Fire at Amazon center serves as example of regional emergency response

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: May 9, 2018 | 2:30 p.m.

DINWIDDIE – Early last week, workers at the Amazon fulfillment center just off U.S. Route 460 were ushered out of the building after a large blaze broke out inside of the expansive building, resulting in a number fire and emergency crews descending on the complex to knock down the fire.

Speaking with WTVR-TV 6, Dinwiddie Fire and EMS Chief Dennis Hale said county dispatch received the first calls regarding the fire just before 10 a.m. last Monday morning and as units got on scene, dozens of Amazon staffers had already evacuated the building safely. Once inside, Hale told local media that smoke and fire were visible inside a portion of the large facility and, the fire’s location in the middle of the building presented challenges to fire crews.

“Being in the middle of the building was a significant logistical challenge for the crews to move hose lines that far inside the building through rack storage, as you can imagine what’s in this building, rack storage, and product,” Chief Hale told WTVR-TV 6 following the fire.

Within minutes, crews from neighboring communities, including Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Petersburg, Prince George and other localities were en route to the area, bringing manpower, resources, and specialized equipment to help fight the fire that Hale said was intense.

“At this point, we estimate it burned about six track sections, which are anywhere from 25-30 feet in length and 30 feet tall,” Hale told WTVR-TV 6.

Hours after the fire was knocked down, Amazon released a statement that said in part, “Safety, as always, is our number one priority,” and that any closure of the facility would have “minimal” impacts on the company’s ability to fulfill customer orders. 

The facility remained closed Tuesday and eventually reopened last Wednesday afternoon. 

Following the fire, Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill talked about the importance of mutual aid and how the connections between Dinwiddie and its surrounding neighbors helped keep people and property safe during emergencies of this scale.

“When people are thinking about public safety, most people generally go to traditional residential response, but public safety also embodies things such as asset protection, like we saw here with Amazon,” Massengill explained, adding that the county’s “Fire-Medics” program, which sees paramedics who are cross-trained in fire response, Dinwiddie fire crews were able to send those units to the scene to help augment efforts ongoing at the Amazon fulfillment center, including those of its regional response partners, to “provide a fully functional response team.”

In 2017, Dinwiddie, along with 14 other counties, four cities, three Department of Defense facilities and two authorities codified their cooperative efforts by creating an “all-inclusive” mutual aid agreement that would aid in the region’s goal of “providing the highest quality fire, EMS, and rescue services across the region by allowing for unimpeded, seamless requests for and provision of assistance between the Fire & EMS services of the region,” which included the Tri-Cities, the Metro-Richmond area of Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover, and the City of Richmond, Prince George, Sussex, Amelia, among others, along with Fort Lee, Fort A.P. Hill, and the Defense Supply Center just outside of Richmond.

According to the agreement, “When one of the parties to this Agreement requests aid for a situation within its service area involving fire and rescue (including emergency medical) services from another party to this Agreement, that requested party may dispatch, when available, the requested equipment and personnel to aid in the situation.”

In an interview, Massengill explained that Monday’s fire saw response from Fort Lee’s fire units who provided air support and backfilled Namozine Fire Department to be able to take calls for service as the department’s resources were used at the Amazon facility, Prince George County’s Burrowsville Company 4 was asked to respond to help backfill Dinwiddie Station 1 and Old Hickory Station 1 in Stony Creek responded with units.

In addition, Chesterfield fire units made their way to Dinwiddie during Monday’s emergency, bringing with them specialized equipment, namely the large building ventilation unit.

Along with those units, crews from Tri-Cities of Petersburg, Hopewell, and Colonial Heights were all on hand to offer assistance to what could have been a dangerous situation inside one of the county’s largest structures.

“This was an all-hands-on-deck response,” Massengill said.

While situations like Monday’s fire can serve to highlight the importance of regional responses thanks to things such as mutual aid agreements between neighboring localities, there are some instances where a nearby community may not be able to respond to an emergency. In the language of the regional mutual aid agreement adopted by the county and other communities, “The rendering of assistance under the terms of this Agreement shall not be mandatory, but the party receiving the request for aid shall immediately inform the requesting department/agency if, for any reason, assistance cannot be rendered.”

