Alexandria, VA

The following Letter to the Editor was written by Alexandria Fire Chief Corey Smedley.

Like every emergency, the Alexandria Fire Department approached this pandemic with the mindset that we will win the fight, no matter the circumstances – and that is NON-NEGOTIABLE. We have found the courage to redefine ourselves and think outside of the box to try new things in response to something we have never faced before.

I believe that together we can all find that courage as we continue to adjust and hold on to some form of normalcy in this current situation.

When I was officially named the Fire Chief for the Alexandria Fire Department in December 2019, I would have never thought our city would be facing an ongoing, global public health crisis within a few short months.

As a new chief, this can seem overwhelming, and make no mistake about it, COVID-19 is one of the greatest nemeses I have ever encountered to-date.

However, I knew what I was signing up for and I want to be battle-tested for future challenges. But I am not facing this alone. Your Fire Department is a team of talented, skilled and prepared individuals who are risking their own safety to respond to every single emergency call we receive.

The inherent qualities of the fire service profession are compassion, care, preparation, adaptability and teamwork, and we get to demonstrate those qualities even more during this unprecedented global pandemic.

I have seen many AFD leaders emerge during the COVID-19 response, and that increases my passion for fire service and for helping the community. And that is the behavior and character I want to see spread throughout our department – especially in times of crisis. I am honored to be a part of the AFD team, and I could not be prouder of the work our members are doing during this emergency.

I want to reiterate that it is important that everyone does their part in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping your families and our community safe. We’re all in this together.

Over the past couple of months, we have developed new procedures for emergency calls to keep everyone safe as we continue to carry out our mission.

As you continue to do your part by staying home, maintaining physical distancing and donning face masks when in public spaces, your Fire Department is taking every necessary step to keep our members safe and healthy so we can continue to respond to emergencies.

I have served the public in various ways my entire adult life, including eight years in the U.S. Army Reserve, six years in the Alexandria Fire Department, and nearly 30 years in the National Capital Region. Like many of the members of AFD and our regional public safety partners, I have served my community through various local and national emergencies including major fire incidents, mass shootings, significant weather events, mass gatherings, 9/11, H1N1, and now the coronavirus.

Over the years and through all those incidents, I have learned that our response is only as good as our partnerships with the community and other stakeholders. As the city’s former emergency manager, I recognize that the very first responders are members of the community.

The Alexandria community has not disappointed. You have offered your assistance in helping to feed our firefighters and paramedics; identified gaps and developed ways to meet those needs; and created ways to obtain and/or clean our personal protective equipment (PPE).

Now, I acknowledge that after months at home you may be feeling stressed, anxious and even afraid. We understand, because during these unusual times we are experiencing those feelings as well. Through it all, AFD remains ready to assist the community. Because, like the rest of the Alexandria community, we are strong, courageous and resilient.

Stay encouraged. Stay informed. Stay safe and healthy and we will get through this together.

ALXnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected] Letters may be edited for content and brevity, at our discretion.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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A survey of Alexandria City Public Schools’ drinking water sources has come back with relatively high levels of copper and lead in George Washington Middle School (1005 Mount Vernon Avenue).

Many of the schools had no outlets or very few that tested above action levels — amounts that require equipment replacement — for copper or lead. The EPA’s action levels for copper are 1.3 mg/L and much lower for lead, 0.015 mg/L. At T.C. Williams High School, 259 samples were collected and only four tested above actionable levels.

At George Washington Middle school, however, 15 of the 132 samples tested high for either copper or lead.

ECS Mid-Atlantic, which tested the water supplies, noted that efforts were made to collect a sample from every sink, water fountain, bottle refilling station and water fountain in the building.

“Some areas within the building were locked,” the report said. “ECS was informed by an ACPS representative that sinks were not located in the locked areas. Please note that ECS observed a sink in a locked closet in the cafeteria that was unable to be sampled.”

A map of the samples collected around George Washington Middle School shows that the samples with elevated lead were from across the school, though eight of them concentrated around the gym area. The report suggest that, going forward, the building be checked periodically, at a minimum of every three years.

It’s been a rough year for safety issues at George Washington Middle School, with a series of fire alarm incidents last fall and a student-led fight to prove the school still had a mold problem. The school was evacuated two weeks ago because of a gas smell, though the principal said there was ultimately no danger.

Francis C. Hammond Middle School didn’t fare much better in the water testing, with 7 of the 72 samples tested showing elevated levels of lead.

All of the high copper and lead water sources in both schools were in sinks, as were most across the other schools. The following schools had high levels of copper or lead in water fountains, though only generally in one per school.

