KINGSPORT — Kingsport plans to build a new state-of-the-art fire station in the Rock Springs community to serve the recently annexed property and property that will eventually be annexed.
When complete, the new $2 million fire station will be nearly 7,000 square feet — the second-largest station in the city — complete with three bays, a new fire engine, exercise room, police substation and HazMat team. However, some firefighters claim the new station will be substandard the day it opens and that some features were cut from the original design.
Over the past 18 months, Kingsport’s annexation sights have been set on the Rock Springs community. The city first annexed a 161-acre housing development off Rock Springs Road — The Edinburgh — and then decided the next appropriate step would be to annex the property leading up to the development — nearly 1,000 acres and over 550 residents.
Because of these actions, city leaders determined a new fire station would have to be built on the east side of town to provide fire service to the Rock Springs community and better service to other outlying areas, such as Bailey Ranch, Interstate 81 and the Carolina Pottery area of town.
The Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen in May approved $330,000 toward the purchase of the land for the new station (Rock Springs Road and Blakely Drive). According to City Manager John Campbell, the city has not yet closed on the property.
In a recent letter to the editor, Kingsport firefighter Matthew Sorge wrote the new fire station in the Rock Springs community had been cut back to the “bare-bones minimum” and would be “substandard” the day it opens.
Kevin Mitchell, spokesman for the Kingsport Firefighters Association, said initially the new fire station came in over budget, and to bring it under budget about 1,000 square feet was cut from the design.
Mitchell said some space for living quarters, room to house some of the HazMat equipment and the exercise room were all cut during the design.
“Basically cutting down the station itself almost hinders some of the operations that need to take place,” Mitchell said. “Here we have a station that is going to be used to protect the citizens of Kingsport, and now we’re looking at cutting back that station based on dollars. How much is too much to protect the citizens, visitors and property?
“Are we putting a premium on the safety of our citizens?”
According to city officials, around 400 square feet was cut from the initial design, and a Kingsport firefighter was involved in the design of the new station.
“It’s probably going to be larger than most of the fire stations we have in place now,” said Fire Chief Craig Dye. “It will actually be pretty much state of the art. It will have three pull-through bays, a decontamination area, and environmentally it’ll be set up so nothing goes into the stormwater drain.
“It’s going to have a weight training area — the first station with a designated exercise room, a police substation, plenty of parking and nice aesthetics. Built to last to the future.”
Another concern raised by Sorge in his letter to the editor dealt with staffing levels within the Kingsport Fire Department, which he says is “grossly understaffed.”
Mitchell said according to National Fire Protection Association standards, fire departments should have a minimum of four men per engine. Kingsport has three.
“To have a minimum of four, you have less firefighter injuries, certainly less firefighter deaths. It enables us to provide the adequate number of people on scene to effect a rescue, protect property of adjacent structures, and get the job done of putting out the fire,” Mitchell said. “Our concern is when our two new stations that are going to be open in the next couple of years, we hope that we get at least the minimum number of firefighters the NFPA recommends to staff those stations, and it would be a good start to start at this point forward in getting the minimum number that is currently the national standard.”
According to fire department officials in Bristol, Tenn., that department has three men on the main responding engine and at least two on other responding engines. In Johnson City the numbers vary — three engines have two firefighters, two have three, two have four, and at the headquarters, six men go out on the engine.
According to the KFD’s annual report, Kingsport has on average 12 firefighters respond to each fire call. Johnson City has 16, while Bristol has 11.
“For us to be compliant, we have to put three engines on the scene,” Mitchell said. “Four-man engine companies is not only the best for the public, but it also keeps your firefighters safe.”
Dye said the department is not grossly understaffed, and to make up the manpower on the scene, the department sends more equipment.
“The standard for our size department probably would be three man. I’d rather have four, but that’s not something that is mandatory,” Dye said.
“Looking at the way the fire service wants to go, four-man would be more beneficial. More manpower there quicker, it’s safer. But with what we’re providing, we’re making up for that by sending more pieces of equipment with three men apiece to make the numbers that need to be there.”
In order for Kingsport to move to four-man engine crews, Dye said between 25 to 30 employees would need to be hired at an estimated cost of $1 million to $1.5 million.
“If it were possible, I’d love to do that. But like other departments across the U.S., a lot are still three-man and making it work,” Dye said. “Until the city grows and things get to where we can have that, we’re doing it this way.”
Campbell said probably no more than 20 percent of the fire departments in the United States try to achieve four-man engine crews.
“There’s no way they can economically afford to have that many per truck,” Campbell said. “I think that you will find in this area, and almost every medium-sized city in the state and lot of large cities, you have basically three people per truck max.”