Civic Association Newsletter

January/February 1997 - Volume 20, No. 4


In December 1996, the Association received a letter from the Arlington Professional Firefighters Association, expressing concerns about longstanding safety concerns in the fire department. These concerns, if not adequately resolved, could undermine the County Board's recently announced community goal of zero tolerance for fire and fire-related deaths. This letter follows for our members' information.

"On January 11, 1996 the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement (OSHA) served the Arlington County Government/Fire Department with two "serious" safety violations. The citations stated that "The employer did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees." The Arlington Professional Firefighters and Paramedics had repeatedly reported these safety concerns to fire department administration to no avail. Ultimately, these hazardous conditions resulted in one of our firefighters receiving third degree burns to his shoulder, requiring that skin grafts be taken from his legs, which left him permanently scarred. Incredibly, after this event, the County refused to take appropriate corrective action. Given no other alternatives, we filed a complaint with OSHA.

While we were pleased that OSHA affirmed our concerns and mandated that the County take corrective action, the means by which the County has met compliance with one of the citations has now only created an additional safety hazard. This citation was issued in response to our pointing out that nine of our fourteen engine and truck companies in Arlington County are only staffed with 3 personnel. The nationally recognized safety standard requires four personnel on the scene prior to entering any structure fire. Several months ago, two firefighters were killed while fighting a fire in Chesapeake, Virginia. The existing staffing levels in Chesapeake (which mirror ours in Arlington) were determined to be a primary cause for the two deaths. We understand that Chesapeake is now adding the necessary firefighters to prevent the reoccurrence of this tragic event.

We hope this issue can be corrected in Arlington before any of our firefighters are critically injured or lose their lives. Unfortunately, instead of providing the appropriate number of firefighters on each company, Arlington County intends to comply with the requirement by placing a policy in effect which will mandate that when our companies arrive on the scene of a structure fire, they must wait outside until another company arrives! While this sounds ludicrous, the standard requires four personnel on the scene. Waiting until additional companies arrive does technically achieve compliance with the standard however, this policy represents an unconscionable lack of respect for firefighters' lives, as well as for the preservation of the lives and property owned by the citizens of Arlington County. We are confident that the members of your organization will also find such a policy unacceptable.

We are aware of other changes to your fire department presently under consideration that will ultimately compromise the level of services you will receive. There is discussion of purchasing a different type of fire apparatus (called Quints) which have a proven record of ineffectiveness. The possibility of reducing the number of companies from the current 14 (ten engines and four trucks) is being seriously considered. Finally, there is a plan being developed in an attempt to close one or more fire houses.

Obviously, the details of all these issues are far more involved than can be explained in this letter. Hopefully, you see the urgency in these issues and recognize that while OSHA addresses hazards to employees, any issue which endangers firefighters will also potentially endanger citizens. Every aforementioned consideration compromises safety and service delivery. We have presented a proposal to all the County Board members, as well as County Manager, Anton Gardner, which will meet compliance with OSHA, preserve the safety of the citizens of Arlington County, and also increase the level of services provided by the Arlington County Fire Department.

We would appreciate an opportunity to attend one of your group's meetings to address these issues."

The Association has invited representatives from the Arlington Professional Firefighters Association to make a presentation on these issues and fire prevention at the February 1997 Membership Meeting. The exact date, location, and time of the meeting will be published in the next issue of the Newsletter.

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