  • Early Childhood Center
  • Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology
  • John Adams Elementary School
  • Matthew Maury Elementary School
  • Mount Vernon Community School
  • Patrick Henry K-8

Full reports on each school, and the final reports for each location, are available online.

According to the school website:

Any outlets with higher than usual levels have already been taken out of use and will continue to remain out of use until the issue has been fixed. Parts of the units will be replaced and/or the lines flushed. Once this work has been completed, the water will be retested and ACPS will collect follow up samples to ensure it remains within safe limits in the future.

Higher than normal levels of lead or copper in an outlet can be caused by deterioration of the pipes or from the faucet itself. Lead was sometimes used in metal alloys to make fixtures prior to 1987. It is anticipated that the replacement and/or repair of the outlets will quickly solve this issue.

ACPS is working closely with the Alexandria Health Department on this issue. Water testing will continue to be carried out throughout the school division and all reports made public on the ACPS website.

ACPS advised that parents concerned about their child’s exposure to lead should have them tested at a pediatrician or family doctor.

“If you do not have a pediatrician or family doctor, call Neighborhood Health at 703-535-5568 to make an appointment,” ACPS said on the website.

Image via Alexandria City Public Schools

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Several Alexandria Fire Department units responded as mutual aid to a crash on the GW Parkway in Fairfax County this afternoon.

The crash happened just before 1:30 p.m. at the GW Parkway intersection with Belle View Blvd. At least one of the victims was initially reported to trapped in their vehicle, potentially requiring extrication.

An ALXnow photographer arrived as one of the vehicles involved, a red sedan with heavy passenger side damage, was loaded onto a flatbed tow truck.

The intersection is likely familiar to many who commute to and from Alexandria and points south. It, along with the nearby intersection of the GW Parkway and Belle Haven Road, are among the most dangerous and crash-prone in the area — prompting the National Park Service to hold recent public meetings and consider new safety improvements.

Particularly for those turning left at both intersections, to head north on the Parkway, the maneuver requires dodging fast-moving southbound traffic and then waiting in a barely-wide-enough median for fast-moving northbound traffic to clear. Turning left from the northbound lanes of the Parkway onto either road is similarly death-defying.

More from a December article on Covering the Corridor on potential safety improvements:

Recent Park Police efforts to improve speed enforcement along the entire Parkway between I-495 and Mount Vernon have led to a 35 percent reduction in motor vehicle accidents between 2018 and 2019, Cuvelier said. The superintendent added that public opinion about installing speed cameras was about evenly divided, but that the cameras raised a larger issue involving data requirements.

More than half the comments submitted so far have been related to the Belle View Boulevard and Belle Haven Road intersections, where nearly 125 crashes occurred over a five-year period.

To help improve intersections that are currently difficult to navigate — especially when making left turns — the Park Service proposed solutions like road diets and roundabouts, including ones at Morningside Lane. Some of these proposals will require more investigation, Cuvelier acknowledged, due to potential downsides like queuing.

Thus far, no serious injuries have been reported following this afternoon’s crash.

Street view photos via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

APD Launches Safety Campaign for Officers — “Commuters often hear about the importance of safety on the road, but a new police program in Alexandria, Virginia, seeks to help officers keep themselves out of harm’s way on the road. Through its newly-launched, 12-month ‘Safety First — Every Shift, Every Call’ campaign, Alexandria police will provide officers with monthly safety tips throughout 2020 on topics like safe driving tactics, traffic stops and driving while fatigued.” [WTOP]

Drug Take-Back Day Coming Soon — “Alexandria encourages residents to safely dispose of prescription and over-the-counter medications, including those prescribed by veterinarians, during National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. A special collection will take place on January 25, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., although medications may also be taken year-round to one of the permanent drop box locations.” [City of Alexandria]

High School Basketball Team Eyes Playoffs — “Last year, the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes boys’ varsity basketball team won the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state tournament for the first time since 1990. This year, they’re going for a repeat.” [Alexandria Times]

Al’s Donating in Honor of Anniversary — “Al’s Steak House, 1504 Mount Vernon Avenue, is celebrating 65 years as the ‘King of Cheesesteaks’ by giving back. To celebrate the milestone, Al’s is donating 65 cents for every sub sold during the month of January to Community Lodgings.” [Zebra]

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It’s rare for a Facebook group to be the topic of discussion at the City Council dais, but Alexandria Residents Against the Seminary Road Diet is no ordinary page.

