Middlebury considers whether to fix or scrap expensive fire truck
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury firefighters and town officials are considering whether to refurbish or replace the department’s ladder truck, its most sophisticated and expensive piece of equipment that is showing its age and suffered a major failure at the scene of a fire last month.
At issue is a 1993 Pierce Arrow ladder truck (Ladder One) that is approximately 36 feet long and is equipped with a 105-foot-long ladder. It has served Middlebury firefighters well throughout the years, but its future with the department is being re-examined following a major malfunction that occurred during a training exercise in Bristol back on May 14. The ladder truck was among several that Bristol and Middlebury firefighters were putting through the paces during the controlled burn of a home on North Street.
Specifically, the swivel mount on top of the ladder truck — which allows firefighters to position the built-in ladder — froze, and will not rotate, according to Middlebury Fire Chief Dave Shaw.
That swivel is also patched into the truck’s water system and is therefore key in directing water to the top of the ladder for spraying onto flames that could someday envelop some of the community’s tallest buildings — such as the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel on Route 7 and several Middlebury College structures.
The fire department obtained a quote of $35,698 from Lakes Region Fire Apparatus for repair of the truck, less a $4,500 charge, which would be deducted upon return of the old swivel. The $31,198 net cost does not include the cost of transporting the ladder truck to the Lakes Region facility in West Ossipee, N.H., and does not come with a guarantee that the ladder will pass the required certification after the repair, according to town officials.
Meanwhile, the Vergennes Fire Department has agreed to provide short-term emergency aid with its ladder truck. The city’s ladder truck, however, extends only 75 feet.
So Middlebury is faced with some significant ladder truck decisions:
• Does it move forward with the repairs, or decide the apparatus is not worth it and in the short term go “old-school” in moving water up the ladder. This method, according to Shaw, calls for a firefighter to climb to the tip of the ladder and place an aerial nozzle on the end the ladder. A hose would be connected up the ladder, which would then be raised to the appropriate height for fighting the fire. The hose, at its base, is then connected to a water source.
• Make the repairs, and opt for refurbishing the existing ladder truck at an estimated cost of $450,000 to $500,000, according to Shaw.
That price range is substantially higher than the $365,000 the town — with financial help from Middlebury College — paid for the vehicle back in 1993, local fire officials noted.
Refurbishment would extend the life of the ladder truck another five to 10 years, according to Shaw.
“That would make the piece of equipment 35 years old” when it is finally retired, Shaw noted. “That’s really old for a ladder truck, because of its uniqueness, its hydraulics and other aspects.”
• Order a new ladder truck at an estimated cost of $800,000 to $850,000. That new apparatus would have an estimated life of around 25 years, according to Shaw.
He added the newer trucks being sold today often exceed the customary 20-year lifespan for a fire protection vehicle because they possess more sophisticated electronics, and more rigorous building techniques are used.
“Different materials are being used in trucks now, different electronics, and our confidence level now is that we can stretch some of that equipment out a little longer and make the vehicle replacement fund be able to handle that,” he said.
While Shaw is recommending the purchase of a new ladder truck rather than repairing the old one, he said he has had no problem exploring the repair option. In so doing, the town and fire department will be in a position to accurately answer a potential question that might come up from the community on “why can’t we rebuild this piece of equipment rather than replace it?” Shaw noted.
It was around two decades ago that the fire department set up a fire vehicle replacement schedule in order to make sure major, new apparatus is rotated into the fleet in a safe and orderly manner. Firefighters at the time estimated a 20-year lifespan for its ladder truck, according to Shaw. Middlebury has for many years assessed 2 cents on the municipal property tax rate to raise money for new vehicle purchases for the fire department, as opposed to bonding for such expenses. Older vehicles are sold as-is or for parts in order to help defray the costs of their replacements, officials said.
Middlebury has formed a Ladder Truck Subcommittee to help the fire department weigh its options.
The town’s fire equipment replacement fund contains enough money for the purchase of a new ladder truck, according to Shaw. Middlebury College — home to some of the community’s tallest structures — will be asked if it would like to make a contribution toward the new vehicle.
Local officials want to quickly decide on a course of action on the ladder truck, as building a new one can take a year from the day it’s ordered to the day it’s delivered, according to Shaw.
Having a fire equipment replacement fund has saved Middlebury thousands of dollars on new vehicle purchases throughout the years, according to Shaw. When a department is able to pay manufacturers a lot of money up front for a vehicle, that can produce discounts of $5,000 to $10,000 per vehicle as the new truck is built, officials explained.
“The (equipment) fund is working as it was designed to do,” Shaw said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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