Firefighters, department leadership at odds over plans for Airport Heights station

Nathaniel Herz
Erik Hill

Anchorage firefighters and chiefs compare the shifting placement of their stations and equipment to a long-range game of chess.

Everyone's on the same team. But a disagreement has popped up over the department's next move -- a planned relocation of the fire station on Airport Heights Drive, which is the city's oldest and in disrepair.

Fire Chief Chris Bushue and his deputies want the station to move to a new spot on nearby Bragaw Street, which they say would cut down on the time it takes firefighters to respond to emergencies in Mountain View.

The plan also entails moving the station's ladder truck to Muldoon, which Bushue says is in the center of the area it's supposed to cover.

But the firefighters at the station are skeptical, arguing that moving the truck would hurt service in one of the busiest areas of the city, where it already responds to hundreds of calls a year as backup for the Airport Heights ambulance and fire engine.

"You're talking about one of the busiest fire stations in Alaska, and to back that up, you're going to have to come from farther away," said Mike Stumbaugh, the president of the Anchorage firefighters union, who spoke on behalf of the firefighters at the Airport Heights station.

Stumbaugh said he personally saw some merits to the plan -- and added that the best way to test it would be a computer simulation.

That's not possible, Bushue said, adding that his department had already examined historical data.

"Trust me: That would be the coolest iPhone app you could ever have. To say, 'Hey, what happens if we do this?'" he said. "But the trouble is, right now, it doesn't exist."

Bushue said he would closely watch the impact of moving the truck, and would backtrack if the decision doesn't work.

For now, though, the truck remains at the Airport Heights station, and Bushue said he doesn't know when it would be moved.

In an interview in the department's downtown headquarters on Fourth Avenue, Bushue and two deputy chiefs, Jim Vignola and John Drozdowski, explained how the plans for the Airport Heights station fit into a broader, strategic push to decentralize the department's operations -- going from big stations with lots of firefighters to a model with more smaller stations, in more places.

Drozdowski referred to a map of 1950s Anchorage, which showed the Airport Heights station's location at the eastern reaches of the city.

"There's nothing here," he said, pointing at undeveloped land east of Merrill Field. "Things are drastically different today."

Now, the chiefs said, the Airport Heights station is closer than it needs to be to downtown, which has its own fire station next to department headquarters.

The Airport Heights building is also 50 years old, and has serious problems, primarily with its utilities, that would require "extensive, and expensive" repairs, as Bushue put it in an email.

The department wants to buy a small parcel of land at 550 Bragaw Street just south of the Glenn Highway, next to the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, as a replacement site for the Airport Heights station.

The location would provide it with better access to Mountain View, where some areas can't be reached within the department's goal of four minutes, Bushue said.

It's an idea that's been batted around for years, and the site already has approval from the city's planning and zoning commission.

Plans call for the new station to be designed this year, built in 2015, and opened by the spring of 2016. The estimated $4 to $6 million cost would be funded primarily by a state grant.

The station would only be large enough to fit two pieces of equipment -- an ambulance and fire engine, and not the truck. But the department says that's by design.

The truck, which serves all of East Anchorage, would be better off at the Muldoon station, Bushue said.

And ultimately, the department's long-term plan -- which the chiefs acknowledged could take as long as 20 years -- calls for the truck to go to another new station near the intersection of Northern Lights Boulevard and Bragaw Street, where it could have access to the proposed U-Med Access Road.

Stumbaugh, the union president, said that the Airport Heights firefighters could probably live with moving their truck to the university area.

But they're not confident that the department will be able to build a University station any time soon, and they're concerned about the effects of the interim plan -- moving the truck to the Muldoon station.

That's because currently, of the truck's 1,150 calls a year -- most of which are for medical problems -- the majority are in the Airport Heights station's area, not the Muldoon station's area, according to numbers provided by the union.

The existing Airport Heights station, Stumbaugh maintained, could get by with a remodeling, rather than a full replacement.

The Airport Heights Community Council is also opposed to the plan, unanimously passing a resolution against it at a meeting last month.

"We're all in very old buildings," Carolyn Ramsey, a member of the community council, said in an interview. "We don't have time to wait for them. We want them right here."

The firefighters at the station, she added, "are saying this is the worst thing that could happen to them."

Part of the firefighters' opposition stems from the fact that the truck's departure for Muldoon would split the group that currently works in Airport Heights -- which Stumbaugh, the union president, likened to "breaking up your family."

The chiefs say they understand that. And in fact, Bushue said he was glad to hear of the firefighters' agitation, since it shows their level of concern for the people they serve.

But he and Drozdowski were firm about the overall benefits of the move, noting that much of the demand on the ladder truck in its current area stems from calls that the Airport Heights station has to pick up in the Muldoon station's area -- which would diminish if the truck were transferred there.

"We will never, ever progress if we always react to the unhappy firefighters," Drozdowski said. "The administration has considered their arguments."

The fire department also plans to ask the Sullivan administration this spring to fund a new ambulance downtown, which would take some of the pressure off the Airport Heights station, Bushue said.

The department is planning a work session on the move with the Anchorage Assembly, which would have to approve the purchase of the land for the new station.

Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, who represents Eagle River and Chugiak, and is married to a firefighter, said she had several questions about the department's proposal.

She said she's concerned about the size of the site, and its ability to accommodate an expanded station, if population growth necessitates it.

And she also said she wanted more information about reported soil contamination at the property, which the department maintains is not an insurmountable problem.

"These questions -- they're going to have to pass the Assembly's muster," Demboski said in an interview. "I hope they can answer them to my satisfaction. And if they can't, then they're going to have to buy a new site."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.