The group started as a small forum for drivers and residents to express their frustration over the city’s change to a portion of Seminary Road — reducing vehicle travel lanes from four lanes to two, with a turn lane in between, to allow for greater pedestrian and bicycle space.

The change led to traffic congestion for commuters, at least initially, as construction got underway. While the construction has mostly finished, the frustration in the group remains intense.

The backlash to the street change has inspired everything from banners along the street calling to “Retake Seminary Road” to a burger named after that and other Alexandria controversies.

For better or worse, the nearly 1,200 member group has become the digital hub of opposition to the changes on Seminary Road. City officials have been engaged in a long-running debate with residents in the comments section and the Facebook group took center-stage at a spat between two City Council members in a discussion last week about pausing work on Seminary Road.

The group was recently made private, meaning only those who join are allowed to comment and view posts, but while it was public it was extraordinarily active. Members would create numerous new posts every day, and those posts would in turn attract comments, often by the dozen.

There were a few frequent themes of those posts: photos of morning or evening rush hour traffic, links to news articles or videos about the Seminary Road changes, and ideas for how to pressure officials to change the road back to the way it was before.

The level of engagement on the page, and with the issue in general, is — to many — out of proportion to the actual stakes involved.

Chris Weymont, Bill Rossello and Keith Reynolds are the three administrators of the page, and each describes themself as a reluctant advocate drawn into a transportation policy argument.

“It started off on a Friday night with 10 invites and its grown exponentially,” Reynolds said. “I was a disgruntled resident. I thought it would gain a little bit of traction, but not this much. It continues to grow as people continue to find out about the page.”

While Reynolds said he set up the page to act as a forum to air complaints about the new Seminary Road changes, moderating the page started taking up more and more time. That was when Weymont and Rossello, two active early members of the page, were invited to join a small administrative team.

“I started to see some things going on that I didn’t like over a period of time, particularly after the King Street road diet,” Rossello said of his activism.

Rossello said he maybe gets on Facebook to post once or twice a year, but became involved with the page through neighborhood listserv Nextdoor and the Seminary Hill Association. Rossello said he was not active in local civic groups before becoming involved in the Seminary Road debate, but has since been elected to the Seminary Hill board and has been asked to become a member of the Alexandria Civic Federation.

“It grew out of angst a year and a half ago,” Rossello said. “Now I’m in the thick of it.”

Weymont joined later but has been one of the more active administrators in the group — weighing in on discussions and tagging relevant people. According to Weymont, the traffic issue has transcended every other partisan divide, with both avowed Democrats and die-hard Republicans standing side-by-side against the road diet.

“We’re not surprised in multiple ways,” Weymont said. “We know how badly the bike lobby and Mayor wanted this. When it comes to traffic, it’s a quality of life issue, for hardened Democrats and hardened Republicans.”

The group most commonly pointed to as the “bike lobby” is the Alexandria Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), a local volunteer organization that has been involved in promoting the road diet.

“We feel like we have taken back Seminary Road,” said Jim Durham, chairman of BPAC.

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A regional nonprofit is again planning to offer free rides through Lyft to help keep drunk drivers off Alexandria streets during the holidays.

Starting on Dec. 20, the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP) will offer its annual Holiday SoberRide program nightly from 10 p.m.-4 a.m., until Jan. 1.

In addition to Alexandria, the program is offered to rides in D.C., Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia.

According to a press release:

Each evening, during this six-hour period, area residents age 21 and older celebrating with alcohol may download Lyft to their phones, then enter a SoberRide code in the app’s Promo section to receive their no cost (up to $15) safe transportation home. A separate Holiday SoberRide promo code will be posted at 9:00 pm on December 20, 27 and 31.

WRAP reported that 1,988 people in the D.C. area used the SoberRide program last December. The program also offers free rides on St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day and Halloween.

“More than a third (38%) of all U.S. traffic fatalities during the holiday season in 2018 involved drunk drivers according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” Kurt Gregory Erickson, president of WRAP, said in the press release.

Image via WRAP

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Alexandria will be looking into new safety improvements for the King Street, Braddock Road, and Quaker Lane intersection after a car overturned last week in a crash.

The city made improvements to the intersection a few years ago — with changes to the traffic signal and improvements to the service road. The city implemented other safety measures to the surrounding area, like reducing the speed limit on Quaker Lane. Despite this, the junction remains congested and, some believe, dangerous.

“It is still one of most challenging intersections in Alexandria because traffic is over capacity during peak hours,” said Sarah Godfrey, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. “A total redesign or overhaul of the intersection would require significant right-of-way and engineering changes.”

