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Officials discuss raceway safety

A public safety official in Spotsylvania County is airing his concerns about the proposed Dominion Raceway’s impact on emergency services.

Mark Kuechler, a member of Spotsylvania’s Fire and EMS Commission, distributed a packet of information at a meeting Wednesday outlining his issues with the proposed development in Thornburg. He asked that it be entered into the public record and provided to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

“This is a high-risk venue, and if the fire and rescue community is going to be expected to support it, we should have a thorough understanding of what’s expected and how we’re going to cover it,” Kuechler told the Fire and EMS Commission at its bimonthly meeting this week. His wife, Diane, is on the executive committee of the Coalition to Preserve the Thornburg Countryside, which is campaigning against the raceway.

Kuechler, an assistant chief with the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department, wrote that he thinks the proposed development would rely on Spotsylvania to handle its “inevitable accidents and injuries.” As a result, he concludes, it will take longer for emergency personnel to respond to other incidents in the county.

“I believe that all aspects have to be considered, and they need to be done in the broad light of day,” Kuechler said in an interview.

Meanwhile, Fire and EMS Commission Chairman LeRon Lewis, a chief with the Spotsylvania Volunteer Rescue Squad, said he thinks the county is “more than capable” of handling emergencies at the racetrack. He noted that his volunteer agency has staffed the Celebrate Virginia Live concert series for the last two years.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they have an interest in staffing a unit for the raceway in Thornburg,” said Lewis, who said he thinks the raceway will bring in a lot of revenue for the county.

WILL TRACK IMPACT RESPONSE TIMES?

The Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management responded to 13,898 incidents last year, Deputy Fire Chief Scott Hechler said.

Of those, 980 occurred at the station closest to the proposed raceway site, he said. The average response time at that Thornburg station was 8 minutes and 36 seconds—or about the same as the countywide average.

Fredericksburg attorney Charlie Payne, who represents the raceway, said he knows Kuechler and his wife oppose the project and therefore believes “his comments speak for themselves.”

But Kuechler notes that he’s qualified to talk about public safety matters, having served on the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department for 25 years. He spent two years as a lieutenant and eight years as a captain at the Thornburg station.

“Whether or not my wife is a member of this coalition is immaterial when we talk about these sorts of things,” Kuechler said. “My interest is the welfare of the citizens.”

The information Kuechler distributed this week includes a 2001 article from The Charlotte Observer that details racetrack deaths, including one at the now-closed Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas. A flagman died in 1992 when a car crashed and struck the flag stand at the speedway, according to the article.

Developer Steve Britt bought Old Dominion Speedway in 2003 and hopes to reopen it as Dominion Raceway near Interstate 95 in Thornburg in spring 2014. If built, the $10 million development will include an oval track for stock-car racing, a drag strip and a road course.

Payne, the raceway’s attorney, said Britt had an emergency plan at Old Dominion Speedway that typically included a volunteer emergency services team at all races.

“Steve has a great relationship with similar volunteer groups in Prince William County, and this model has worked well in the past,” Payne wrote in an email. “I’m sure that model will work well here, too.”

EXISTING TRACK AVERAGES 11 INCIDENTS EACH YEAR

Spotsylvania Fire Chief Chris Eudailey said at a recent meeting that Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas had 111 incidents requiring fire and rescue response from 2002 to 2012.

“Most of the calls are related to some sort of an injury, either to a driver or to one of the spectators,” Eudailey said. He mentioned spectators falling in the stands as an example.

The Lake Jackson Volunteer Fire Department in Prince William normally staffed an ambulance at the speedway, and Britt gave it an annual donation in return, Eudailey said.

Walter Davis, a chief with that volunteer department, called the raceway events a “training tool” for the agency. He said Britt is “all about safety” and “will do anything you ask him to do.”

“I really don’t see what the problem is,” Davis said.

Britt said both parties got a lot out of the relationship. For instance, he said, the raceway fed volunteers working at the events and helped with their recruitment initiatives. He said he may have given the volunteer agencies some money, but it wasn’t a lot.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we enjoyed working together and will enjoy a long friendship as a result,” Britt wrote in an email.

Kuechler called talk of volunteers manning the raceway “conjecture” at this point.

The fire and rescue system in Spotsylvania is stretched thin as it is, he noted.

Spotsylvania supervisors approved a plan last year to hire 55 fire and rescue personnel over two years to achieve 24/7 coverage at all stations. But County Administrator Doug Barnes is recommending that the plan be slowed down because of budget constraints.

“We’re not able, financially, to move ahead with everything we as a commission had planned to do, so I think we would be remiss without putting this in the mix,” Kuechler said of the raceway.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

 

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