Aging fire fleet isn’t very fleet

Volunteer assistant chief Ken Beach of the Bainbridge Island Fire Department explains the workings of the water pump on one of the department’s older trucks. - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Volunteer assistant chief Ken Beach of the Bainbridge Island Fire Department explains the workings of the water pump on one of the department’s older trucks.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

The department hopes to replace trucks that are slow, fail newer standards.

Ken Beach shakes the clutch and rams it into second gear just as his hulking water transport truck rolls onto the foot of Bucklin Hill.

The fully loaded 18-ton Ford roars like a lion – but it’s not a roar of defiance or power. It’s more like the bellow of a giant cat in its death throes.

The entire steel frame rocks and vibrates while six cars stack up behind the truck’s blubbering tailpipe. Beach’s eyes dart about the controls. The volunteer assistant chief of the Bainbridge Island Fire Department steadies the stick and pushes the gas to the floor, reaching top speed at a whopping 15 miles per hour.

“Impressed yet?” he asks. “It’s a good thing we’re not responding to a real emergency.”

The 22-year-old “water tender” is just one of several cantankerous old rigs the fire department would like to replace. There’s a 25-year-old fire engine with growing rust spots, a transport truck overcrowded with equipment and a well-used ambulance in need of a new chassis.

The department is asking island voters to help replace these and seven other vehicles, and add communications upgrades, with a $2.27 million property tax levy lid lift.

The measure will be decided in an all-mail election Sept. 20; ballots go out Aug. 31, and fire officials are now making the rounds of community and service groups to drum up support.

The tax hike would be stretched over six years, and the levy rate would then revert to the pre-levy-lid-lift level. The lid lift would increase the existing rate by 8.5 percent per $1,000 of assessed property value. That means a property valued at $450,000 would see a tax boost of about $41 per year for six years.

Making the levy temporary and geared for specific goals shows the department is learning from its missteps, said Fire Chief Jim Walkowski.

“We learned a lot from the last attempt,” he said. “And we’ve taken that to heart.”

In May 2004, the department proposed a permanent levy hike of 10 percent. Citizen groups and even former fire officials opposed the measure, saying the department didn’t need the money, that it already held substantial amounts in reserve and that the requests were too broad.

Voters also balked, handing the department its first tax hike failure in years.

The department regrouped, holding meetings with levy opponents to discuss department finances. Based on public input, Walkowski said, the agency has retooled its financial assumptions and policies.

“Our funding philosophy has completely changed after our last failure,” he said. “For 65 years, our department has counted on the permanent levy lid lift. Now we’re dealing with brand-new concepts.”

In an effort to adapt, the department reduced its reserve fund to $300,000, freeing up hundreds of thousands of dollars for other purposes. Budgeting for operation costs is factored with more conservative estimates and no levy lid lift for general operations is expected for the next five years, Walkowski said.

The department will no longer ask the voters for funding for equipment items under $100,000 and will instead use current revenues for these smaller purchases.

But big-money items, like new fire engines and ambulances, will go to voters in the form of temporary lid lifts.

“The bottom line is we have a lot of aging apparatus that are not compliant” with national standards, Walkowski said. “But we have to deliver high-quality service no matter what. So we have to spend dangerous amounts of our reserve, make cuts to training or do this lid lift.”

Some former critics say the department’s most recent levy proposal makes sound financial sense.

“They need this,” said former fire commissioner Doug Johnson, who opposed last year’s levy. “There’s a huge difference between this levy and what we saw last time.”

Johnson called the earlier 10 percent hike “a staggering amount,” but supports the new bare bones, limited-time approach.

“The chief’s done a really good job looking at specific needs and opting for a ‘Chevy’ plan rather than the ‘Rolls-Royce’ plan.”

Besides the general wear and tear that comes with age, Johnson has heard plenty from firefighters who say many of the trucks have outdated parts that are either too complicated or even potentially dangerous.

As a case in point, Beach points to a truck-mounted hose fitting that looms close to his chest while he operates a bank of controls.

“This right here is a lethal weapon,” he said, tapping the 5-pound fitting. “If this breaks, it’s coming off with 150 pounds of water pressure. That’ll really knock you down the road.”

Newer models, he said, position hose fittings at a safer distance from controls.

Even basic upgrades, such as manual transmissions, will mean a huge difference during adrenaline-pumped emergency calls.

“Many of the younger guys have only driven Honda Accords or maybe their mom’s SUV, but most have never driven a stick,” said the department’s vehicle technician Thom Ritter. “Last summer, one of the younger guys got caught on a hill and couldn’t find his gear. He was stopped, so he rolled all the way back down. And then he tried again, but couldn’t do it. His clutch was so hot it almost failed. He couldn’t respond to the call and brought it back. He said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ The emergency turned out all right, but we were lucky.”

The department’s crossed-fingers approach is continually tested, Ritter said, with a mounting list of age-related ailments.

“We’re relying on luck that these things won’t break up during a call,” he said. “These trucks have lived a full life, but now they’re just getting old. They’re ready to come apart.”

* * * * *

New trucks

The Bainbridge Island Fire Department is asking for a temporary levy lid lift that would raise almost $2.3 million over six years for a variety of vehicle purchases and equipment upgrades:

• Replace two fire engines (total cost: $580,760): Two engines now in service were built in 1980 and do not meet current national firefighter safety standards. The fire department is counting on new engines to boost firefighter safety and provide a number of time-saving technological improvements.

• Replace one rescue unit ($266,082): The pack mules of the department, rescue units are used to transport a variety of emergency response tools, including air packs, hoses, automobile accident extraction equipment and chainsaws. The department says its current model lacks adequate storage space. The unit is also more than 20 years old and is in need of an overall retrofit.

• Replace two water tenders ($453,840): Tenders transport water to parts of the island without available water supplies. The department hopes to replace two tenders that are more than 20 years old with new ones featuring a much larger water storage capacity.

• Retrofit two aid units ($244,593): The department’s four medic units, commonly known as ambulances, get heavy use responding to a variety of emergencies. Firefighters hope to replace two units’ chassis to extend their service lives.

• Make the final three payments on the ladder truck ($253,383): A state-of-the art ladder truck purchased in 2002 is nearly paid for. The truck was purchased with future growth in mind and to match the island’s rising skyline. The truck can also pump water from a much higher angle than other apparatus and can be used as a high-powered crane.

• Replace four non-emergency vehicles ($180,001): The department hopes to replace four Chevy vans purchased in the early 1990s with newer models purchased at low-rate state auctions. The vans are used to transport staff to meetings, trainings and other non-emergency uses.

• Station repairs and maintenance ($180,000): Various building upgrades are requested, including boiler, ventilation and roof repairs.

• Communications equipment ($120,000): The department must purchase new communications equipment before recently passed federal guidelines go into effect in 2008. Some vehicle-mounted radios haven’t been replaced since the mid-1970s.

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