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PITTSFIELD — Consultants who reviewed the city Fire Department's vehicle fleet described it as aging and in a "somewhat precarious" state, while strongly recommending an aggressive replacement schedule.
Thomas Shard and Michael Wilbur of Emergency Vehicle Response Fire Protection Services also told the City Council's Public Health and Safety Committee on Wednesday that Pittsfield has purchased some "budget" vehicles that did not hold up well and have been subject to high maintenance costs.
In the purchase of new vehicles, the consultants recommended spending more upfront to meet the exact requirements for an engine, ladder truck or other vehicle, and consideration of a vehicle maintenance program from the manufacturer covering the first three years of the vehicle's life.
They added that corrosion of fire vehicles has become a worsening problem for many departments they have visited, because of the chemicals being spread on highways during winter. Special attention should be given, they said, to rust-resistant undercoatings and frame painting, as well as equipment to allow spray washing of the undersides of vehicles.
Shard told councilors that their report "paints a rather bleak picture" of the condition of the city's fleet, but the delivery of a new fire engine this year and purchase of a good used vehicle has "temporarily at least stabilized the apparatus fleet."
But he said the consultants' analysis last fall found a pressing need for a formal vehicle replacement schedule, which should be aggressive during the next few years. He added, "The city didn't get here overnight, and this can't be solved overnight."
Shard said it is their opinion that fire engines be replaced at the 15-year mark, as recommended under National Fire Prevention Association standards. Once all vehicles meet that mark, the oldest vehicles should be retired or become a reserve vehicle as new vehicles are purchased, he said.
The NFPA recommends that reserve vehicles be used for only an additional three to five years after reaching 15 years of age.
In Pittsfield, however, the fleet average the consultants found during their inspection visit in November was 16.1 years, and some trucks date to the early 1990s. At the time, only four of nine major fire vehicles was less than 15 years of age, the report stated.
Shard said the fact current reserve department vehicles often are in use while maintenance is performed on the frontline vehicles — as they found was the case in November — leaves the department "in a somewhat precarious position."
In addition, he said, the city's five engines and one ladder truck are "in a heavy use cycle," with an increasing number of call responses in recent years. There are no low-call "retirement" stations in the city where an older vehicle might receive light use, he said.
The department stations have averaged about 8,000 responses annually over the past four years, up from about 3,500 in 1989 and up more than 20 percent in recent years.
Compounding the situation, the consultants said, are some "budget buster rigs" purchased in the late 1990s and early 2000s that have not held up and now are extremely costly to maintain.
The consultants recommended the first vehicle replaced be the backup ladder truck, dating to 1995, which an inspection showed needs a minimum of $150,000 in repair and restoration work. "There should be absolutely no more funds spent on that vehicle," Shard said, adding that it is "in very rough condition" and does not provide a credible backup for the frontline ladder truck.
Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said following the meeting that he will be discussing that recommendation with Mayor Linda M. Tyer during fiscal 2017 budget discussions, along with a request for two command vehicle replacements.
The consultants also recommend new engine trucks in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 as part of an accelerated effort to upgrade the city's fleet.
Wilber, who is retired from the Fire Department of New York, also stressed the need to purchase quality vehicles, as maintenance costs at the end of the vehicle lifespan will more than offset money saved at purchase.
He also said the FDNY has established a policy of adding a maintenance contract to the bidding specifications for five years of maintenance provided by the manufacturer, saying that was shown to be cost effective over time.
Corrosion because of the chemicals now used to de-ice highways has become an increasingly serious problems for fire vehicles, he said. The consultants said the city should consider undercoatings and rust-resistance painting, along with such extras as stainless steel wheels on new trucks.
Czerwinski said the city Department of Public Utilities has sought equipment to allow power spray washing under city vehicles, but the item hasn't been approved in capital budgets. He said it could help extend the life of all city vehicles.
Councilors asked about the option of responding to medical emergency calls with a smaller vehicle, which was proposed two years ago but rejected by the council.
The consultants said a difficulty with using a smaller vehicle for medical calls is that it would break up the three-person crews at each station, leaving the engine with only a driver if there were another call. They said the city's stations are all minimally staffed and that four or five firefighters are typically recommended per engine.
The chief said the department staff now totals 88, down from 102 in 1989.
Czerwinski said the consultants were hired through a $9,800 grant the department obtained through the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association.
When their 64-page report was submitted by Tyer to the council in February, she issued a statement assuring residents saying in part that "it is important to understand that the public is not in imminent danger, nor are our firefighters at risk."
The mayor said discussion of the report "is the continuum of a very important conversation regarding the city's long-term strategic planning, a key aspect of this administration."
In their report, the consultants had stated: "The lack of a dedicated capital equipment replacement program, combined with the heavy use of this equipment, has created a condition where the current state of the department's apparatus fleet is critical with vehicles that do not meet current National Fire Protection Association standards and require constant maintenance. On any given day, both of the department's reserve engines are being utilized in front-line service."
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.