PA Fire Chief Mulls Next Step for Aging Apparatus

Two Meadville Central apparatus from the early 1990s make up a third of the department's fleet, and officials need to determine what to do as the vehicles reach the end of their service lives.

The Meadville Tribune, Pa.
Meadville Central, PA, Fire Department
Meadville Central, PA, Fire Department
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Nearly every time Chief Evan Hasko, a 32-year veteran of Meadville Central Fire Department, enters the station’s apparatus bay, he’s greeted by two companions that have been part of the station’s crew almost as long as he has.

They hide it well, but these two mainstays of the department have grown a bit rusty over their nearly three decades of service, and Hasko has found himself wondering more and more frequently when one or even both will break down on the job.

It’s hard to imagine Meadville Central without the pair. Imagining how to replace them is even harder. But difficult as it may be, Hasko knows they have to be replaced soon.

“Council knows, the city manager knows,” Hasko said last week. “Everyone knows.

“But,” he added, “it all comes down to where we’re gonna get the money.”

Aging fire engines

The 1991 Grumman engine and 1993 Sutphen aerial in question represent one-third of the department’s six-vehicle fleet. Both trucks are near the end of their service lives and are expected to cost approximately $1.5 million to replace.

The engine — the department’s No. 2 engine, behind the 2004 Smeal truck — responds to all fire calls and motor vehicle accidents, according to Hasko, hauling with it 750 gallons of water, several thousand feet of hose and the ability to pump 1,500 gallons per minute. A new replacement — used trucks are not worth the risk, Hasko said — would likely cost $500,000.

The aerial sees less action — its accumulated mileage is just 25,000 compared to the 44,000 miles on the Grumman engine — but a 100-foot telescoping tower makes it essential when fighting high-rise fires. The same piece of equipment is a primary reason for the likely $1 million price tag on a new replacement.

Neither truck needs to be replaced today, but both missed time at various points last year due to repairs and finding replacement parts is becoming more difficult.

The aerial truck was out of service for more than a month after damage to the tower was discovered in April. With the tower repaired, Hasko is optimistic about the truck’s future.

“It is in really good shape,” he said as he looked the truck over last week. “I could see this one not being replaced for maybe another three to five years unless something majorly catastrophic happened.”

Replacing the 29-year-old engine, in contrast, is a more urgent concern.

“It hasn’t actually, you know, broken down on a scene but, again, you’re rolling the dice when you get down to it,” Hasko said. “If that truck should break down while operating on the scene, that jeopardizes the whole operation and puts the safety of the firefighters and anyone else relying on that in jeopardy.”

Hasko hopes to see a replacement engine ordered this year. Next-day delivery is not available for fire trucks, however, so even if one were ordered tomorrow, the 1991 Grumman would become the longest-serving vehicle Hasko is aware of in Meadville Central history by the time it went out of service.

“If we said, ‘Order that truck today,’ we’re not going to see it till 2021,” he said. “It’s not like you order it and it’s here in a month. It’s a 12-month build process.”

Finding the funds

Meadville City Council members are aware of the need for replacement fire trucks, just as they are aware of the lack of funds to pay for them. Replacing the aging trucks is among a handful of priorities that council must address, several members said.

“It’s on my list,” Councilman Sean Donahue said.

But new trucks are not No. 1 on his list, he was quick to add.

“No. 1 is making sure we don’t have to raise taxes,” Donahue said. And, he added, adding two major pieces of equipment should be feasible without raising taxes

Mayor LeRoy Stearns expressed a reluctance to raise taxes as well. Instead, he said, the city will have to continue looking to grants for support, though multiple applications to federal programs have so far been unsuccessful.

Council will have to consider other options, Stearns said, such as finding sponsorship support from nonprofit organizations that are not required to pay property taxes. Other options would include cutting expenditures on services such as the city’s emergency dispatch and allowing the fire department to use a third-party firm to more effectively collect on bills it sends out after responding to fires. Stearns voted against the latter two options when they came before council several years ago.

In order to pass a balanced 2020 budget last month with no tax increase, council relied heavily on one-time debt-refinancing savings and another dip into the city’s rapidly dwindling reserve funds. The unsustainability of both budget-balancing tools was on Stearns’ mind during the first council meeting of the new year when he called for a future public meeting to discuss the city’s financial situation.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” he said at the Jan. 6 meeting. “The best way to get anything accomplished is by a large number of hands involved and everybody working together.”

Asked in a later interview about how to afford $1.5 million for two new fire trucks, Stearns acknowledged the challenge facing the city.

“It’s a little bit of a quandary,” he said. “I don’t have a magical answer yet.”

If an answer is to be found this year, doing so will involve two newcomers. Council members Larry McKnight and Autumn Vogel were sworn in to office just a week ago. Both said that they were aware of the need to replace the old trucks and looked forward to working with the department and the rest of council in figuring out how to do so, but declined to comment more specifically.

The top of the list

Like his colleagues, Councilman Jim Roha said that replacing the trucks is among several priorities the city needs to tackle.

“Everything is at the top of the list — that’s the problem,” he said. “The real question is, how do we afford it — and is there any alternative plan?”

One alternative that should be considered, according to Roha, is regionalizing emergency fire services.

Meadville and Vernon and West Mead townships contain about 24,000 people spread across 52 square miles. Rather than duplicating services — such as multiple aerial trucks for a population that may not warrant them — perhaps the resources of multiple municipalities could be combined more efficiently.

Consolidation might prove appealing to city residents like Roha, but township residents — and their volunteer fire departments — are likely to be more skeptical. Even if they weren’t, the prospect of such consolidation seems unlikely to be realized before Meadville Central’s oldest trucks are well into their thirties.

As a result, the city may also be forced to consider whether an aerial truck is essential.

When Meadville Central led the effort in battling the blaze that claimed one life and destroyed a 13-unit apartment house on Terrace Street last February, aerial trucks were at the scene. According to Hasko, however, Meadville’s aerial was not among them. Meadville Central firefighters were able — though just barely — to rescue residents from the roof of a second-floor porch using 28-foot ladders on the 1991 Grumman, Hasko said.

In fact, Hasko couldn’t recall the city’s tower bucket being used at any fires last year. Still, he added, that doesn’t mean that the truck isn’t needed or that the city should settle for relying on mutual aid from nearby communities that will inevitably take longer to arrive.

“As far as this city, we need an aerial because we have buildings taller than what our ground ladders will reach,” Hasko said. “Do you want to be that person when you do need it, you don’t have it?”

The average taxpayer is unlikely to ever be confronted by such a question, according to Roha. After all, the 100-foot tower on the aerial is unlikely to be needed when fighting a fire in a two-story residence.

Instead, the aerial is more likely to see action when fire strikes a high-peaked historic church, a multi-story healthcare facility or a high-rise residence hall. As Roha pointed out, the structures that meet those descriptions in Meadville are typically operated by nonprofits, which are not required to pay any of the property taxes that fund the fire department budget.

“We do have to fight fires. I mean, that’s that’s what people are paying taxes for,” Roha said. But at the same time, he added, “I have people almost in tears, begging me not to raise taxes because they’d have to sell the homes that they made with their families for fifty years.”

While city and taxpayer finances are among the top priorities Roha is considering, safety is at the top of the list for Hasko.

“It’s just a matter of deciding that we’re going to do it and bite the bullet,” he said inside his office at Meadville Central. “It’s a vital piece of equipment. It’s almost 30 years old and it’s just time to replace it.”

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