Cause for Virginia firehouse fire — Lessons not learned from the same fire 20-years-ago

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Fire at Station 426 (top image) from Jay Alvey at WRC-TV/NBC4. 1997 fire at Station 414 from John Hinant.

Twenty-years-ago, when I interviewed Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department officials about the fire at the Burke Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department (Station 414) they told me this was a good time to continue the push for automatic fire sprinklers in the apparatus bays at county fire stations. The program to retrofit sprinklers started somewhere around 1990 but ran into funding issues. Early Sunday morning, Fairfax County officials once again paid for their shortsightedness by fighting almost the exact same fire that occurred at Burke. This time it was at the Edsall Road fire station (Station 426).

Fairfax County fire investigators confirm the weekend incident began as an electrical fire in a heavy duty rescue unit inside one of the bays at Station 426 and then spread to the roof.

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Early image of Sunday’s fire from Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department

On January 10, 1997 Fairfax County fire investigators said the fire began as an electrical fire in a heavy duty rescue unit inside one one of the bays at Station 414 and then spread to the roof. See a pattern?

Pay attention to what the late Glenn Gaines, the Fairfax County fire chief at the time told Patricia Davis at The Washington Post a few weeks after the Burke fire:

The fire department has been working for the last seven years to upgrade fire stations that were built before more sophisticated heat detectors and sprinkler systems were available, Gaines said. But because of budget constraints, some stations still don’t have them. “It’s a wake-up call,” Gaines said of the Burke fire. “It’s hypocritical of us to extol the virtues of fire and smoke alarms” and not have them.

As a result of the Burke fire, Gaines said an extensive safety review is underway at all 34 fire stations in the county, 13 of which are owned by volunteer corporations like Burke’s.

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Former Fairfax County Fire Chief Glenn Gaines

So, here we are twenty years later and the fire department again looks like hypocrites. Not because of my wise friend Chief Gaines or my other wise friend Tim Butters who was the chief at Burke, but because of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors of the 90s. The Board of Supervisors decides what gets funded.

Will the current Board of Supervisors finally be embarrassed enough about a firehouse fire to solve this problem and insist on retrofitting sprinklers in all county fire stations where they’re still needed?  Or, will they punt and let some future fire chief and supervisors take on the hypocrite role when the next fire station burns?