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A proposal by the city of Fairfax to cut some minimum staffing requirements for its firefighters has sparked a potential conflict between the city and nearby George Mason University.

According to the city, its fire and rescue squads spend as much as about $1.2 million servicing the university each year, while only receiving a fraction of that amount in return.

“We recommend a reduction of the minimum staffing level policy of the fire department with regard to the city’s truck (ladder) company,” City Manager Robert L. Sisson wrote in his recommended fiscal 2013 budget memo to the City Council. “This would reduce daily minimum staffing on the truck company from four personnel to three personnel.

“This change to the [fire department] minimum staffing policy will allow overtime expenses to be reduced by approximately $212,000.”

In a subsequent presentation before the City Council, Fairfax City Fire Chief Dave Rohr voiced his concerns with the possible reduction.

“I thoroughly understand the fiscal situation that you are in,” he said. “It is a difficult situation for all of us, but the decision in my eyes cannot be made for fiscal reasons. It is a life safety issue, for the citizens and the firefighters alike.”

To explore alternatives during an April 10 work session, the City Council asked Rohr to compile a report outlining the frequency of fire and rescue calls to Mason so it could better understand costs involved.

In his April 12 report, Rohr said there were 418 fire and rescue calls made exclusively by the university in 2011.

“This equates to approximately 8 percent of the total calls run by the fire department,” he wrote. “Two-hundred-eighty-four calls were EMS-related ... 88 calls were suppression related (fires, alarms and hazmat incidents) and 46 calls were other incidents (elevator incidents and public service calls).”

At Fire Station No. 3 — the station nearest to Mason — at least 25 percent of all EMS and fire calls served by the station in 2011 came from the university, Rohr said.

Calculating the Mason calls against the total number of calls within the city for the same year — and contrasting that against the fire and rescue department’s 2011 operating budget — Sisson said the city estimates the Mason calls cost the city between $800,000 and $1.2 million.

George Mason University Chief of Staff J. Thomas Hennessey Jr. thinks that number is too high.

“That’s not even close to what we think,” he said. “The county provides a lot more support for us than does the city and they don’t estimate nearly that,” he said. Hennessey declined further comment.

But Dan Schmidt, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue spokesman, said the only time county firefighters would ever respond to a Mason call would be to assist Fairfax City fire and rescue squads.

“It’s their call, we only assist,” he said. “Fairfax City only has two fire stations, so some of their calls need more equipment and that’s the only time we would assist. … I think [Mason] might be confused and not really know what they’re saying. They probably see a lot of Fairfax equipment that’s intermingled with the city’s — and we might even bring more equipment than the city brings, because they only have so much — but the only reason we would ever be there would be to augment [the Fairfax City] fire department.”

Since 2011, Mason has provided Fairfax City with $150,000 per year to help out with its fire and rescue service calls, according to the university. It also recently has agreed to raise that amount to $200,000 starting in fiscal 2013.

“The university provides the city with $200,000 a year and that is something that we are not obligated to do at all,” university spokesman Dan Walsch said. “It is something that most institutions of higher learning — certainly within Virginia — do not do with their local fire departments.”

But Sisson maintained the fire department cannot afford a potential seven-figure annual deficit in terms of services it provides to the university.

By its own account, the city fire department is in dire financial straits and in desperate need of additional funding.

For the past three years, Rohr has asked the City Council for money to conduct a feasibility study for renovating Fire Station No. 33, which was built in 1979 and is showing its age.

Rohr said the station, located at the intersection of Fairfax Boulevard and Plantation Parkway, is no longer adequate for the needs of its firefighters.

“We simply are outgrowing it,” he has said in numerous requests for funding to the council. “There are areas of the sleeping quarters that have no sprinkler system in place, and it lacks a sufficient diesel-exhaust system.”

Because of a lack of storage space, equipment is housed in truck bays, preventing their optimal use, Rohr said.

“We have drive-through bays, but because of equipment storage needs, our trucks are forced to back in,” he told the city planning commission in 2010.

Earlier this year, in the fire department’s proposed fiscal 2013 Capital Improvement Projects request, Rohr estimated a feasibility study to examine whether the station could be renovated would cost about $50,000.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but we were not able to approve that study and get it into the budget for next year,” Sisson said on April 27. “All jurisdictions have been pressed financially for the last four to five years, and we are no different. We have had to explore all expenditures and potential revenues, and reassess many of our partnerships. The cost of fire and rescue calls to [Mason] is one that certainly seems to show a high level of disproportionality.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com