Van Hollen and Raskin urge the Navy to overtake the Bethesda Fire Station
“I’ve been in government since 2002 and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Freeman said. “I think I’m a little bitter about the situation. It could have been 100 percent preventable, my injury.”
There were warnings for years of poor conditions, even before the fire department’s main building burst into flames in 2019, causing extensive damage. And when Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) visited the facility Monday, they said the facilities remained in a “completely state of disrepair” and they called for the Navy on Prioritize building a new fire station to protect firefighters from dangerous living conditions.
Van Hollen and Raskin said that despite years of pressure on the Navy to address the issues, they continued to receive reports of sagging floors, mold, structural problems or rodents, including a mouse recently found in the cooling system, like a Navy spokesman said it was marked as a single event. At this point, Van Hollen said, the cost of seemingly endless repairs and the cost of keeping firefighters safe far exceeds the cost of simply building a new station, which the Navy has yet to commit to in its next budget.
“The cost of doing nothing, just in terms of dollars and sense, is enormous — even greater in terms of human cost and risk to firefighters,” Van Hollen told reporters after touring the facilities and meeting with Freeman .
“When firefighters fall through the floor of the firehouse, they clearly have a problem,” said Edward Kelly, president general of the International Association of Firefighters, who joined lawmakers at the news conference.
The original fire station was built in the 1940s to service the installation and surrounding Montgomery County neighborhoods and caught fire in 2019. But even before that it was examined for bad condition. The fire brigade’s bunkhouse, on the other hand, was built in 2011 and was only intended to be temporary.
In a letter to Van Hollen in July, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said the Navy had completed “preliminary planning” for a new 16,500-square-foot fire station at the Bethesda facility at an estimated cost of $22.5 million, but the project is in the pipeline department along with countless others. Del Toro also said the Navy awarded contracts to repair the damaged floor, build new door frames and modernize the building to address a water ingress problem.
A Navy spokesman added Monday that repairs were also being made to the air conditioning system and a contract was awarded to repair the water-damaged ceiling in the engine compartment. That ceiling collapsed back in 2019, Freeman said, and the most recent repair deal was due to ongoing problems.
However, in a statement, the Navy has not committed to building the new firehouse under the 2024 budget as budget decisions have not yet been made.
The conditions are part of a pattern of housing problems at the facility that have existed for years. Earlier this year, soldiers living at NSA Bethesda Barracks, home of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, filed a barrage of complaints ranging from no hot water to faulty air conditioning. Two buildings have been extensively repaired and one of those buildings is set to reopen soon after residents have been relocated, a spokesman said Monday. Maryland lawmakers at the time wrote to the Navy to again urge the Navy to prioritize improving conditions at the facility — including the fire station — and found themselves writing a similar letter after the ground at the station collapsed .
Freeman said this wasn’t even the first time the ground had collapsed, underscoring the limited durability of the maintenance work. Seven or eight months earlier, the floor caved in a bit in practically the same spot in the living quarters — “enough to scare me,” Freeman said. Repairs were carried out but were insufficient. After Freeman flunked, he was in rehab for three months, he said.
Scott Burkhardt, the president of the National Capital Professional Firefighters, said it’s just a “reasonable expectation in a developed society to go to work and not fall through the bottom of your job.”
“We worry about sagging floors and sagging carpentry when trying to save someone’s house after their house burns,” Burkhardt said. “We should not worry about rodent and insect infestations. That’s not Jumanji. This is our livelihood.”
A spokesman for the naval installation, Jeremy Brooks, said the floor collapse was caused by a water intrusion issue and the floor has since been repaired. Van Hollen said the same indoor water problem has caused mold and mosquito problems.
“Most people put their mosquito killers outside of the house on their patio. The mosquito zappers are indoors because there is so much water damage that mold is growing,” said Van Hollen. The repeated repairs have created the effect that the building is “held together by chewing gum,” he said.
Burkhardt said the base firefighters had a close working relationship with the commander and the public works department, who were tasked with conducting repairs. He said they tried to do their best but it was a top-down funding issue with repairs acting as a “band-aid”.
“We have a fantastic relationship with our public works officer here – he puts his heart and soul into trying to make this happen,” Burkhardt said. “But he, like the commanding officer here, is paralyzed with the limited resources and budget he has.”
The commanding officer of NSA Bethesda, Capt. Scott Switzer said in a statement that he “is in constant communication regarding any issues at firefighting facilities and we work to correct these issues immediately as they arise.” We remain committed to the safety and comfort of our firefighters.”
The Navy is expected to present its fiscal 2024 budget early next year, and Van Hollen and Raskin said they plan to ensure the Navy makes new construction a priority.
“We have the resources in the United States of America to provide a decent and safe environment for firefighters who protect us all,” Raskin said, adding that the Navy’s “mammoth budget” should be able to accommodate to create the new building without problem.