Fight looms over funds for Phila. fire trucks

FIREFIGHTERS work to reach a man who was was struck by a freight train yesterday in Kensington. Firefighters used a ladder to get to the Conrail tracks just north of Kensington Avenue at 9:22 a.m. The man was pronounced dead at 9:54, officials said. No details were available.
FIREFIGHTERS work to reach a man who was was struck by a freight train yesterday in Kensington. Firefighters used a ladder to get to the Conrail tracks just north of Kensington Avenue at 9:22 a.m. The man was pronounced dead at 9:54, officials said. No details were available. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff photographer)
Posted: March 14, 2014

Let the fight in City Hall over the precious and few millions in new spending money begin. At least when it comes to new cars and trucks.

City Council begins its budget hearings Wednesday to decide how Mayor Nutter's proposed $4.5 billion pot of money will be disbursed in the fiscal year that starts July 1, and some fuss is already being made over what vehicles will be purchased.

During last week's budget address, Nutter proposed $12 million in new funding for the Office of Fleet Management.

Though the specific uses have not been designated, firefighters' union officials are saying their department is in dire need of new ladder trucks.

"We are rapidly coming to a head, where we are going to have to put a company out of service," Local 22 president Joseph Schulle said. He said most of the department's reserve trucks - used to cover for "front line" trucks that are out of service - are dangerously old.

"There are three 1990 trucks that are beyond their useful lives," Schulle said.

Overall, 55 percent of the department's fleet is 15 years or older, with 10.6 being the average age, Deputy Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said.

While the department needs new trucks, Sawyer said, he doesn't agree that the situation is as dire as Schulle is making it sound.

"If it was up to us, we would buy new trucks every year," Sawyer said. "But we don't have an unlimited stream of funding."

A new ladder truck costs $600,000 to $800,000.

The department was able to purchase two new ladder trucks last year and is ordering a new one, Sawyer said. The city has 27 ladder trucks and 10 reserve trucks.

In recent weeks, some of the frontline trucks have gone out of service due to human error, city officials said. On one occasion, two new ladder trucks crashed into each other - on another, a firefighter assigned to work at a location unfamiliar to him drove beneath an underpass that was too low.

One firefighter, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said he had been on trucks that sounded like they were "going to fall apart."

The firefighter said that sometimes, firefighters would rather keep a rusty truck than turn it in to the fleet office and get a reserve truck in worse shape.

In anticipation of next week's budget hearings, the Fire Department is "researching" the status of its vehicles to give the Office of Fleet Management a request for new orders, Sawyer said. Ultimately, that office decides who gets what.


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas

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