From left: Sen. Chris Van Hollen, General President of the International Association of Firefighters Edward Kelly, President of National Capital Professional Federal Firefighters Scott Burkhardt and Rep. Jamie Raskin. Credit: Dan Schere

This story was updated at 8:05 p.m. on Sept. 19, 2022, to include additional information

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen is calling for the Navy to pay for improvements at the fire station on the campus of Naval Support Activity Bethesda, which has fallen into such disrepair that a firefighter was seriously injured when he partially fell through the floor this summer.

Van Hollen (D-Md.) held a brief press conference outside NSA Bethesda on Monday, the base that houses Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in which he demanded that the Navy set aside funding for improvements to the station, where there have also been reports of mold and rodent infestations.

“We want to make sure that they have a first-class facility. But unfortunately, the facility is in a total state of disrepair. It’s unacceptable,” said Van Hollen, who lives in Kensington.

A Navy spokesperson told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that the rodent issue refers to one incident in which a dead mouse was found in a blocked condensation drain.

Van Hollen was joined by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park, a Democrat whose district represents much of Montgomery County, along with Edward Kelly, the general president of the International Association of Firefighters and Scott Burkhardt, the president of National Capital Professional Federal Firefighters.

In June, Van Hollen, along with U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and six Democratic members of the House of Representatives from Maryland sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and Rear Admiral Nancy Lacore, commandant for Naval District Washington, expressing their concerns about the firehouse. They wrote that for years, the firehouse has been “plagued by mold, asbestos, roof leaks, electrical issues and structural instability.”

The June letter notes that earlier in the month, a firefighter “partially fell through the floor of the building” and went to the emergency room for treatment. It goes on to note that “some steps appear to have been taken to mitigate issues” in some parts of the barracks that had been neglected, but the firehouse “remains in critical condition.”

“It is shameful and unacceptable that conditions at NSA Bethesda facilities remain in this state, and further underscores the clear and urgent need for the Navy’s immediate action on construction plans for a new firehouse,” the letter states.

Del Toro responded to Van Hollen’s June letter on July 25 by promising a new firehouse that will be more than 16,000 square feet, and will have an estimated cost of $22.5 million. The Navy has completed preliminary planning for the project, and it will go through the planning, programming and budgeting process, Del Toro wrote to Van Hollen in July.

The new fire station project has not yet been funded.

Del Toro wrote to Van Hollen in July that the Navy was awarding a contract to make emergency repairs to the current fire station, such as repairing floors, replacing doors and upgrading the structure to prevent water intrusion.

Del Toro also wrote in the July 25 letter that the Navy determined the firehouse was safe to occupy following a structural analysis, and that the base’s public works officer is working with NSA Bethesda Fire Department leadership to hold regular meetings aimed at ensuring facility safety.

NSA Bethesda Commander Officer Capt. Scott Switzer said in a statement Monday that the firefighters assigned to the base “provide critical services to the installation and its tenants.”

“They continue to perform extremely well while we work to improve their facilities. I am proud of them for both their professionalism and their commitment to duty,” he said. “They are some of the finest firefighters in our Navy and we want to ensure they’re taken care of. We’re committed to their safety, comfort, and morale.”

The poor conditions pre-date a March 2019 fire at the station that caused significant damage, but did not injure anyone, Bethesda Beat reported at the time. After that fire, Van Hollen wrote a similar letter to Rear Admiral Carl Lahti, commandant of Naval District Washington at the time, expressing concern about the building.

“I ask that you and your staff immediately find alternate living arrangements for the individuals stationed at this facility until restoration can be completed on the building and the health and safety of our firefighters can be ensured,” Van Hollen wrote in 2019.

Burkhardt said Monday there has been “very minimal” repair work done on the station since the 2019 fire.

“As the fire chief put it, it was a Band Aid over a shotgun. They put some paint on it. They’ve done the best they can with the resources that are provided,” he said. “It’s not the installation’s fault … this is something that is a top-down issue that they need to address down at the Navy Yard.”

On Monday, Kelly and Burkhardt said the firefighter who was injured in June had a previous incident in which his foot went through the floor. It was not clear when the first incident took place.

Kelly said the firefighter tore his Achilles tendon when he fell through the floor in June. The firefighter is back on duty, but he still faces challenges such as walking up and down steps, Kelly said.

“It could have been a career-ending injury,” he said.

Van Hollen said repairs were made after the first incident with the unstable floor, but they were insufficient.

“They repaired it, they thought. But obviously it wasn’t good enough. So the second time he fell through and sustained these injuries,” he said.

The NSA Bethesda fire station primarily serves the base, but it also has a mutual aid agreement with the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service. Between seven and 10 firefighters use the station on a daily basis, according to a Navy spokesperson. Typically the Navy has 29 firefighters assigned to work at NSA Bethesda and 10 assigned to work at the Naval support facility in Carderock, but occasionally staffing requirements may dictate the need for some firefighters at one location to serve at the other location, according to the Navy spokesperson.

Just prior to Monday’s press conference, Van Hollen and Raskin toured the NSA Bethesda firehouse to meet with firefighters and observe the conditions, which Raskin described as “totally dilapidated and inadequate.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen visits the NSA Bethesda fire station on Monday. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy.

“It’s just an indefensible situation in there. If we want the firefighters here at Walter Reed to be able to protect us, then we’ve got to be able to create a suitable environment for them,” he said. “And having firefighters fall through the floor is plainly unacceptable.”

On Monday, Van Hollen said that after repeated requests from him and other members of the Maryland congressional delegation, the Navy has put the fire station on its list of facilities to upgrade but has yet to set aside funding for the project. He is hoping the Navy allocates funding in its budget for the fiscal year 2024 budget cycle.

“We are demanding that the Navy do the right thing and put the money in their budget,” he said.

Van Hollen said Monday there are costs to doing nothing.

“…the cost[s] of doing nothing just in terms of dollars and cents are huge, [and] even bigger in terms of the human cost and the risk to the firefighters,” he said.

Burkhardt said it’s impossible to put a price tag on the safety of the firefighters, and noted that the Navy has its own design and safety standards that the NSA Bethesda facility has not met.

“At this point we’re beyond the point of asking. We’re demanding that the Navy take action and provide us with what we’re supposed to have,” he said.

Firefighters already have a dangerous job, and shouldn’t be forced to worry about additional hazards such as rodent and insect infestations, Burkhardt noted.

“This is our livelihood. These are the men and women protecting the citizens of Montgomery County, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense. All we’re asking for is what the Navy has thrice times over said we’re supposed to have,” he said, referring to the design and safety standards for firehouses.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com