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Firefighters gassed by aging vehicle; one of many in CSFD’s inventory past its prime 

Aging out

click to enlarge Engine 6, which resembles Engine 10 (pictured), was removed from service in early January.
  • Engine 6, which resembles Engine 10 (pictured), was removed from service in early January.
On Dec. 20, 2018, exhaust fumes spewed into the cab of a Colorado Springs Fire Department engine, exposing its crew of four to poisonous carbon monoxide gas, sending two to the hospital. One was able to go back on shift, but the other required time at home to recover.

CSFD sent the engine, based out of Fire Station 6 at 2430 N. Union Blvd., for repairs and returned it to duty within a few days. But just two weeks later, on Jan. 3, carbon monoxide again penetrated the cab. And once again, CSFD sent a firefighter to the hospital, and later home for the shift.

After this second incident, the fire department retired the engine, built in 1997, from front-line duty, moving it into reserve. But that engine wasn’t alone in showing its age: Nearly one in five of the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s front-line firefighting apparatus are older than the department’s 18-year minimum age for recruits. And when a truck or engine breaks down, the city must draw on a reserve fleet dominated by vehicles built in the 1990s. (See “What they use,” below, for how trucks, engines and other equipment differ.)

There’s no rule for how long a department should keep fire trucks and engines as first-response vehicles. But the generally accepted standard, gleaned from speaking with representatives from Colorado Springs Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 5: Engines should be replaced after 12 years and trucks, after 15 years.

If the city followed that standard, five of its six trucks would be due for replacement, while nine of its 22 engines should be put out to pasture.

The number of engines due for replacement would be higher, but the city just added three new engines in the last quarter — replacing one that had racked up 360,000 miles and the one that exposed Fire Station 6 firefighters to exhaust fumes.

Asked about the fleet’s age, Dave Noblitt, spokesman for IAFF Local 5, which has proposed a collective bargaining ballot measure in the April 2 city election, says older equipment could pose risk to firefighters and the public.

Breakdowns can lead to slower response times, he says, and the CSFD already has trouble with that, as previously reported by the Independent.
“It puts firefighters at risk when they can’t reliably respond to incidents, because you have a mechanical failure because [an engine or truck] is worn out,” he says, adding that delays or no-shows could leave firefighters short-handed at an incident.
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But Fire Chief Ted Collas labels the Fire Department fleet “very good.”

“The age of the apparatus does not have any effect on firefighter performance or safety,” he writes in response to the Indy’s questions. He also noted the age of apparatus has no impact on insurance rates.

And Mayor John Suthers says in a statement the city is spending millions of dollars replacing fire apparatus and will continue to do so. In addition to the three new engines added late last year, the city plans to spend $2.14 million this year to buy another two engines and a truck. In the last three years, the city has added $4.2 million in equipment.

“All apparatus are regularly checked and serviced as necessary,” says Suthers. “The Fire Department continues to 
perform at a high level.”

Regarding Engine 6, at the root of the gassing incidents on Dec. 20 and Jan. 3, work orders obtained by the Indy show fleet maintenance workers test-drove the vehicle on Dec. 24 and noted,
“No problem found and returned to service.”

Still, it happened again 10 days later on Jan. 3. After that, the engine was sent to MHC Kenworth, which said on an invoice that mechanics replaced the thermostat and fixed an oil leak, costing $950. Chief Collas highlights how the Kenworth shop concluded no problems were found, and calls the situation an “isolated incident.”

Noblitt points out that while the fleet’s average age might meet accepted guidelines, individual units do not, such as Engine 6.

“The potential of a vehicle having an incident goes up dramatically with age,” he says. “A 23-year-old fire truck is operating on a 23-year-old safety standard, and the safety standards change dramatically [over time].”

Noblitt says apparatus have broken down six times on structure-fire calls in the last year and also notes that older fire vehicles are “heavy polluters” that expose firefighters and the environment to toxic exhaust.

While Noblitt credits the maintenance crew with doing “an incredible job” on repairs, he says finding parts for decades-old equipment can add to repair time and expense.

“If they have to replace a part, they have to manufacture that part, because they don’t maintain replacement parts for those [older units],” he says. “The down time for those vehicles is greater. Then you have a reserve fleet that’s really old.”

City records show that the Fire Department spent $478,437 on maintenance in 2018, compared to $267,354 in 2008, though the CSFD fleet was smaller a decade ago.
To respond to the dozens of emergencies they’re called upon to battle daily, firefighters rely on 71 apparatus. Of those, 13 are considered reserves and are called into service when a front-line unit breaks down or requires extended maintenance. Four mechanics and a supervisor on the CSFD staff handle that work.

Of the 58 front-line units, 22 are engines, nine of which are older than 12 years, and half of the city’s six trucks are 22 years old. Seven heavy specialty units have been in service an average of 16.4 years, though two exceed 20 years, and medium duty vehicles average 11.2 years. The city’s 17 brush trucks comprise the newest contingent of the fleet, averaging just over 8 years, though four are 15 years or older.

“The CSFD has made an effort to upgrade brush trucks to 4 doors to better accommodate crews,” Collas says. “Also, some older brush trucks were determined to be underpowered for the hills and altitude of the Colorado Springs area, so these have been replaced with newer vehicles with stronger motors.”

The reserve fleet includes five reserve engines, which average 21.5 years, and two reserve trucks and a heavy rescue truck that average more than 20 years. The remaining five vehicles average 19 years.

Overall, the department’s apparatus average is 11.5 years, and with reserve units, 13.3 years. Command staff drive seven SUVs that range from 2012 to 2018 models.

The city strives to replace heavy apparatus at 17 years, Collas says, a plan adopted in 2015, the year Suthers became mayor. Records show that since then, the city has replaced 15 fire apparatus, or 26 percent of the front-line fleet.

Replacement costs can bust a budget. An engine costs in the $500,000 range, while ladder trucks price at $1 million, or more. Funding comes from the city’s general fund and the .4 percent Public Safety Sales Tax approved by voters in 2001.

That’s why, Collas says, the city tries to get “the most value possible” from equipment by trading or selling used apparatus through a broker. The city also has been known to donate used apparatus to other jurisdictions.

What They Use

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  • Engine: Carries 500 gallons of water, a pump and hose. Sometimes called a pumper, an engine hooks up to hydrants.
  • Truck: Often called aerial trucks, these vehicles carry hydraulic ladders that extend up to 109 feet. Trucks also carry equipment used to break holes in roofs or break down doors.
  • Brush truck: More maneuverable than an engine or a truck, it carries 300 gallons of water and is built to go off-road to fight wildland fires.
  • Wildland engine: A four-wheel-drive 
vehicle that carries 500 gallons of water and is used for wildland fire suppression.
  • Heavy rescue truck: Carries “Jaws of Life” tools, like other vehicles do, plus diving gear and ropes to perform rescues.
  • Hazmat truck: Carries materials needed to detect and contain hazardous materials, spills and releases.

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