Pulling the alarm on an aging fire engine fleet

Pulling the alarm on an aging fire engine fleet

Fire Chief Adam Thiel wants eight engines and three ladder trucks available around the clock to answer roughly 19,000 calls annually, but after years without new equipment hes stuck juggling resources.    

On a good day, he has seven working engines and a sole serviceable ladder truck to cover the city. Which is why three firefighters and a Chevrolet Suburban were all that manned the departments Duke Street station Tuesday morning until noon, when an engine regularly loaned by neighboring Arlington arrived.

Its a tactic Thiel uses to keep the city covered, but its not guaranteed or sustainable, he said. 

We have to borrow an engine from our neighbors We cant count on our neighbors to do that, Thiel said. Weve had engines break down on the way to calls. That makes the response times longer and causes problems for us.

The average lifespan of a fire engine or ladder truck is around 12 to 15 years, the first six years spent as a frontline vehicle before moving to the reserve fleet. The average age of Alexandrias fleet is somewhere between 10 and 15 years-old, according to Thiel. The newest vehicle is seven-years-old.

Our reserve fleet is also nonexistent, he said. If you run your frontline vehicles past their recommended lifespan, theyre basically trashed.

Help is on the way. After years of deferring new purchases because of economic austerity at City Hall, the department will spend $3.4 million to replace four engines and a ladder truck next year. If they stay on schedule and buy two each year until 2015 when theyre budgeted to receive a ladder truck the entire fleet will be new, said Kendel Taylor of the Office of Management and Budget.

But you cant buy a $600,000 fire engine at a local dealership, Thiel said. The department will likely have to wait a year before the new equipment, built to the departments specifics, arrives at a station. 

Even then, West End resident David Dexter, chair of the BRAC-133 advisory group, worries the department will be stretched thin. With thousands of new workers flooding into the city each day, Dexter is concerned traffic will take a toll on response times.

Given that city council hasnt yet figured out a way to cover an emergency at the twin high rises, and the fire department has one station nearby, it may leave taxpayers paying for even more equipment, he said.   

Things are not going to be done by September when BRAC is scheduled to be open, Dexter said. There is a lot of concern on the West End, particularly in response to [longer] response times.

While Dexter is well versed in the issues surrounding BRAC, he wasnt aware of the departments equipment shortfalls. It came as unwelcome news.  

One particular concern of mine, we have a few senior citizen and care facilities for individuals on the West End These are more vulnerable citizens and if there is a delayed response time, its not a very good situation, obviously, Dexter said. I personally also worry about the BRAC facility itself, with 6,400 hundred people its like a small town Its a very uncomfortable situation, to tell you the truth.

Those are concerns Thiel expects the city to address in coming years. New stations are expected to open in the Eisenhower Valley and Beauregard Corridor down the road, but until then hes focused on managing an aging fire fleet.

The maintenance-heavy, overstretched trucks havent come into the public eye yet, thanks in part to the citys mutual aid with neighboring jurisdictions, said Assistant Chief Andrew Snead. Just one bad day could make all the difference, he said. 

It sounds great until we have several incidents at the same time, Snead said. It doesnt take but a couple of incidents to show we are, at best, limited.