Calif. firefighters struggle with aging rigs, ladder trucks

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The Fresno Bee

FRESNO, Calif. — The Fresno Fire Department’s first string of firefighting rigs is falling apart from heavy use and old age. The department’s bench is perhaps in worse shape.

City officials say new equipment is on the way. The question is whether it will come before years of a suspended equipment-replacement program cause serious public harm.

“When you take away the replacement program, the things that start breaking usually are the tools that we need to do our jobs,” Deputy Fire Chief Ted Semonious says.

The problem came to a head this month when the brakes on one of the Fire Department’s four frontline ladder trucks went bad.

The truck was housed in Station 11 on the city’s north side, not far from mid-rise office and medical buildings clustered at Fresno Street and Herndon Avenue.

Fire officials normally would have called in one of three trucks kept in reserve for precisely this kind of emergency.

But all three reserves were out of commission as well. Trucks, with their 100-foot aerial ladder and various smaller ladders, are vital pieces in Fresno’s fire-protection system.

The department had to adapt on the fly. Semonious says the truck from Station 10 in east-central Fresno, where service calls are relatively light, was moved to Station 11. A reserve engine (with 24-foot ladders) moved into Station 10’s bay to maintain firefighting capability in that area.

Semonious says mutual-aid agreements with the Clovis and Fresno County fire departments ensured that Fresnans had sufficient ladder-truck protection. Within 24 hours, he says, the department had a repaired truck at Station 10.

Still, he says, “I’d love to have more than what we have.”

Equipment-replacement programs figure to be Topic A when City Hall begins annual budget hearings in two months.

The Great Recession forced Mayor Ashley Swearengin to largely halt the buying of new stuff in every department. The word went out to department directors — patch aging equipment or do without. The outlook was no better for routine maintenance of city buildings.

The budget finally is brightening a bit. The challenge is a backlog of equipment to replace and buildings to fix. City officials will find it impossible to make every department happy.

City Manager Bruce Rudd relishes the opportunity to preach the value of systematic saving for replacement and maintenance.

“If you don’t think ahead, it’ll come back to bite you two or three times,” Rudd says.

Fresno’s Fire Department has 23 stations, not counting firefighters focused just on Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Three stations are part of a contract with the North Central Fire Protection District. Another station is a contractual deal with the Fig Garden Fire Protection District.

Fifteen of the 19 stations within the city limits have engines. The other four have trucks.

“You can think of engines as rolling pumps with hose and trucks as rolling tool boxes with ladders,” Semonious says.

Fresno once had a handful of two-company stations — an engine and a truck in the same building. Budget woes put an end to that.

Ladder trucks are bigger and more complex vehicles than engines, Semonious says. At about $1 million, a new truck costs nearly twice as much as a new engine, he says.

The department’s goal is to someday revive two-company stations in selected areas, Semonious says. Until then, he says, Fire Chief Kerri Donis is pushing hard for equipment upgrades.

Semonious says the budget for fiscal year 2014, which ends June 30, includes funds for four new engines and one new truck. He says the purchase orders should be sent this month.

Unfortunately, he says, it takes about a year to build a new truck.

The department in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget is asking for another four new engines, another new truck and a new water tender. Rudd says the department also needs things like new radios and new “turnouts” — the gear that protects firefighters as they battle a blaze.

The new engines and trucks will replace their oldest or most worn counterparts, Semonious says.

Until then, the department will meet equipment challenges with baling wire and ingenuity.

Fire protection in a city of a 500,000 people “is a big puzzle,” Semonious says. “We have to have all of the pieces to perform effectively.”

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