Opinion

Mayor Jones: Council action on fire engine was correct for safety, cost reasons | Guest Column

Recently, a guest column by Robert Low appeared in The Journal, as well as on SanJuanJournal.com regarding purchase of a specialty fire engine by the Town ("Town Council rushed, overspent on new fire engine"). On behalf of the Town, I am writing to clarify some points made by Mr. Low and correct some inaccuracies.

The article states that the Town dubiously adopted a Resolution for the purchase of a specialty fire engine. On the afternoon of Aug. 28, 2009, Friday Harbor's Fire Engine No. 7 encountered mechanical problems while the vehicle was returning home from Everett after unrelated mechanical work when a braking failure caused the Engine to catch fire. For some time now, the Fire Department has been forced to make "Band Aid" fixes to our engines and subsequently, Engine No. 7 and No. 6 are currently out of service.

This is not a new issue. Town has been actively seeking quotes for replacement apparatus for Engine No. 6 for over two years and entered into an interlocal joint purchasing agreement with Eastside Fire and Rescue in July to explore the possibility of a purchase.

The Town Council adopted Resolution No. 1740 accepting a proposal from United Fire Service to provide a replacement fire engine on Sept. 17, 2009. The decision, though expedited due to this series of recent events, was not made lightly. The discussion took place on Sept. 17 part in fact to the Sept. 26 emission standard deadline. (This deadline is explained further on in this article.)

The Council is prohibited by State Law to determine matters of financing during a special meeting and waiting until the regular meeting of Oct. 1 would have resulted in a significant cost increase for a new engine should the Council approve the purchase.

The article states that the source of funding is through the use of emergency funding. Emergency funding will not be used for the funding of the Engine. The Town Treasurer is currently exploring funding options such as a lease purchase agreement or bonding. The funding mechanism has not yet been determined.

The article implies that the 1,500-gallon-per-minute pumping rate is unnecessary. The apparatus was designed for a quick attack of fire in our congested, non-separated structures within the Town's core area through the application of a Compressed Air Foam System (CAFS) and large pumping capacity. The use of CAFS increases the firefighting value of every 1 gallon of water to 5 gallons, and assists the department in meeting the large pumping volume required to maintain the Town’s insurance rating of Class 6.

Our core area is primarily rated as "Non-Protected Combustible Construction." A minimum of 1500 GPM is required to provide the necessary fire flow in the core and a requirement of the Insurance Services Office in providing a Class 6 fire protection insurance rating for the Town. In our attempts to improve our classification to a Class 4, this apparatus could decrease our average insurance costs by 20 to 30 percent.

Additionally, the apparatus was specifically designed with the ability to pull and supply large amounts of water from the harbor by the installation of front suction appliances. If in the event that the Town lost its water system during an emergency, this apparatus would be capable of pulling water from the harbor to supplement fire fighting requirements in our buildings.

The article states that unless the Town already owns the chassis for the new engine it will be required to comply with new emission standards. The next step in engine emissions reductions is upon us. All engine manufacturers are required, by law, to cease production of pre-2010 engines by Dec. 31, 2009. Manufacturers are in the process of making changes to parts and process, which limits production and availability of these engines.

The absolute cutoff date provided to the Town to submit Intent to Purchase an engine was Sept. 25, 2009. Any order received after this date would accrue additional charges for chassis and engines in the excess of $15,000 for these new emission standards and unknown costs for new safety requirements. It was deemed to our benefit to purchase as soon as possible to avoid additional costs associated with future requirements to install diesel emission control devices that have been proven to be non-effective for fire apparatus that do not exercise long periods of operation. The maintenance on these systems is costly and required by Federal Law.

The article contends that the Fire Department doesn't need a specialty engine and that Town could find a cheaper new or used engine. Used engines are available at cheaper prices. It is true that Town could purchase a used stock engine to service our needs for 10 to 15 years in the price range of $200,000 to $300,000. One downside to making such a purchase is that its replacement cost will be coupled with the cost of replacing Engine No. 7 in 10 to 15 years (double jeopardy) and will cost significantly more as industry standards such safety and emission specifications become more stringent.

In conclusion, the equipment that the Town is attempting to replace is over 30 years old. In order to keep our aging apparatus in service, the Fire Department has had to maintain an aggressive maintenance program, which is, in turn, beginning to jeopardize the ability of the department to respond safely in trusted and reliable equipment. This new apparatus is expected to serve the Town for the next 20 to 30 years.

These are just a few of the factors in the Council decision to authorize purchase of new apparatus. I encourage the Townspeople to contact Fire Chief Vern Long or Town Administrator C. King Fitch at 378-2810 to answer any questions you may have regarding the issue.

— David F. Jones is mayor of Friday Harbor and is a former captain of the Friday Harbor Fire Department.

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