10 years after: Fire Station 3 still protecting Westsiders
Today, Fire Station 3 remains a vital part of the Westside, providing fire and emergency services as it has since 1896.
That streak almost ended 10 years ago. Claiming money was needed to staff a new ladder truck at Fire Station 9 on Garden of the Gods Road, Colorado Springs Fire Chief Manuel Navarro in May 1997 called for the closure of Station 3 at Colorado Avenue and Limit Street.
A number of Westside people objected, questioning the wisdom of reducing service in one part of town to raise it in another. Navarro stood firm, claiming that the Westside would still have adequate protection and that he had no other choice with the tight budget City Council had given him.
The ensuing battle, which stayed in the headlines for over a year and a half, became bitter at times. Residents held rallies in front of the station, argued statistics with fire administrators, spoke at City Council meetings (and picketed outside them) and tied yellow ribbons (quickly removed) to the station's trees. These actions won them no sympathy from then-city manager (Jim Mullen) and mayor (Mary Makepeace), who publicly backed the fire chief. Navarro himself gained headlines for a gag order (later withdrawn) against firefighters speaking out against the station closure and at one point hiring a private detective to investigate those who did.
Yet ultimately the station was not only saved, but in the wake of the controversy came citywide socio-political changes that are tangible to this day.
“We had to force ourselves into the process,” recalled Sallie Clark. “Today it never would have happened this way. Council looks more to the neighborhoods for feedback. Back then, it was, 'This is the way it's going to be.'”
Now a county commissioner (a City Council member from 2001-03), Clark in May 1997 had no political involvement or ambition. She and her husband Welling were happily nurturing their bed-and-breakfast establishment at 11th Street and Pikes Peak Avenue. But living near the station, the Clarks felt its potential loss personally. Before long, Sallie became perhaps the most recognizable face in the Westside struggle, while Welling (now president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN)) worked behind the scenes, analyzing fire statistics. “I was kind of a constant thorn in their sides,” Sallie said. At the same time, she added, “we tried to back up our emotional claims with facts.”
In a 1997 published article, Clark summed up the opposition concerns, citing figures showing that neighboring Stations 1 and 5 were so busy that other stations had to take about a quarter of their calls. Tasking those stations to pick up Station 3's total of 1,634 calls in 1996 (up to 2,063 last year) “places citizens of the Westside and surrounding fire districts at increased risk,” she wrote.
Her article also emphasized the vulnerability of the Westside's older homes. “The historic Westside consists of mostly Victorian homes and those built before existing codes,” she wrote. “This is what makes our area unique but also places the area in greater jeopardy. Many homes are built close together, enhancing the danger of a single fire consuming many homes if quick response was not available.”
Another leader that emerged from the fray was Tom Gallagher. Utilities issues in his trailer court had previously resulted in his election to the OWN board. After the Fire Station 3 fight, he would be elected to City Council in 2003 (and re-elected this year).
“I'd have to say it was a catalyst effort for myself and for Sallie,” Gallagher said. “Through the course of the opposition, OWN and CONO (Council of Neighbors and Organiza-tions - a consortium of citywide associations) kind of grew into groups of standing. They proved that neighborhoods matter, that if the community is not consulted it's the wrong way to do things.”
Steve Cox, the city's deputy fire chief of Support Services, does not dispute that point. “What it did for the department was to make us aware that public input is very important,” he said. “On any controversial thing we might be presenting, we need to contact stakeholders about what the issues are.”
The turning point came when a majority of City Council voted for a deal brokered by current mayor Lionel Rivera, then a council member who served on the board of the city-owned Memorial Hospital. At his suggestion, council transferred $377,000 from a Memorial Hospital surplus to let the Fire Department staff the Station 9 truck without closing Station 3.
Although this went against Navarro's proposal, the result was hardly negative for the Fire Department itself. In addition to the budgetary windfall, the Station 3 saga put a spotlight on fire protection citywide and - it could be argued - raised civic awareness enough to pass the Public Safety Sales Tax (PSST) in 2001.
Gallagher himself estimates that he “knocked on 6,000 doors” gathering support for the tax, which has since funded several new or renovated stations.
Cox agrees that the PSST was “one of the positive spin-offs of that discussion [on Fire Station 3],” although he added a concern that the tax gives citizens a false sense of security about the city's fire future. The reality is, even with the tax, the city is barely able to keep up with current growth, he said.
That means the city's average response time still hovers around the eight-minute mark, a far cry from the four-minute ideal national standard or even the six-minute goal in a 2004 citizen/ Fire Depart-ment study that suggested 35 new fire stations - seven on the Westside - would be needed by the year 2024.
As a result, even though the city has spent over a quarter of a million dollars upgrading Fire Station 3 in the past two years (and a million-dollar drive-through renovation is on the high-priority unfunded capital improvements list), Cox could not unconditionally confirm that the Fire Department plans to keep Fire Station 3 where it is indefinitely. “The basis for spending those dollars is to have a healthy and safe place for the firefighters to work,” he explained. “That doesn't mean we're going to have it there for the next 50 or 5 years.”
Such uncertainties keep Sallie Clark vigilant, even to this day. “We felt like it [Station 3] was a continual target,” she said. “Even after 1999, when we thought it was relatively safe, we felt we needed to keep an eye on it.”
She can count on the support of current City Council member, Jerry Heimlicher, whose District 3 includes the Fire Station 3 coverage area. “I think her fight was the right thing to do,” he said. “I'm glad the station is still there. It means the Westside has a much shorter response time for emergencies.”
The 4,500-square-foot station is located on a 15,300 square-foot lot at 922 W. Colorado Ave. It serves an area west to 21st Street, north to about Uintah Street, south to Motor City and east to about the interstate. The station is manned around the clock, with a total of 15 firefighters working 4-at-a-time shifts.
Westside Pioneer article