimately fully paid fire department rests on the cooperation and success of this small nucleus of firemen.’’
When World War II broke out, the county hired more firefighters as the war effort depleted the ranks of both the paid and volunteer forces. In 1943, the county board raised the annual salary for third-year firefighters to $2,050 from $1,680, second year to $1,780 from $1,680, and first year to $1,690 from $1,540. Hanrahan took into account ``the cost of living and the salaries now being paid.’’
There were expressions of concern when the paid department started. All in all, though, ``A fine spirit of cooperation prevails,’’ Hanrahan said, stressing ``the importance of the maintaining the volunteer spirit.’’
1940s, 1950s and 1960s
The National Airport Fire Department, operated by the federal government, was organized in 1941, the same year as the airport. The airport’s first firehouse was located along Mount Vernon Highway. In 1943, a crash station opened on the airfield. (The federal government also operated fire departments at Fort Myer, the South Post of Fort Myer and the Army's Arlington Hall Station during this period.)
The county's only Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph ``pull boxes'' were installed on streets in the Fairlington neighorhood and rang directly into the Fairlington firehouse. Here's how the Gamewell system worked, according to a ``virtual museum of electronics'' called ``Reverse Time Page" (http://uv201.com):
Fire alarm telegraph systems came into use in the mid 19th century, and were a primary method of reporting fire alarms throughout the 20th century. ... The fire alarm telegraph system relied on the familiar red fire alarm boxes located throughout a city or town. These were the transmitters ... Each alarm box contained a code wheel which was unique to the particular box in which it was installed. When the alarm was activated, the code wheel turned and operated a switch. This transmitted the coded pattern over the telegraph system to the receiver (register) in the fire house which punched holes in a moving strip of paper. The pattern of holes served to identify which alarm box had sent the signal and, thus, the location. This register was generally used with a bell to alert the fire fighters on duty.
Fairlington's Gamewell system remained in use for many years but was prone to abuse. An entry from Station No. 7's journal dated May 5, 1961 read: ``3:19 p.m. Called Fire Marshal Shelton in regard to a kid that pulled Box 51. Gave him the child’s name and address. A little girl gave me this boy’s name’’ – Shackleford on watch.
In 1951, the county established its first fire alarm office. Police had dispatched fire apparatus. Before World War II, fire alarms were received at the central switchboard at the county courthouse. The phone number was CLARENDON 3200. Sirens alerted volunteers.
In 1955, the predecessor of today’s union, the Arlington County Paid Firemen’s Benefit Association, was organized by three of the career firefighters, according to retired firefighter Frank Higgins. Today, the union is called the Arlington Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association, Local 2800 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
In January 1956, Joseph Clements took command of the department upon Scheffel's retirement. Clements served as fire chief until his retirement in 1973. The rank of battalion chief was also introduced in the 1950s. (At first, the duty battalion chief covered the entire county. Starting in the late 1980s, two battalion chiefs were assigned to each 24-hour shift - a northside battalion chief and a southside battalion chief.)
In 1957, as the population increased, the number of house fires exceeded the number of brush fire and trash fires for the first time, according to Higgins.
The first fire stations built by Arlington County government, No. 9 on Walter Reed Drive and No. 10 on Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn , were opened in 1957 and 1958. Over the years, volunteer-owned stations have been replaced by county-built firehouses.
The 56-hour workweek went into effect for the career firefighters in December 1962, with the introduction of the three-platoon system. The duty schedule consisted of four days of day work (10 hours), four days of night work (14 hours) and four days off. Before the three-platoon system, firefighters worked in two shifts, with longer hours on and fewer days off. The 24-hour shift went into effect in 1984.
Chief Darne remembers
Retired Battalion Chief Ralph Darne, who was hired in 1965, recounted his early days on the fire department in a presentation to Recruit School 52 on July 7, 1999:
In 1965, Station 7 was the slowest station, making a total of 163 runs – or a call every 48 hours. Thirty years later, Station 7 was still the slowest station, but it ran 1,425 fire and medical calls – almost nine times more than 1965. The starting salary for a firefighter in 1965 was $5,620 annually. In 1999, the starting salary was just over $31,000.
A captain and four firefighters were assigned to two-piece engine companies in the 1960s, with the exception of Station 7 where a lieutenant was assigned as the officer. In reality, actual staffing usually consisted of the captain and three firefighters, with the officer and two firefighters on the wagon, and a firefighter on the pumper. Taking into account leave and little or no budget for overtime, engine companies frequently ran with two men on the wagon and one man on the engine.
Ladder companies were assigned a lieutenant and two firefighters, but frequently ran with two men – one driving and the other on the tiller. Falls Church Truck 6, a straight ladder, frequently ran with a single firefighter.
The Northern Virginia Regional Response Plan – NOVA – became operational on Dec. 15, 1975 in Arlington County, the City of Alexandria and Fairfax County, allowing for the automatic dispatch of the nearest fire and rescue units, regardless of jurisdictional lines - the ``mutual box.’’
Arlington County Fire Chief Robert Groshon, Alexandria Fire Chief Milton Penn and George Alexander, director of fire and rescue services in Fairfax County, signed the agreement on Dec. 12, 1975. Other fire departments have since joined the pact, essentially creating a regional fire department with more than 60 stations.
