EDITOR'S NOTE: The Alexandria Fire Department participates in the Northern Virginia regional response plan and regularly answers alarms in Arlington County.
The Alexandria Fire Department is critically short of staff and equipment and needs $5.5 million - which Alexandria is ill-equipped to spend - to bring it up to speed, a city-hired consultant has found.
City Manager James Hartmann hired consultant J. Gordon Routley in the wake of an August three-alarm fire at a high-rise condo building on Edsall Road in which three firefighters were hospitalized for smoke inhalation and dehydration and three more were injured.
"Alexandria's increasing population density, commercial activity, traffic and related factors are placing increasing demands on the fire department," Routhley wrote. "The fire department has innovated, reorganized and adapted to make the most efficient use of its resources. The resulting organization is very lean and its resources are stressed to meet normal day-to-day demands."
In February, the state cited the department for procedural failures, including that the first firefighters at Edsall Road fought the fire for one continuous hour instead of in 15-minute shifts as outlined in department procedures, "apparently due to staffing issues."
Routley, a fire investigation expert and former fire chief, details a laundry list of staffing, equipment and procedural issues that contributed to the injuries.
Most significantly, he noted a need for a minimum of four-person staffing on fire trucks instead of Alexandria's three-person minimum - an initiative Arlington County already has phased in. Fairfax and Prince William counties also are trying to add firefighters, but are suffering from budget woes.
Meeting the consultant's recommendation would require hiring 36 new firefighters and would cost the city more than $3 million.
Alexandria, as well as most jurisdictions in the area, is struggling to maintain its current programs in a tight budget year.
The Aug. 25, three-alarm fire at Edsall Road happened at the same time as two other multiple-alarm fires in the area, all of them sparked by thunderstorms.
The high number of incidents was one reason that the first firefighters to respond to the Edsall Road scene were not relieved by backup personnel quickly enough to avoid injury, but inadequate department communication also contributed, Routley said.
The department does not have a command vehicle - a $250,000 specialized vehicle equipped with radios, computers and meeting space.
"An environment that provides multiple radios, telephones, work stations with computer terminals, proper lighting and other enhancements is much more functional than standing at the rear of an SUV in a crowded parking lot," Routley said.
"It's a very sobering report," Vice Mayor Del Pepper said. "I had no idea that we had these needs - we knew some of these things, but certainly not the extent."
Mayor William Euille said the City Council will review the financial impact of the recommendations at April budget meetings.