Alarms sounded over Philly's aging ambulances

Years of budget cutbacks mean the fleet has grown dangerously old, union officials say, and breakdowns are frequent

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia medic noticed smoke rising from the engine just as he steered his ambulance off I-95.

He and his partner were on their way to a medical emergency when their ambulance began to smoke.

Then, a bang — a "loud explosion," the medic remembered. They pulled over and scrambled from their seats as the smoke grew heavy and thick.

On the side of the road, they watched as flames licked up the side of the ambulance.

In the year since that fire in 2014, sources and records obtained by The Inquirer indicate that accident wasn't an anomaly - that an ambulance bursting into flames is just an extreme example of the deteriorating, sometimes dangerous fleet operated by the Philadelphia Fire Department.

Union officials and rank-and-file firefighters spoke to The Inquirer about frequent breakdowns on engines, ladder trucks, and medic units - from doors that won't open to full-scale brake failures - that put emergency vehicles out of commission for days, or even months at a time. (Rank-and-file firefighters spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a department policy against speaking to reporters.)

Many of the city's vehicles, those sources said, simply can't be trusted on the roads. They are too old and have had a hard service.

The Fire Department has two workhorse trucks in its aging fleet: 53 engine trucks, which pump water onto fires, and 23 ladder trucks, used for ventilation and rescues.

According to figures kept by the department, the average engine truck is 8.9 years old; ladder trucks, 11.5 years; and medic trucks, 3.96 years - old in ambulance years as they answer far more calls than fire trucks.

In recent years, purchases of new trucks - 21 engines and two ladders - have brought down the average age of the fleet. But union officials say there are still plenty of dangerous vehicles on the road.

The National Fire Protection Association, which sets industry standards for the condition of fire vehicles, recommends cities evaluate whether their trucks are still road-ready at 15 years old.

But big cities experience a higher volume of calls than smaller suburban or rural departments, which takes a toll on the vehicles.

In 2011, the last year that Philadelphia's Fire Department posted statistics about its call volume, firefighters and medics answered 97,682 calls for fires and 337,382 calls for medical emergencies. Fire trucks are also sent out on medical calls when no ambulances are available. In 2011, some engines responded to more medical emergencies than to fires.

In 2011, according to department records posted online, engines averaged 1,843 calls; ladders averaged 1,231 calls; and medic units averaged 4,973 calls.

The numbers mean some vehicles, especially those in the busier stations, see thousands of calls a year.

That kind of activity can wear on a fire vehicle.

In New York, fire trucks are removed from the front line after 10 years on the streets, instead of the recommended 15. (Union officials in Philadelphia say half of the city's fleet is 10 years old or older.)

"Not every department can do [what New York can]," said NFPA division manager Ken Willette. "It comes down to a budget."

And for years, Philadelphia simply didn't have that budget.

Purchasing fire trucks is up to the city's Department of Fleet Management, and amid the economic downturn the began in 2008, the city couldn't afford it.

A month into his first term in office, Mayor Nutter received alarming reports on the deteriorating condition of the department's fleet.

Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the mayor and the Fire Department have been well aware of the situation for years - but hamstrung by tight budgets. And when the local firefighters' union raised concerns with officials about the state of the fleet, McDonald said, "they were preaching to the choir." The city's Office of Fleet Management has worked hard to maintain the fleet the department currently has, he added.

When he was appointed last year to head the Fire Department, it was apparent his firefighters were in need of new vehicles, Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said in an interview last month.

The age of the fleet was "somewhat of an issue," he said, but one the department is taking steps to correct. There is a plan to modernize the fleet - and the department has worked with Fleet Management to set aside $36.5 million over the next five years to purchase new vehicles, Sawyer said.

"If it was up to me, I'd buy new equipment every year," he added.

McDonald called the new purchasing plan "very aggressive."

Engine trucks cost about $500,000 each, and ladder trucks can cost up to $1 million. The department's plan is to purchase four a year for the next five years, and 10 ambulances a year over the same time period.

The goal, Sawyer said, is a fleet of engine and ladder trucks whose average age is less than 10 years old, and medic units whose average age is less than 5.

Rank-and-file firefighters and medics say new trucks can't come soon enough. Years of budget cutbacks mean the fleet has grown dangerously old, union officials say, and breakdowns are frequent.

Last summer, the union logged 56 breakdowns in 60 days.

In May of this year, 13 vehicles broke down in a single week. Later that month, two emergency vehicles had "major mechanical failures" in a 24-hour span, the union said.

Stories of the most notorious breakdowns are spread as cautionary tales through the ranks of firefighters - though many of them have stories of their own. Comparing the disrepair of their trucks - or whatever reserve vehicle they have been assigned - has become something of a morbid joke among the rank-and-file.

There's the truck with a bullet hole through the cab, the engine trucks festooned with duct tape, the ladder truck whose ladders don't fit. The ambulance whose air-conditioning failed in the middle of a heat wave two years ago. The medics inside had to deliver a baby in 110-degree temperatures.

And when fire or medic trucks are out of commission, crews rely on the department's "reserve fleet" to fill the gap.

Rank-and-file firefighters say that fleet is so unreliable that many would rather drive a damaged truck than settle for a 25-year-old vehicle from the reserve lot with hundreds of thousands of miles on the odometer.

"It's like driving a tank down the street," one said.

The new president of Philadelphia's fire union, Andrew Thomas, said the journeys logged in an aging fire truck are "hard miles." On his last day as a firefighter before assuming his post at the union, he was driving a 24-year-old engine truck with 190,000 miles on the odometer.

"The shocks aren't the best - it has a wear-and-tear effect on your body just riding on the trucks," he said.

The average reserve engine or ladder truck in Philadelphia is around 20 years old. Reserve ambulances are, on average, nine years old. "The dependability isn't there," one veteran firefighter said. "We're a multimillion-dollar budgeted city, and this is what we got."

Like so many other firefighters, that source has a story, too - a breakdown last month in which the brakes on his engine truck failed while his company responded to a report of a rubbish fire.

Sawyer says the department's purchasing plan will replace the oldest, most dilapidated trucks over the next five years. And with the arrival of the new vehicles, the department can also retire some of its reserve engine and ladder trucks.

On a muggy afternoon last month, a fire source showed an Inquirer reporter around a reserve ladder truck notorious among rank-and-file members for its age and its disrepair.

Just then, someone poked his head through the firehouse door. A volunteer firefighter from Illinois who wanted a glimpse of the kinds of trucks they drove in the big city. He looked the reserve truck up and down - a red behemoth, pockmarked with rust spots, the insulation in the cab hanging in shreds, the doors secured with straps from a medic's stretcher.

The man paused, then turned, in some confusion, to the cluster of firefighters in the station house.

"You guys drive this thing?" he asked.

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