By Adam Stewart
Hutchinson News – September 30, 2015
With more people moving to downtown Hutchinson, a business owner thinks this is the wrong time for the city to close a downtown fire station, which the Hutchinson Fire Department plans to do within a couple of years.
The city is nearing the start of work to replace the fire station at the intersection of Avenue E and Walnut Street, which will be followed by replacement of the station at 11th Avenue and Hendricks and movement of the 20th Avenue station somewhere closer to 17th and Severance, provided budgets allow the work.
After those projects are done, the fire department plans to shut down the station at Avenue B and Walnut as an active fire station and turn it into a resource and storage site. The firefighters and equipment stationed at Avenue B and Walnut would then move to the Avenue E and Walnut station.
Those plans have Lloyd Armstrong of Armstrong’s Antiques worried about downtown’s safety. His main concern is that two sets of railroad tracks run between avenues C and D. When trains are on the tracks, fire trucks would need to spend extra time to go over the tracks on the Woodie Seat Freeway to get downtown. Armstrong said a friend saw 37 trains cross Main Street between the two stations.
Parker Exposito of Alexander’s Jewelers said he remembers a time when minutes made the difference for a building. The store was the victim of an arson fire in October 2008.
“They said if they’d been 15 minutes later, this building would have probably burned down,” Exposito said.
He said the business’ proximity to a fire station may have saved it, and he is concerned about the extra time it might take firefighters to get around with the planned closure.
Armstrong said he is especially worried about fire trucks taking the Woodie Seat Freeway during bad weather. He said increased fire truck traffic on the freeway when it is slick is bound to cause crashes.
“There’s been a million wrecks on that freeway,” Armstrong said.
He said he thought even eight minutes would be too fast for fire trucks to safely take that detour when roads are slick.
To the extent that there can be a right time, Armstrong thinks this is the wrong time to close the Avenue B and Walnut fire station. Between the Wiley Building and loft apartments above businesses – including Armstrong living above his own business – he sees downtown’s population booming.
“We have more people living downtown than we have in probably five decades,” he said.
Jim Seitnater, downtown development director for the city, estimated that more than 400 people live in the area bounded by Adams and Poplar streets, Fourth Avenue and Avenue C. “I appreciate Lloyd’s concerns as he has been a longtime downtown leader and is a downtown resident,” Seitnater said.
The extra drive time to calls closer to the Avenue B station from the Avenue E station would be a relatively small concern, Fire Chief Kim Forbes said. Once a truck is out of the station, it takes only a minute to get from the Avenue E station to Avenue A, provided no trains are on the tracks.
In the event that a train is on the tracks, taking the Woodie Seat Freeway increases the drive time to 2½ to three minutes. Forbes said the Kansas and Oklahoma tracks have one train on them a day. A Union Pacific representative said traffic on that company’s tracks varies but is normally five to 15 trains a day.
Driving time is just one piece of the response times for firefighters. Forbes said that from the time someone dials 911 to the time communications calls out responders is typically a minute if all goes well. Once firefighters get the call, the goal is to be out of the station within another minute. And when the first truck gets on the scene, firefighters can start getting water on the fire in about a minute and a half, he said.
As far as safety on the freeway is concerned, that is something the fire department already deals with. When the freeway is slick and there are crashes on it, firefighters are among the emergency workers who respond, Forbes said. He added that during inclement weather, the fire department works with city public works to identify which emergency routes need to be prioritized for treatment.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time, coming and going over that Woodie Seat Freeway,” he said.
Forbes also sees value in combining the two stations into one. Having the units together means sending the ladder truck on fewer calls, which means less wear and tear on it. It also will give the crews more ability to train and practice together and the ability to arrive on scene at the same time.
When two trucks arrive at a fire at the same time, one crew can get to work breaking down any doors that require it while the other crew gets the hose running. If just one crew arrives at a time, its members may have to switch back and forth between entry tools and the fire hose.
Fire coverage elsewhere in Hutch
Armstrong is also worried about the plan to close the fire station at the intersection of 20th Avenue and Main Street to move it closer to 17th and Severance and its effects on the core of Hutchinson.
“Everything is moving away from the core area, period,” he said.
Forbes, though, says the plan is based on development trends that almost anyone can see in Hutchinson. More and more development is happening in the northeast quarter of the city. Just last week the city approved building permits for two new restaurants on 17th Avenue.
He said that even with the move, the least-covered portions of the city can still have three fire trucks on the scene within eight minutes.
“I trust Chief Forbes’ analysis of the best future coverage for all of Hutchinson, replacing the aging stations within a budget and the city’s continuing growth to the northeast,” Seitnater said.