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Concerns over Topeka fire station closings loom large as committee creates master plan

Blaise Mesa
Topeka Capital-Journal
Topeka Fire Department Chief Craig Duke talks about the staffing issues his department has had since the spring on Monday from his office at the fire department headquarters, 324 S.E. Jefferson St.

A committee charged with reviewing Topeka Fire Department’s level of service hopes to modernize its policies. Some are worried, however, that those decisions might close or move fire stations away from areas of need.

The committee was created by the Topeka City Council in December 2019, but work was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

City manager Brent Trout had suggested closing down Fire Station 11, 2000 N.W. Lower Silver Lake Road, and moving it to S.W. 6th Ave., a move that was rejected by that governing body.

That council, which has seen some members leave office, requested a review committee and fire station master plan be created before making any decisions on station locations. The committee is tentatively planning to discuss locations of Topeka fire stations in February but broadened its focus to review other aspects before it offers a master plan by April 6, 2021.

Former council member Sandra Clear argued last year that it was unfair to reallocate Station 11’s resources to a new station. Clear, who is the chair of the Fire Committee, has since been replaced on the council by Christina Valdivia-Alcalá, who is also on the fire committee.

Another station has seen temporary closures throughout 2020.

A Kansas Open Records Request found that Engine 1, which is located at Station 1 (934 N.E. Quincy St.), was closed 118 times from April 6 to Nov. 23, including a 17-day stretch in May when Engine 1 wasn’t operational.

Fire Chief Craig Duke, who earlier tested positive for COVID-19 himself, said closures were due in part to COVID-19 reducing the number of employees available and not an attempt to phase out the station.

Duke said if a station is closed down, it’ll be in part because of the fire committee’s recommendation. Duke said he wants the process to be as transparent as possible and offered to let committee members take tours of the stations and speak with firefighters.

Duke said staffing was difficult in the spring when the pandemic was keeping employees in quarantine or isolation. He said staffing has improved after new firefighters graduated from the academy and after he worked with Trout to adjust scheduling, but Valdivia-Alcalá said she has noticed station closings before the pandemic began.

She said all the fire stations in her district are needed because the stations are close to high-risk areas like the highway, river and railroad tracks.

“Any way you cut it, trying to close one of the three fire stations does not make sense,” she said.

Station 1 and Station 11 are all within one mile of each other. The stations are clustered together because they were built when horses were an integral part of putting out fires and needed to be close enough for a horse to gallop to one station before running out of breath, Duke said.

The fire department has since stopped using horses, but the cluster of stations is an example of antiquated decision-making impacting the variety of services the department offers today.

“It’s not putting the wet stuff on the red stuff anymore,” Duke said. “We are not just firefighters anymore.”

Duke said the fire department responds to everything from vehicle accidents to some medical calls. Duke remembers one incident when the fire and police departments sent vehicles and staff out to a “traffic accident,” only for the accident to be two cars bumping into each other in a parking lot.

Trout said discussions on an Advanced Life Support position is also crucial to the committee’s discussions. ALS is being piloted at a few stations, but if expanded, would require a paramedic to arrive on scene for some emergency calls.

“There are a number of different procedures and medical steps they can take when they are a paramedic that a general emergency medical technician can’t do,” Trout said. “You have a greater chance of helping that person stay alive.”

The fire committee consists of members of the public, council members and fire department staff and has already met once. The committee’s meetings are live streamed on the city’s Facebook page, and it plans to meet every third Thursday of the month until it offers a recommendation.

“It’s really getting into the level of service and the type of service we provide,” Trout said. “Every time we send a fire truck down the road there is a risk.”

Topeka Fire Department Chief Craig Duke points out the number of fire stations located on a district map in his office Monday, stating the reason many stations were placed where they are is correlated with horse-drawn firetrucks' inability to travel longer distances.