As the corridor that runs from Dinwiddie’s eastern border with Petersburg down U.S. Route 1 to its intersection with U.S. Route 460 continues to grow in terms of residential, industrial, and commercial retail development, the need to address the area’s public safety needs are at the top of the county’s list of priorities.

One of the first on the scene of Monday’s fire was the Namozine Volunteer Fire Department, located on Pelham Avenue, a short drive down U.S. Route 460 or Cox Road from the Amazon facility. As the area continues to grow, with Dominion Energy in the midst of constructing a new facility on the site of the former Southside Virginia Training Facility and German grocer ALDI nears completion of its distribution center and regional headquarters less than a mile from Amazon, some in the area have questioned if the county has begun looking at building a new fire station closer to those large facilities to help support Namozine VFD while offering additional fire and rescue coverage for that portion of the county. 

When asked, Massengill said discussions have been ongoing about a fire station at the Dinwiddie County Airport, which is across U.S. Route 460 from Amazon. 

“An Airport area fire station has been identified in the county’s capital improvement plan for the 2023 fiscal year,” he said, adding, along with the airport area station, a fire station is being looked at close to the Richard Bland College area as that area sees its own growth.

Massengill continued, “Namozine VFD is positioned where it is so volunteers can get to it but, one of the challenges of Namozine is, because it is in that corner, you’re not responding in a 360-degree area. If you respond north, you’re into Chesterfield County. Where it is positioned, you’re not getting the full effect of dispatching.”

“We do believe that there should be some kind of asset there by 2023,” the county administrator said, noting that the facility remains in capital improvement plan for FY2023 at a cost of $4.69 million to construct the facility. The proposed “Eastern Area fire station” carries a similar price tag of $4.7 million.

“When it comes to the total project cost,” Massengill elaborated, “you have to look at land, infrastructure, staffing, with the hope that volunteering does continue, and those types of things.”

In addition, on the EMS side, Massengill said as the county continues to monitor call volumes, which has already surpassed well over 4,000 calls for service for EMS in 2018, the highest the county has had since data has begun being tracked and over half of those call not requiring medical transport, things such as peak-time ambulances and the “Fire-Medics” program allowing for an ambulance or fire unit to be staffed at Namozine VFD, Dinwiddie VFD, and McKenney VFD have helped “create a backbone” for emergency medical response in the county as they continue to analyze call types and load times.

“This helps us determine when we need to start adding to this system,” he explained. “Obviously, the more population that is in the northeastern section, which is also seeing our commercial and industrial advancements, we are probably going to be looking as soon as next year to see if it’s not a capital asset, maybe it’s a human asset? While there is a fire station identified in FY2023, there may be intermediate-type things that can be done.”

Additionally, the county administrator noted that the county is actively looking at if a third-party ambulance service provider could be contracted to work with the county or an individual in the event that county resources are unavailable or a mutual aid request for EMS services can’t be serviced by a neighboring locality.

“We have asked our staff to start looking at that and see if there are some opportunities with that,” he said. “Whether the contract is with us or with, maybe, the individual, there are advantages and disadvantages and we have asked them to look into that. I think this is going to be a big topic for next year’s budget because, if the call volume continues and its isolated to that northern section, that is one potential that some communities are doing so we are looking forward to seeing what staff comes back with.”

As supervisors have voted to keep taxes level for the upcoming year, some in the community have wondered if a tax increase of even a penny should be looked at if it means increased revenue to help pay for public safety needs, such as fire stations or emergency medical resources. While Massengill said he is proud of everything that has been accomplished by the county in regards to public safety without needing a tax increase, he is hopeful that other things can be utilized to help pay for future public safety investments without shifting the burden on taxpayers.

“A major part of what we do here is public safety,” Massengill said. “We have made a lot of investments that have helped us become a lot more sophisticated, but we still have a ways to go on some projects.”

“But there has to be a balance, too,” the county administrator continued. “Fortunately, we have done a lot on the same tax rate so we have not gone back to the citizens and said pay more for this but there is going to have to be some real discussion about some of these assets coming online and how does it get paid for. We would hope that through our very successful economic development office continues to allow us to be able to afford some of these things, but some of these needs outweigh economic development successes, so this is a community conversation.”

As things return to some sense of normalcy at Amazon, county officials said the fire remains under investigation. No injuries were reported in last Monday morning’s fire.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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