In 2017, the city noted that the intersection saw daily traffic in excess of 46,000 cars and projections for 60,000 cars-per-day by next year. The intersection also sits right between T.C. Williams High School and the Minnie Howard Campus, with plans potentially including students going back and forth between the two schools.

“The crash… will be reviewed at a Vision Zero Crash Task Force meeting, where a multi-disciplinary group examines details of crashes that occur within city limits, with an eye toward improving high-crash intersections,” Godfrey said. “There’s not a large-scale project currently planned, but City staff are currently looking into additional safety improvements in that area as part of Vision Zero.”

Staff photos by Vernon Miles, map via Google Maps

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(Updated 8:50 p.m.) A series of fire alarms at George Washington Middle School has reignited outcry from parents who say more needs to be done to modernize the school.

Not only did the fire alarms go off several times in November at the school, but during one incident where there was a fire — when a poster was set on fire on Nov. 14 but was quickly extinguished — concerns were raised that no alarm went off.

Also, on Nov. 21, the school was evacuated due to the smell of gas. The fire alarm went off during that incident, but firefighters had trouble turning the alarm off, according to scanner traffic.

At a school board meeting last week, parent Kevin Jahns raised the issue of the fire alarms, saying that it seemed like the alarms went off at times when there wasn’t a fire but when there was one, later on, some of the alarms didn’t go off. Concerns about the fire system were repeated throughout the meeting.

“If the fire alarms don’t work in the building, don’t send children to the school,” said one parent. “It’s that simple.”

But Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said some of the concerns are the result of a misunderstanding about how fire alarms in schools work.

“There are no smoke detectors in [classrooms],” Hutchings explained. “The [fire] code for a school is very different than codes for a home.”

Hutchings said the parameters for what sets off an alarm at home are geared towards monitoring areas where there are no people, which he said is not a concern in a school where there are more people in the building.

However, Hutchings did admit that during tests done at the school some alarm systems were found to be inoperable.

“On Nov. 11, [we] did determine that there were some bells in the school for a fire alarm that were not ringing,” Hutchings said.

Jamie Bartlett, director of safety and security for Alexandria City Public Schools, said the alarm system was fixed after they became aware there was a problem. The cause of the alarm, Bartlett said, was a gas smell created as the building switched from air conditioning to heat.

Staff at the meeting also insisted that, despite parent concerns, George Washington has never been deemed unsafe. An update released on Nov. 25 said the issues related to the alarm have been fixed and the school passed an inspection from the Alexandria City Fire Marshal.

We understand that while these repairs resolve the immediate issues, ACPS is committed to continuing our work on long-term upgrades to George Washington. Both the Fire Marshal and the fire and life safety consultant agree that the fire alarm system and related infrastructure for George Washington Middle School is in need of modernizing. We will keep you informed about these next steps as soon as we have information to share.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Morning Notes

Alexandria Home Sale Prices Rise Above Arlington — “The Amazon HQ2 effect on home prices in Northern Virginia continues and, at least by one measure, the Alexandria housing market is now more expensive than Arlington County. At least it was in October, the most recent month for which data is available.” [WTOP]

Trampoline Park Hoping to Open By End of Year — “Management for Get Air Trampoline Park, an indoor recreation and amusement park, confirmed that the Alexandria location is scheduled to open in the second half of December. The space Get Air is occupying at 340 S. Pickett St. was formerly a U.S. Post Office in the West End Village shopping center.” [Alexandria Living]

Trash Will Be Picked Up on Thanksgiving — “Thursday trash/recycling routes: your trash and recycling WILL BE collected starting at 6AM this Thursday so the route can be completed in advance of the Turkey Trot. If you are not up that early, please set your material out Wed. night!” [Twitter/@AlexandriaVATES]

Meeting About Southern GW Parkway Safety — “On Tuesday, Dec. 3, the National Park Service will host a meeting to discuss George Washington Memorial Parkway (GWMP) visitors’ recommendations about how to improve safety at key intersections between the City of Alexandria and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” [National Park Service]

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Local residents and local officials came out for this weekend for a march in Arlandria to remember those killed in traffic.

The march was hosted on Sunday, Nov. 17, by Alexandria Families for Safe Streets to honor World Remembrance Day, an international memorial event dedicated to raising awareness of traffic violence.

The husband and daughters of Rosemarie Cruz, who was killed in an Arlandria crosswalk in 2016, marched in the crowd with over 100 residents of Alexandria and Arlington, according to a press release. Photos and video of the event show marchers in the street around the intersection of West Glebe Road and Mount Vernon Avenue, where Cruz was killed.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey, and Alexandria Chief of Police Mike Brown also joined the march.

