The Ottumwa Courier

July 15, 2013

Fire chief: Eldest fire truck a burden on department

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — At this point, an aging, out-of-date firetruck is just taking up space at the fire department's central station, says Ottumwa's fire chief.

A public hearing at tonight's City Council meeting will open up discussion of the possible $1 million purchase of a new aerial fire apparatus for the Ottumwa Fire Department.

The 1977 American LaFrance snorkel is suffering from several problems, said Fire Chief Tony Miller.

He wants to replace the truck with a 100- or 101-foot platform aerial fire apparatus. That far outstretches the eldest truck's capabilities, which can only reach 85 feet.

"It cannot reach the top floor of Westgate [Towers], and we have a hard time getting it angled around where we need it to be at the high school," he said.

It's also plagued by a variety of maintenance issues, the cost of which simply isn't worth it, he said.

"We don't spend a lot of money on its maintenance now because ... why throw that money away?" he said.

The truck does not have a water tank or a water pump, which means anytime it was called out to a fire, one of the department's six other trucks would have to accompany it in order to pump water to the scene. The department currently has the 1977 American LaFrance Snorkel, a 1996 and a 2005 Pierce, a 1990 Mack Pumper, a 2003 American LaFrance and two 2010 rescue trucks.

The truck is also leaking oil and all of its hydraulic hoses need to be replaced, as they're cracking and leaking fluid, some of which can be seen coating the truck's windshield. And it has an open-air cab, which presents a safety risk to the firefighters. Today, all firetrucks are required to have a closed cab.

"I don't know of another fire department in the state of Iowa that has a firetruck this old," Miller said.

OFD records show that the 36-year-old firetruck has been on the city's replacement schedule since at least 1998.

"For whatever reason, and I don't really have one, it keeps getting pushed back and back and back," he said. "My guess is it's financial. One million dollars is a lot of money. I had a list of reasons why we need it, but $1 million is $1 million. But it's at the point now where we need to do something."

Councilman J.R. Richards has expressed frustration that money had not previously been budgeted for a new truck.

"Why has it come to a place where this council has to bond one cent to buy that truck?" Richards said at a previous council meeting. "Why wasn't money set aside over the past 36 years?"

City Administrator Joe Helfenberger said funding "just wasn't lined up for it" in previous years.

"It's come back up that we're looking at trying to shore things up for the fire department," he said. "We had looked for a potential used vehicle but it didn't meet specs at all at this point. We'll continue to try to look at all options, but at this point it looks like that will be the only way we'll be able to meet specs and provide a vehicle."

One of those options, suggested by council members, was to first consider refurbishing the truck instead of buying a brand-new one. But Miller said that's simply not an option.

After speaking with three manufacturers of firetrucks, he was told it would cost $400,000 to $600,000 to update the truck — "and you'd still have a 36-year-old truck," Miller said.

The city would take out debt to finance the purchase, Helfenberger said.

"The cost of financing is about as low as we've seen in a long time," he said. "We'd probably borrow over a six- to 10-year period to cover the cost.

"Interest rates are low, pretty much lower than we've seen them for a long, long time. The cost of the truck has come down about $200,000, the need is there and we're trying to protect major industry. It seems like this is about the best time to purchase it compared to other times."

If the council approves the department's request to purchase a new truck, Miller said the 1977 truck isn't the only one that would be taken out of service; the 1990 Mack Pumper is also on that list. The 23-year-old truck would then become the main truck for the north side of town, located at the airbase.

The 1977 truck was taken out of service shortly after a fire destroyed El Rancho Grande restaurant in April. The truck was used to battle the blaze on the back side of the structure.

"We hated to use it, but we had to," Miller said. "The bottom line is, with as many house fires as we've had this year, we have to do something."

The city has seen 30 structure fires so far this year, compared to a total of 34 structure fires in all of 2012.

"I think they realize they've got to do something," Miller said of the council's decision to consider the purchase. "But ultimately it's the council's decision whether they want to spend that money.

"It's time to get rid of this dinosaur."

The council will also discuss:

— Plans to replace the drive on the back side of the central fire station.

— Awarding contracts for several projects, including the Milner Street Reconstruction Project, rehabilitation and asbestos abatement of the future site of Market on Main and the Wildlife Fence Project at Ottumwa Regional Airport.

— An increase in Beach Ottumwa birthday party fees.

The council will meet at 6:30 p.m. today in council chambers at City Hall. The meeting will air live on GO-TV, cable channel 6.

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.