- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

The D.C. fire department yesterday showed off the first of more than 50 new pieces of firefighting equipment and ambulances that will arrive in the city in the next few months to replace its aging and obsolete fleet of heavy equipment.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Acting Fire Chief Adrian Thompson inspected the first six fire engines and six basic-life-support ambulances, which are expected to be on the streets by next week. The mayor arrived at the presentation at Ballou High School in Southeast aboard the new fire engine assigned to Chinatown's Engine Co. 2.

The shipment is the first of 20 fire engines, 22 ambulances, three ladder trucks and seven command vehicles that Mr. Williams called "the most significant addition of frontline apparatus in at least two decades in our city."

"I'm really proud that after all these years we've delivered back to you what you need to do your jobs," Mr. Williams told an audience of about 40 firefighters in Ballou's gymnasium.

The arrival of the fire engines, which cost $334,000 apiece and require a year to custom build, addresses one of the fire department's most urgent needs.

The fleet is supposed to include 33 front-line fire engines and 16 reserve engines. By the time the order was placed last year, the reserve fleet had dwindled to 11, and some of those pressed into service on a regular basis were more than 15 years old.

The National Fire Protection Agency recommends that frontline engines be replaced after seven years of use and reserve engines be replaced after 11 years.

With the purchases, the average age of the front-line fleet will be cut to about two years, Assistant Chief of Fire Services James Martin said. The previous average age was about five years.

Former Fire Chief Ronnie Few was widely criticized for letting the department's fleet deteriorate during his two-year tenure, leading to several high-profile incidents last year including a fire at the home of Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh in April in which firefighters were hampered in their efforts by reserve trucks that malfunctioned on the job.

Chief Martin said it would be difficult to calculate an average age for the reserve fleet because, in selecting the vehicles to keep in reserve, the department must consider wear and tear, meaning an older vehicle from a less-busy station might be retained as opposed to a newer truck that has seen more fire calls.

The department hopes to sell its used vehicles.

The rest of the shipment of firetrucks, which includes engines made by Wisconsin-based companies Seagrave Fire Apparatus and Pierce Manufacturing, should trickle in between now and the end of the summer.

Fire officials are in Wisconsin inspecting the next batch of trucks due to arrive next month.

Twelve of the fire engines were purchased with federal homeland security grants approved by Congress in December 2001. The remaining eight were part of a combined 2001-2002 order from the department's capital budget.

Though the new fire engines were ordered during Chief Few's administration the only fire engines ordered during his two years on the job their arrival is surely a benefit to the acting chief, who faces a D.C. Council confirmation hearing for the job of permanent fire chief Feb. 6.

"We've been through a lot of turmoil in the department in terms of leadership, in terms of equipment, in terms of training," Chief Thompson said. "But now we're turning the corner."

Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, said he was pleased the department would have a quality reserve fleet, but he called on the mayor and city officials to make a long-term commitment to continue updating the fleet in coming years.

"We have to continue with this replacement plan because, if we stop, we're going to be in the same place in 10 years," Lt. Sneed said.


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