Alexandria has committed to Vision Zero, a plan to get to zero traffic fatalities. Part of the plan involves changing roadways to make them more accessible to non-car uses, like bicycles, but the implementation of the plan on Seminary Road has been the subject of significant local controversy.

“Vigilance on the part of drivers, cyclist and pedestrians alike plus improvement in safer road designs and higher enforcement visibility are ways in which traffic violence against pedestrian and other road users can be reduced,” the organization said in a press release.

The press release also notes that the event was preceded by another fatal pedestrian crash, on Duke Street.

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Morning Notes

Residential Parking Permit Changes in the Works — “Changes to the city’s residential parking permit program are underway and both residents and businesses are concerned about what the proposed changes could mean… The most controversial change, which staff has since removed from its list of recommended changes, would have eliminated the three-hour parking option for non-permit holders in RPP districts.” [Alexandria Times]

Port City Brings Home Gold Medal — “Several Northern Virginia craft brewers brought home medals from the 2019 Great American Beer Festival, including two gold medals… Port City Brewing in Alexandria won a gold medal for its German Pilsner in the Kellerbier or Zwickelbier category.” [WTOP]

T.C. Grads Raise Money for Scholarships — “Nobody remembers the T.C. Williams Titans like former graduates, and this week the final totals were tallied in the annual Clash of the Titans fundraiser for the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria. In all, T.C. alumni raised $46,736 for the fund, which annually gives $1 million in scholarships. And this year, bragging rights for the class to raise the most goes to… the T.C. Williams Class of 1993, which raised $5,870.” [Zebra]

More Plaudits for the City — “Southern Living Magazine has named Alexandria the perfect setting for a Hallmark Christmas movie… “You’ll find yourself wondering: ‘Was that Candace Cameron Bure I just saw crossing King Street?'” Southern Living wrote. [Alexandria Living]

Smoke Alarm Drive This Weekend — “VOLUNTEER OPP: We’re partnering with @RedCrossNCR to install smoke alarms for residents in the Westover area on Saturday, Nov. 16.” [Twitter/@AlexandriaVAFD]

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Several Alexandria community members spoke out against Alexandria City Public Schools’ active shooter drill training during a school safety forum yesterday (Wednesday).

Despite a rainy evening and a World Series final, several dozen community members attended the meeting at T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard Campus. City officials, including ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. and Alexandria City Police Chief Michael Brown, gave presentations and answered public questions.

“[Gun violence] is our reality,” said Hutchings. “We need to make sure we are providing as safe of an environment for our kids as possible.”

In order to prepare students for an active shooter situation, ACPS uses the ALiCE method, which stands for:

  • Alert
  • Lockdown
  • Inform
  • Counter (Distract)
  • Evacuate

According to Jamie Bartlett, the director of ACPS Security and Safety Services, ALiCE is an effective, situational-based option for active threats. However, several community members spoke out in opposition to the “Counter” step.

When practicing “Counter,” students are directed to throw objects at a shooter, to provide a distraction so they can evacuate.

Bartlett stressed only students in the third grade and up are taught the distraction method. However, one audience member shouted that her five-year-old child came home saying their teacher taught them to throw things at shooters.

“I had a third-grader who said they were going to throw pencils at the intruder,” said another audience member. “This seems like it’s not effective at all. You have to do something unless you can say ‘That was the goal, for my third grader to throw pencils at a shooter.'”

Superintendent Hutchings said the school committee that handles such drills will meet soon to discuss the feedback.

“We will act on this,” Hutchings said. “As we go through the curriculum every year, it’s open to interpretation.”

Hutchings added, however, that training for violent incidents in school is an sad reality of modern life.

“It’s unfortunate that some young people who say ‘Have a great day, and I’ll see you when I get home,’ don’t come home,” he said. “We need to make sure we are providing as safe of an environment for our kids as possible. We can do everything in our power to make sure it is safe.”

“Let us continue to have an open mind,” Hutchings said.

All ACPS staff members must take an online course on ALiCE, as well as complete four hours of practical exercise.

In addition to discussing active shooter precautions, ACPS mental health specialist Faiza Jackson spoke about school resources like psychologists, social workers, nurses, and counselors, which are available for students who need help. Such resources are also available during and after active shooter drills.

Jackson also pointed to preventative measures in place at ACPS, like a program that flags student searches for self-harm-related keywords on school-issued laptops to administrators.

The evening meeting was organized by ACPS, Alexandria PTA, and Parents for Safe Alexandria Schools.

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