In a letter to the Common Council last month, then-Kingston Fire Department chief John Reinhardt warned that the age and condition of the city’s fleet of firefighting apparatus was “on the verge of creating a public safety crisis.”
His replacement, Chief Mark Brown, however, said that he is hopeful that a mix of taxpayer-backed bonds and a federal grant will help alleviate the problem.
Currently, the department fields four full-sized pump trucks, three “mini-pumpers” and a single ladder truck. According to Reinhardt’s May 2 letter to the council, six of the eight vehicles are beyond their “service life expectancy.” Three, including the department’s reserve engine and mini-pumpers operated by J.N. Cordts Hose and A.H. Wicks volunteer fire companies date back to 1989. Reinhardt said the aging equipment was prone to breakdowns frequently forcing the department to shuffle equipment between the city’s three “frontline” and four volunteer firehouses. At one point in April, Rapid Hose, which Reinhardt called the city’s most active volunteer fire company, was left entirely without apparatus after he was forced to shift the vehicle to a downtown firehouse while another truck was out of service for repairs. Another pumper, at the city’s Frog Alley firehouse, Reinhardt wrote, should be taken out of service for repairs. But a lack of backup apparatus forced the department to keep the vehicle on the road.
Perhaps most critically the city’s only ladder truck, a 1998 model, has reached the end of its active service life. The vehicle, Reinhardt wrote, was out of service for repairs three times between February 2012 and May 2013.
At one time, the city fielded two ladder trucks. Currently, Kingston firefighters must rely on the volunteers of Ulster Hose to provide a backup ladder truck in the event of an equipment failure.
It’s got to work
Brown, who took over the department on May 30 said that fire apparatus wear out more quickly compared with civilian vehicles in part because of their size, long periods of time spent idling and complex machinery like pumps and hydraulic lifts. Additionally, Brown said, the critical nature of the fire department’s work made it essential that vehicles be kept in top condition and that the department has adequate backup for unforeseen circumstances.
“When you get there the ladder has got to work,” said Brown. “The pump has got to work.”
Last year, during the city’s 2013 budget process, Mayor Shayne Gallo and the Common Council opted to cut about $1.2 million in bond requests from the fire department to buy a new pumper and ladder truck. The move was part of a larger effort to cut bond items for equipment in an effort to comply with the state’s two percent property tax cap. The same budget cutting led to the elimination of the KFD’s full-time mechanic. Currently, a firefighter who is certified as a mechanic handles maintenance on a part-time basis.
The request or the apparatus constituted a major expense — according to Brown, it’s $400,000 to $500,000 for a pumper to $1 million or more for a ladder truck. The process is also time-consuming — even with the money in hand, Brown said, it could take up to 18 months to actually get the vehicles in service.
“We had the discussion,” said Alderwoman Elisa Ball (D-Ward 6). “But we just couldn’t afford it at the time.”
But Council Majority Leader Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2) said that denying the bond request was not a flat-out refusal to fund more fire apparatus. Instead, Hoffay said, the council simply opted to weigh critical spending requests one at a time rather than in the deadline-driven atmosphere of year-end budget talks. Brown said that he had already had productive talks with Gallo about a solution and the issue is expected to be taken up by the council’s Finance Committee this month. According to Brown, the discussion with Gallo centered on issuing a municipal bond to pay for a ladder truck while simultaneously seeking a grant to pay for a new engine. The grant, Brown said, would likely come from a federal emergency management program that issues grants for firefighting equipment on the basis of need.
“The mechanic and I are working with the mayor to remedy the situation,” said Brown. “The mayor has jumped on board and I think everybody realizes that this has to happen.”