By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications
Budget restraints over the past several years have kept the Whitfield County Fire Department from replacing its equipment as often as needed.
That’s why the recent delivery of Whitfield’s first new fire engine in six years was greeted with cheers by firefighters at Station 1 on Cleveland Highway.
The crew was busy last week putting their gear aboard the red 2013 Pierce Contender fire engine, and the truck answered its first call on Friday, Oct. 25.
It wasn’t a moment too soon for Carl Collins, who has been fire chief since 1982 and was one of the original four firefighters when the county started a paid department in 1977.
“We had a good replacement cycle going a few years ago,” Collins said, pointing out that before the recession hit the county bought two engines and then two years later bought three more.
“Back then the thought was every year or every other year, at least, we’d buy an engine till we got all 10 of the stations caught back up and then get on a good replacement rotation with them. But then the economy went south.”
Now that the economy appears to be turning around, Collins is hopeful the county can afford to buy another fire engine in the 2014 or 2015 budget.
“We’d like to try to get back to that every-other-year replacement schedule for the next five or six years,” he said. “Then we can start stretching it out. Once we do get caught up with our replacements, the problem is that we’ve had to buy several pretty close together, which means they’re going to end up needing to be replaced pretty close together.”
The miles on the odometer are usually not a problem for fire engines; it’s the number of stress-filled hours they’re used that can eventually lead to high maintenance costs.
“You sit there and you pump a fire for three hours,” Collins said, “you’re not going to have any miles while you’re sitting there, but the hours are what eventually add up. When the trucks start having to have major maintenance on them, then you know it’s time to replace them. Twenty to 25 years is a decent life expectancy for an engine when you keep it maintained.”
To give an idea of how long the county uses its fire equipment, Collins pointed out that the new engine is a Pierce 100th anniversary edition and the county also has a Pierce 75th anniversary model still in operation.
Already this year, the department has been hit hard with “high-dollar repairs” on two trucks thanks to major problems that weren’t covered by the manufacturer since the warranty ran out last year. “That knocked a hole in our maintenance budget big-time,” Collins said.
Advantages of the new truck
Repair costs won’t be a problem for years for the new truck, which also offers a variety of performance improvements over previous engines.
With a 36,000-pound vehicle, stopping is important.
“The new truck has got exhaust brakes; as soon as you let off the gas, going downhill or coming up to a red light or fixing to stop, the exhaust brake kicks in and immediately starts slowing the truck down before you even put the brakes on,” Collins said. “The exhaust brakes will take some wear off the regular brakes and give shorter stopping distances, too.”
With 1,000 gallons of water sloshing around in the tank behind them, firefighters used to have to worry about the effects of the movement of that water when stopping.
Collins remembers the days when a fully loaded fire engine would come to a stop and the movement of the water inside the tank would literally push the truck a few feet forward. The new engine, however, has improved baffling inside the tank that better compartmentalizes the water and helps prevent it from moving around as much during braking.
Going power is vital for fire engines, too.
“The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) keeps making them go up on the horsepower,” Collins said. “To see how far the engines have come, they were only required to have 230 horsepower back in 1977 and pump 1,000 gallons per minute. Now here we are at 1,250 gallons per minute and they’ve got to be 530 horsepower!”
Firefighters constantly monitor the water pressure in the hoses they use to fight the fire and the new truck has a computerized system to keep that pressure more precise, Collins said.
Equipping the county’s 10 fire stations doesn’t come cheaply. For instance, the county needs at least $1 million to buy a new ladder truck in case of fires at industrial sites and the new three-story Coahulla Creek High School, and the new fire engine just put into service cost $269,000.
Each station used to have an engine and a tanker, but since hydrants have been installed county-wide the philosophy now is to have two engines at each station. Stations 1, 2, 4 and 8 already have phased out their tankers and now have two engines.
“This new engine is replacing their front-line engine at Station 1,” Collins said. “We’ll slide the one they already had over so it will become their second engine. And the old second engine at Station 1 will go to another station that doesn’t run as many calls.”
That continues the philosophy of rotating the old engines from the busiest stations to the less-active rural stations.
“Stations 1, 8, 4 and 7 are the busiest ones,” Collins said. “They’ll run as many calls in a month maybe as say Station 10 way out in the country will in a whole year. What we’ve always done is kind of rotate the new trucks in to the stations that run so much because they put so many miles and hours on theirs, and move the old trucks out to the stations that don’t run as much.”
It’s not just engines that need to be replaced, though.
“We’re behind on our rescue equipment, too — power units, Jaws of Life, spreaders that should have been replaced two or three years ago,” Collins said. “The power units cost $5,000 apiece, the spreaders $9,500, cutters $6,500. We’ve got four sets scattered throughout the county and none of them are what you’d say new.”
The department could also use some new thermal imaging cameras, which cost $10,000 to $15,000 each.
“Those cameras have been a good thing,” Collins said. “When you have a small fire, a lot of times where it’s at, if it’s inside a wall, you’re never really absolutely sure how far it’s spread that you can’t see or it might still be smoldering and you can’t see it. And you’ll end up tearing out a big section of wall or pulling a bunch of ceiling. Sometimes you find something, sometimes you don’t. These cameras have helped us find hot spots. And they’re infrared so they can show people up, too. If you’re in there searching for a body or searching for somebody, it actually shows the heat off a person and will show their outline where you can find them.”
Collins hopes the new fire district tax will allow his department to budget funds better for the purpose of buying new equipment since the funds are allocated only for the operation of the fire department. If the department comes in under budget the way it has all but one year since he’s been chief, Collins hopes to be able to build up a fund for replacing equipment.
He would also support the idea of a public safety SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) to raise funds quickly for the purpose of new fire equipment, especially the million-dollar ladder truck.