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New Firehouse Will Replace Aging Facility, Due in March 2003

By Rich McManus

Photos by Ernie Branson

There are such things as oldies but goodies, but the current NIH firehouse — in operation since 1950 — isn't one of them; it's creaking, cracking walls took additional, albeit verbal, blows on Apr. 23 as NIH officials touted its successor — a new 22,000-square foot facility scheduled to debut in March 2003 — at a groundbreaking ceremony held near the pit where work has already begun.

The new building, located on a 1.7-acre site near the county firehouse at the corner of Old Georgetown Rd. and Cedar Ln., is actually a two-building, T-shaped complex and will be everything the present NIH firehouse, Bldg. 12 — built initially as a garage and maintenance facility — isn't. It will have room for eight vehicles in a drive-thru lane, and a two-story segment with space for administrative offices (the Fire Protection Services office in Bldg. 15G2 will relocate there), the fire station operations office, and plenty of living, dining and sleeping areas for the two platoons that will call it home.

Chief Gary Hess

"Chief [Gary] Hess and his staff have done an absolutely outstanding job of protecting the 21,000 people on this campus from a wide variety of hazards," said NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein at the brief outdoor ceremony. "The fire department is especially important to me because I not only work here, I live here [in one of a handful of on-campus residences]."

Since the events of 9/11, people have come to realize the important role fire fighters play in our society, Kirschstein observed. "Three hundred-forty three fire fighters lost their lives on that day, which reminds us of the incredible bravery, commitment and selflessness it takes to become a fire fighter...You are and will always be our heroes."

She pointed out that Bldg. 12 was funded during the 81st Congress as part of the original Clinical Center construction budget. Ten years later, it was home to two divisions — the Division of Research Services and the Division of Business Operations. The structure needed modifications as early as 1956, she reported, when electric heat was installed. But eventually it could no longer adapt to the needs of a growing campus.

Participating in the groundbreaking are (from l) NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, Associate Director for Research Services Steve Ficca, DES Director Anthony Clifford, Hess, and Dexroy Chisim, project officer.

Although Congress funded the replacement firehouse in 1996, it has taken time to design and site the facility on a campus already burgeoning with new construction, Kirschstein said. "We have come a long way, but construction of this facility will be a major accomplishment for NIH. It will benefit not only our employees and visitors, but also the surrounding community."

"It's a little difficult to find a piece of ground at NIH that hasn't been broken yet," quipped Tony Clifford, director of the Division of Engineering Services, ORS. He said Chief Hess had given him a tour recently of Bldg. 12, and Clifford, an engineer, noticed strain gauges — instruments that measure stress — on the walls. "The living quarters there are very tight, the quality is poor, and the bunk beds are so close to the ceiling that fire fighters have to avoid bumping their heads when they pop up at night to answer the klaxon." Clifford, who called the project one of the most important in his 32-year NIH career, noted that fire fighters had converted an old car-wash adjacent to Bldg. 12 into a bunk facility, and that as the fire department bought more apparatus, more vehicles were parked outdoors. "It's tough answering a call on a winter night when the first thing you have to do is scrape ice off the truck's windshield," he said.

Clifford said the project is a highlight of his 32-year NIH career.

Steve Ficca, director of the Office of Research Services, congratulated the fire department's parent Division of Public Service for outstanding service and caring since the events of 9/11 and said he is "looking forward to a strengthened, improved and much-enhanced fire department that will be exemplary in public service." The NIH fire fighters will assist both the National Naval Medical Center across Rockville Pike from NIH, and the nearby county, he added.

Chief Hess, who has been at NIH for 16 years, recalled a stint earlier in his fire-fighting career at Walter Reed Army Hospital: "On my first day on the job, the captain showed me plans for a new firehouse. Well, my son works there now, and it's still not built!" He acknowledged that planning for NIH's firehouse, also known as Bldg. 51, took time, but said, "It's a really good feeling to see it coming out of the ground." He said members of the fire and emergency response section, which is the department's formal title, work 72-hour weeks in rotating 24-hour shifts. "They're basically here as much as they are at home." As in a large family, he continued, life can become contentious, particularly when members are confined to close quarters. "Sometimes it's hard to get along, particularly when the call load runs heavy. This new facility will be such an improvement."

He said the building will house an instrument shop where firefighters can repair and calibrate tools, a self-contained breathing apparatus shop, and a fire extinguisher maintenance facility, to keep the campus' population of some 4,000 extinguishers in working order. "And the days of scraping ice (off windshields) at 2 a.m. will end," he declared.

Hess noted that his section answered 1,446 calls in 1995, and more than 7,000 calls last year. "Already we are running ahead of last year's rate," he said. "We're running more multiple calls, too. It used to be that you ran fires; now we're running EMT (emergency medical technician), confined-space calls, and hazmat calls (especially during the anthrax scare last fall)."

As guests enjoyed refreshments after the ceremonial groundbreaking, workmen continued to lay footers for the new building. There is no pausing now that the project is under way.

Work on the foundation for the new fire house was not interrupted during the groundbreaking ceremony held Apr. 23.

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