- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

D.C. firefighters are racing to fires in 15-year-old patched-up engines that should have been scrapped four years ago, according to Fire and Emergency Medical Services documents.
The situation will only grow worse throughout 2002, The Washington Times has learned, because Fire Chief Ronnie Few has not ordered a single new firetruck since he became chief 19 months ago and it takes almost a year to build and deliver these custom-made vehicles.
A third of the pumper trucks making up the city's first line of defense 11 of 33 trucks are in the garage undergoing repairs, forcing officials to replace them with reserve trucks built in the mid-1980s. Their age makes them well past the recommended lifespan of a major city fire engine, according to national fire-safety standards.
With 11 badly aging trucks having been pressed into service, the city is left without a single pumper in its reserve fleet, say top department officials.
On Thursday, firefighters had to commandeer an instructional pumper truck from the fire academy because they had run out of reserve trucks, and all reserve ladder trucks were being used on the front lines.
The present condition of the fleet represents a slump toward levels seen in 1999, when so many front line vehicles were out of service that the department had to put its entire reserve fleet into service both pumper trucks and the ladder trucks needed to fight fires in multistory buildings. Some fire stations were closed in 1999 because there were no fire engines to house. The shortage was a major reason Fire Chief Donald Edwards was forced to resign on Nov. 30, 1999.
Chief Few, who was confirmed from interim chief to chief in September 2000 at an annual salary of $130,000, ran into political fire in November when the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance and the D.C. inspector general began investigating him for failing to disclose his long friendship with a part-time consultant the fire department had hired at $1,800 a day. The investigations began after The Washington Times reported the chief had worked as an instructor for the consultant, Carl Holmes, without later listing his ties to Mr. Holmes on the official disclosure statements he was to file.
The state of the city's fire engines surfaced when the new chief made it part of his list of achievements, which he distributed to news organizations and city leaders. His list stated that since he assumed command, the department's reserve fleet of firefighting trucks is the "most complete and reliable" in the history of the department.
Yet a close look shows that things have gotten worse since 1999, during Chief Edwards' reign, when there were 13 pumper trucks in reserve, or three below the required number of 16. Today, there are only 11 pumpers, five below departmental reserve requirements.
Two months ago, the department received bids for six new pumper trucks at $300,000 each. The trucks would take an estimated seven months to build and would go a long way in meeting the department's front line and reserve fleet requirements.
Sources said Chief Few has not ordered the new trucks, however, because the money to buy them is still in the hands of the city's Finance Department, and the chief has not yet been able to obtain it.
The chief ordered a brand new Ford Crown Victoria for himself, however, and took delivery of a $32,000 sports utility command vehicle which, sources say, he is afraid to drive for fear of angering Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Alan Etter, a Fire & EMS Department spokesman, said Chief Few is trying to resolve the problems that have tied up the money for the new trucks. He did not say what the problems were, but he knows that a speedy resolution is important.
"We recognize there will be some lag time and [must] get the orders to the vendors so we can take delivery in eight to 10 months," Mr. Etter said.
The department is in better shape with the age of its ladder trucks because several of those were ordered after Chief Edwards resigned and before Chief Few was hired. But the department still lacks three of eight ladder trucks it needs to have in reserve.
"We have not had anything in reserve [for] a day or two last week," said a Fire Department source familiar with the problem. "That is the same state we've been in for the last two or three years. Some days we have everything out."
The source, who did not want to be identified, said that Chief Few is not following the required equipment-replacement strategy to put aging firetrucks out of service.
"If we don't start now, we'll be back where we were," the source said.
"Everyone has one of those reserve pieces out there," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, Local 36. "We have nothing left. The junk we are forced to work with should not be on the streets."
Fire department sources also said that the department has inadequate training and oversight of truck operators who drive too fast and have too many accidents. The operators only cease using the equipment when they stops running, rather than when there are warning signs of mechanical trouble.
Another fire department source said that while Chief Few can't get firetrucks ordered, he was able to order 14 new 2001 Ford Crown Victorias to be used by himself and other top officials. "They can get themselves all new Crown Vics, but they can't get us anything new to fight fires with," the source said.
According to Fire Department records, Chief Few has two 2001 Crown Victorias assigned to him, and the only 2002 model on order is also for him. The 2001 Ford Excursion SUV that Chief Few ordered last year for $32,000 has not been used since it was delivered six months ago.
Fire department sources said Chief Few wanted the Excursion as a command vehicle for himself, but was afraid to take it out on the street when Mayor Anthony A. Williams clamped down on city officials purchasing sports utility vehicles. City records do not show the Excursion as being assigned to the fire chief, but instead list it for "command."
One problem with the department's equipment is that the newer trucks ordered prior to Chief Few's hiring are beginning to have transmission and hydraulic problems. The trucks are still under warranty, but their absence means the old reserve trucks must replace them on the front line.
National standards say that frontline ladder trucks have a 10-year life span as a daily, frontline truck, plus another five years as a reserve truck. Frontline pumper trucks have a seven-year life span for daily use and can serve as a reserve unit for another four years.
Department records show it has 16 ladder trucks that are all less than 10 years old, but it is using three ladder trucks in its reserve fleet that were built between 1987 and 1989. That means they'll need replacing within the next two years.
The department has three frontline pumper trucks and six reserve pumpers that will need to be replaced in a year. In addition, there are seven reserve pumper trucks made before 1989 that are too old to be used safely and should have already been removed from its fleet.

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