A new home for Co. 3
When Henrico Fire's Engine Company 3 officially moves to its new home this week, its members will take away memories both fond and not-so-fond of the historic station being vacated on Nine Mile Road.
Last month, Station Captain Doug Reynolds led a tour of the two facilities that highlighted dramatic contrasts between the two buildings – chief among them, the space.
"The new one is easily three times as big," said Reynolds of the firehouse on Airport Drive at Washington Street. At approximately 11,500 square feet, he added, the new building is even larger than the lot on which the older, 3500 square-foot-structure was built in 1955.
Not only are the cramped conditions of the older building an inconvenience for the station staff, who must share close quarters in the day room and spartan dorm rooms; they also can't accommodate the emergency forces of the 21st century – which include females.
"The women have to share a shower [facility] with men," said Reynolds with a shake of his head. "The best we've got here is a lock on door that has to be manually put on."
But perhaps the most crucial aspect of the lack of space – the one which finally forced the move to a new building – is the size of the bays.
"These were made for what were essentially pick-up-sized fire trucks of the 'Fifties," said Reynolds, "not the full-size trucks of today."
With barely two inches clearance on each side of the modern trucks, backing them into the bays is a laborious, nerve-wracking task. Until a few years ago, when a turnaround was built that allowed trucks to enter from Rose Avenue, the firefighters had to stop traffic for long periods of time on Nine Mile Road to manuever trucks back into bay. And at the fourth-busiest firehouse in the county, that meant creating an inconvenience and potential safety hazard several times a day.
But even the tiny bays of Co. 3 are not as bad as those of other old stations in the county, Reynolds observed. A few firehouses have such small bays that they have had to special-order fire trucks with the front and back bumpers removed – because that's the only way they could fit them inside the station.
What's more, said Reynolds, the firefighters must keep their workout equipment – essential tools for professionals who aim for an hour a day of exercise – in the bays.
"We don't have a [typical] job," said Reynolds. "Everything we do is going to be stressful; we need agility, strength [and stamina]. So we do everything we can to encourage exercise and make it fun."
But keeping fitness equipment in the bays, which are not climate-controlled, means that firefighters must work out in the cold of winter and the heat of summer – not to mention less-than-desirable air quality.
Although venting systems have been installed to extract most of the exhaust fumes that accumulate in the bays, the old bays are not nearly as efficient and well-vented as the built-in, state of the art systems in the new firehouses – which also have doors front and back so that trucks can drive through instead of backing in.
To illustrate the exhaust build-up that has occurred during decades of back-ups into the station, Reynolds pointed to the permanently blackened wall of a storage room located just off the bay.
"[In the old days], we were sleeping and eating in those diesel fumes," said Reynolds. "Those carcinogens were ending up on our gear. . . The [modernized venting of the new firehouses] is going to help us all live a lot longer."
But where the old firehouse had a shortage of space, the new facility has an excess of it, said Reynolds – although he is certain it won't remain excess for long.
The new station currently houses an engine company and an ambulance company – translating to 22 first responders using the dorm rooms and lockers. But the station has been built to accommodate 36 personnel, which will allow a ladder truck company to be added when the time comes.
"It's built for the future," said Reynolds, indicating the adjacent wooded lot where an east end training facility may be located some day.
Among other features of the new station are a training room for meetings and classes, and a well-equipped workout room in the interior of the building -- climate-controlled and completely separate from the bays. A decontamination room not only provides access to high-tech clean-up tools for responders who end up with hazardous substances on their clothing or gear, but also provides peace of mind for the return home afterwards.
"Our biggest fear," said Reynolds somberly, "is taking something home to our families."
Another feature of the new building is a spacious workshop, part of a chain of specialty shops being located in new firehouses around the county. Each workshop-equipped station specializes in some aspect of repairs, such as electrical equipment or stretchers (the Co. 3 specialty.) At a recent training session provided by representative of a stretcher manufacturer, several members of the Co. 3 staff were certified in stretcher repair, enabling them to help maintain and service stretchers for a number of stations.
"We can be more productive this way," said Reynolds of the trend to install specialty shops. When personnel have time on their hands between calls, they can work on repairing equipment, saving the time and expense that would have been required to ship stretchers back to the manufacturer.
"It's like the difference between do-it-yourself car repairs, and taking your car to a dealer to get it fixed," said Reynolds. "In the long run it will save the county and the fire department a lot of money."
Answering 'worst day' calls
The first engine company in eastern Henrico, Co. 3 has been located on Nine Mile Road since 1941. At that time, said Reynolds, the company consisted of a chief and 65 volunteers from Highland Springs and Sandston. Henrico County fire protection was divided between Lakeside and Highland Springs, with those two companies providing protection for all of the county's 245 square miles. By the time the 1955 station was remodeled in 1967, the company consisted of 15 volunteers and seven paid staff.
A native and long-time resident of Highland Springs, Reynolds grew up hearing the volunteer siren on the water tower calling firemen to the station. He frequently runs into people he knows while on calls, and said that's a good thing – in some ways.
"When you call me, it's your worst day," Reynolds pointed out. "So it's reassuring to see someone you know."
On the other hand, it's tough for Reynolds when he responds to calls and comes upon the aging parents of childhood or high school friends, suffering a life-threatening emergency – or perhaps even in their last moments.
"That part," he said, "can break your heart."
The chief regret Reynolds has about leaving the old station, he said, is that he will miss being in the heart of Highland Springs. He has always enjoyed it when passersby – often with their children in tow – have stopped at the station and told him, "My dad used to bring me here when I was a boy."
"But we'll have new neighbors," he said, indicating the communities of Taylors Wood and Fairlawn Heights that adjoin the Airport Drive firehouse. Henrico Fire officials have held two or three community meetings with nearby residents, and look forward to building relationships with the new neighbors – some of whom were understandably reluctant to see the woods on Airport Drive give way to a building.
"Everyone wants a fire truck nearby, but nobody wants it in their backyard," said Reynolds, pointing to a section of wall that the fire department has already installed in response to concerns from the nearest homeowners. "I can't promise you won't hear a truck start up at 3 a.m. – but we will do everything possible to be good neighbors."
The majority of the residents have been welcoming to their new neighbors, added company member Chris Long with a smile.
"A lady drove by the other day," he recalled, "and said, 'I just want to thank you all for being here. You've made my insurance cheaper!"
'On the prairie'
Yes, Engine Co. 3 has come a long way since its modest beginnings in 1941, said Reynolds. But firefighting has come a long way as well.
"It's not just a matter of putting water on a fire [any more]," Reynolds said, describing advances in tools and technology that he has seen over the years. "There's a science to putting out fires. There's incredible technology – especially the trucks."
With all the changes in equipment and technology added to the county's growth and development over the years, he said, it's essential for fire officials to keep an eye on the future and develop a strategic plan.
Reynolds pointed out that when he first got involved with Henrico Fire, Engine Companies No. 13 (at Church and Lauderdale) and No. 16 (on Shady Grove Road) were surrounded by farmland.
"We used to call those [stations] 'Little House on the Prairie,'" said Reynolds of the structures that are now surrounded by residential development. "But just look out there now."
Turning to the newly-minted headquarters of Engine Co. 3, he said with obvious pride and satisfaction, "You have to have a vision of what's coming; and this is going to handle whatever growth we have here for the next 50 years."
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