``We knew a person trapped in a burning building didn’t care which fire department rescued them,’’ said Groshon. ``We got to thinking here’s a guy hanging out a window three blocks from Station 7 and he’s waiting for Alexandria to get there.’’
Before the NOVA plan, the fire departments – at first through gentlemen’s agreements and then formal pacts – provided mutual aid on a case by case basis.
Early mutual aid arrangements
An old logbook provided by the late Robert Potter, a former president of Company 1, listed a variety of runs out of the county in the 1920s and 1930s. These included: Fire at the Luther Cleveland residence in Bailey’s Crossroads on March 8, 1928, a blaze at the Fairfax Apartments in Alexandria on Jan. 2, 1929, and a barn fire at the Lynch pig farm in Annandale on Nov. 19, 1930.
Mutual aid runs tended to stretch the resources of Arlington’s fire and rescue services, according to a Dec. 8, 1930 letter discovered by retired Battalion Chief Ralph Darne. In that letter C.L. Kinnier, the county’s directing engineer, told W. Glen Bixler, chief of the Jefferson District Volunteer Fire Department:
As a result of recent fires in Fairfax County, the question of taking the fire equipment out of the county has risen again. I will call to your attention the fact that before taking any equipment out of the county it is necessary to first secure permission from the supervisor in whose district the equipment is located or from me.
In case of receiving this permission only one piece of equipment is to be taken from the fire house and only in case there is sufficient manpower left to take care of any fire that might originate in that territory during your absence. I will appreciate it if you will see that this rule is enforced.
On June 11, 1929, a fire that leveled Veal & Walters’ garage in McLean in Fairfax County illustrated the demands placed on Arlington County’s fire companies. Cherrydale, Clarendon, Ballston, Arlington and Jefferson District all answered the alarm, and supplemented firefighters from McLean, Fairfax and Falls Church. Alexandria also sent help.
What’s more ``the Cherrydale fire engine sideswiped a telephone pole while making the run to McLean, but was not prevented from continuing to the fire,’’ The Washington Post reported. ``Jack Horner, a member of the Cherrydale department, was slightly injured. Horner was standing on the side of the truck that grazed the pole.’’
There had been other tension over the years.
In the 1960s, Station 6 in Falls Church, staffed by paid personnel from Arlington County and volunteers from the City of Falls Church, spent a considerable amount of time in Fairfax County, drawing down Arlington County’s on duty force. Its apparatus and station were equipped with both Arlington County and Fairfax County radios – and Fairfax County never established its own Company 6 or Station 6 because Falls Church’s equipment made so many runs into Fairfax.
Of course, neighboring fire departments regularly made runs into Arlington.
The District of Columbia sent its Engine 5 and Engine 29 for a fire at the Washington Golf and Country Club in the 1930s, recalled retired Battalion Chief James Fought. The Alexandria Fire Department sent apparatus to the general alarm fire at the Murphy & Ames Lumber Yard in Rosslyn on Dec. 28, 1951. Companies from as far as Maryland responded to the devastating Pentagon fire on July 2, 1959.
Implementing the plan
The NOVA agreement itself met some opposition. Some firefighters voiced concern about the agreement’s impact on future hiring and staffing levels.
While all companies in Arlington County, Alexandria and Fairfax County are today ``on the card’’ for ``mutual box'' runs, the automatic response plan was initially phased in, starting with Arlington County Station 7 in Fairlington and Fairfax County Station 10 in Bailey’s Crossroads.
Both firehouses are located close to municipal boundaries. As a result, Bailey’s Crossroads is first due along the western stretch of Columbia Pike in Arlington County, and Fairlington is first due on a number of boxes in Alexandria.
Drills were held so firefighters could become better acquainted with each department’s apparatus and operations, and standard communications practices were put into place.
When the NOVA program was implemented, tactical calls were assigned to each of the fire departments. Numbers 1-49 for Fairfax County, 50-59 for Alexandria and 70-89 for Arlington County. The numbers 60-69 were assigned to the fire departments at National and Dulles airports as well as military posts.
For example, Arlington County Engine Co. 3 – Cherrydale – became Engine 73 on the air and in the dispatch protocol.
Alarm zones – commonly known as boxes (named for the old street corner red fire boxes) – were established to allow for efficient and uniform dispatching, with the first two digits of a four-digit ``box'' designator identifying the first due fire station. The Rosslyn high rise district, for example, was assigned Box 7002. Arlington County Fire Station No. 10 – Engine 70 – was first due. Or, in another example, Box 0147 denoted a Fairfax County alarm zone in the territory of the McLean firehouse, Fairfax Co. 1.
Additionally, a separate VHF radio channel – called NOVA (154.265 Megahertz) – was allocated as well to manage mutual boxes.
In an effort to avoid confusion, the radio designation of the fire alarm offices was aligned to the jurisdiction, i.e., Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax. In the past, generic designations such as ‘’headquarters’’ had been used, according to Darne.
On Jan. 5, 1998, the tactical calls of the field units were again changed – to three digits – coinciding with the greater use of 800-Megahertz trunked radio systems across the region. Box designations, however, remained the same. Under the revised plan, Arlington County units were assigned 100-series calls, i.e. Engine 73 became Engine 103. Alexandria units were assigned 200-series calls, the airports 300-series calls, and Fairfax County 400-series and 800-series calls.