ARLINGTON — Officials are seeking millions of dollars to upgrade the city’s aging Fire Training Center to better prepare firefighters for hazardous material spills, gas well leaks and fires, and other emergencies.The Arlington City Council is considering whether to include either $3.5 million or $5.5 million in a proposed bond package this November that would allow the Fire Department to expand the training center and enhance its technology capabilities. The improvements would not only provide new virtual and hands-on training opportunities for the city’s 300 firefighters but would also allow Arlington to earn revenue by offering specialized training to other fire departments, officials said.The Fire Training Center, at 5501 Ron McAndrew Drive, off West Green Oaks Boulevard, was partially renovated about 12 years ago. But the classrooms are too small and can’t support the latest technology needs, the roof leaks and the fire and smoke simulators in the center’s five-story burn lab don’t always work properly. “When we first set this up, it was state of the art. It’s obviously not that way anymore,” Assistant Fire Chief Jim Self said.The council, which has until Aug. 18 to decide which projects to include in the proposed $236 million bond package, will continue discussions after its July break.‘The need is there’The $5.5 million proposal would allow the department to improve both the Fire Training Center as well as the adjacent drill field, where firefighters practice responding to scenarios such as searching for victims in a smoke-filled, high-rise building, battling propane tank fires and rescuing trapped people from mangled cars.Many of the props and training set-ups are at the end of their usefulness and have become expensive to maintain, Self said. The department wants to replace those and add new props, such as a simulated chlorine-filled tanker car and more realistic natural gas well site equipment, needed either for required certification or to be better prepared to handle realistic public-safety threats.“The need is there. The training facility is the busiest facility in the fire system,” Fire Chief Don Crowson told the council. “It gets the most wear. There is a lot of activity there on a regular basis.”One area of concern is the department’s preparedness to handle leaks and fires at natural gas well sites. Arlington has issued 305 gas well permits at 56 pad sites throughout the city. “Natural gas is one of those industries we are trying to evolve with. Because we have so many [wells] in such a dense city, we’re just trying to be as proactive as we can,” Self said. The Fire Department’s drill field has a well head prop that allows firefighters to practice putting out a blaze at a producing well site. But the department has had to send crews to a training facility in southeast Texas to practice handling emergencies that may arise during drilling or fracking. The drill field and training center are used by all 17 fire stations as well as nearby fire departments. Having additional props could save the department money on tuition, which can cost as much as $1,000 per person at other training facilities, and on overtime expenses when crews are brought in for extra shifts to cover for firefighters sent out of town for classes. “We would get more repetition and be able to train more people, more often,” Self said.The department also plans to replace the out-dated liquid petroleum gas system, which fuels the practice fires, and the smoke simulation system.Disaster response scenariosIf City Council chooses the scaled-back $3.5 million proposal instead, the department would have to put aside needed space and technology improvement at the Fire Training Center for the future, Self said.“The intent was the entrepreneurialize the training facility, build a back-up [Emergency Operations Center] location in the training center and to invest heavily into technology,” Crowson told the council during a recent bond package discussion. “With the $2 million cut, we are going to target that money primarily into the drill field.”The department’s plans call for expanding the center’s large multipurpose room, which hosts everything from training classes, firefighter graduation ceremonies and town hall meetings, by 1,700 square feet and to add auditorium-style seating. The room also needs updated audio-visual equipment and wiring to support numerous laptops and other electronics, Self said.Renovations would allow the center not only to address water leaks damaging the ceiling but also to add larger classrooms that can support the latest technology. One proposal is the creation of a virtual command and control lab that would allow supervisors to practice disaster response scenarios using photos and videos of actual Arlington locations.More classroom space and technology improvements could allow Arlington to offer professional development courses to other fire departments, Self said.“We want to capitalize on our technology and get it to pay for itself,” he said. Other improvements include creating a more prominent entrance for the public and expanding the parking lot to accommodate more vehicles and create space where firefighters can learn to drive large ladder trucks and fire engines. District 3 councilman Robert Rivera has recommended including the full $5.5 million proposal to the bond package but the council has not made a decision yet.“Every dollar spent to more effectively train our firefighters is a dollar invested in the health and safety of Arlington citizens,” Rivera said.
Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock