The proposed Joint Fire and Police Maritime Security Operations Center approved by Tacoma’s land use administrator last week is actually two different projects.
The first is a renovation of the Ruston Way fireboat station and moorage that was abandoned 12 years ago. It would allow moorage of a police boat and re-relocation of two city fireboats, sometimes.
The second is essentially a new fire station on the uplands between the existing fireboat station and the esplanade. It may not be fully used for years, if ever.
One is ill-advised.
The other is possibly illegal.
But since the politicians think it’s a neat idea, and because the city received a $1 million federal grant by tying it to post-9/11 Homeland Security fears, Tacoma is moving ahead with it anyway, supplemented with $3 million from a city bond sale.
Let’s take the two projects one at a time.
For nearly two decades starting in 1981, Tacoma Fire moored its boats at Station No. 5 on Ruston Way. In November 1999, a round of budget cuts closed the station. Since then, the boats have been moored on the Foss Waterway.
Rather than use full-time staff, regular firefighters are cross-trained to both help staff an engine company and operate the boats. When a fireboat is called – a few hundred times a year – they drive the two uncongested blocks from Tideflats Station No. 6 to the shore of the Foss.
Once the renovated station opens, the same cross-trained firefighters will deploy from Station No. 14 at N. 41st and Gove streets. Fire department brass still think the threat of damage from winter storms will require the boats to be re-re-relocated back to the more-protected moorage on the Foss.
Yes, supporters acknowledge, but when weather permits, the boats will be able to deploy to emergencies faster from Ruston Way because they won’t have to adhere to slow boat speeds posted in the Foss. Which would be true if these boats were able to fully fire up upon being started.
Even if they could, any time savings are lost by the longer distance that boat crews must travel – sometimes through congested Ruston Way traffic – from their new home station.
Land-use administrator Jana Magoon isn’t charged with deciding whether the project is a good idea or a good use of tax dollars or whether it meets fire department coverage needs. That’s the job of the politicians.
She decides whether the project is a water-dependent or water-related use and therefore allowed under the state Shorelines Management Act. Clearly a fireboat station is.
Less clear is whether the second project – a large “apparatus bay” the city wants to build on shore – is water-dependent or water-related. If it was proposed to stand alone on the shoreline, it most likely would not be permitted. But Magoon determined that it’s associated with the fireboat station, which is a permitted use. Therefore it is a permitted use, too.
As a precedent, Magoon cited a ruling by a previous land-use administrator who permitted a firefighter memorial next door.
“While the memorial itself is not a water-dependent or water-related use, the proposal is a complementary use to Tacoma Fireboat Station #5, which, by its nature, is a water-dependent use,” concluded Peter Katich in October 1999.
That was a tortured ruling, upheld by the state Shoreline Hearings Board charged with protecting the state’s shorelines. But Magoon surely reasoned that if a statue of firefighters next to a fireboat station set to be abandoned was allowed on the shoreline, certainly a fire station next to a fireboat station set to be restored should be allowed.
But does the city need another fire station? And if it does, should it locate it in a place where nice-weather traffic congestion makes access awkward, if not impossible?
The answers to these questions are “definitely no” and “probably not.”
Remember, this is a department that still faces the specter of closing four stations and laying off dozens of firefighters. (That is, unless it scores another of those federal grants.)
To get around that inconvenient truth, city staff says it might consider full-time fireboat station staffing at some undetermined date in the future.
“The applicant has indicated that there are no current plans for firefighters to reside at the property as full-time staff, but that future call demands and changes to Fire Department Standards of Coverage could make full-time staffing an operational consideration,” Magoon wrote.
In the meantime, the city links the land station to the water station by saying the new bay will allow protected parking for whatever vehicles are used to deliver boat crews. There is a bay at the existing fireboat station that could serve that need, of course, but the renovation proposal calls for filling it with offices.
The project won’t really make anyone safer, despite its ties to Homeland Security. And the upland truck bay has negative implications for shoreline protection and public use.
So why move forward? Because the politicians want it. And in a post-9/11 environment, none would ever consider returning federal money and using city bond proceeds for a more useful project.peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8657 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @CallaghanPeter