2015-01-30 / Front Page

City spends $100k on ‘pickup truck’ for FD

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council voted 5-1 at its Jan. 21 meeting to spend $99,950 on a Ford F-550 to serve as a “light response vehicle” for the fire department.

The dissenting vote came from Councilor Tom Blake, who retired eight years ago after serving the city for 27 years as a firefighter and EMT.

“The way I see this, we are spending $100,000 on a pickup truck to move people around,” he said.

That’s exactly how the truck, purchased from low-bidder Autotronics of Madawaska, will be used, according to Fire Chief Kevin Guimond. The idea, he said, is to use the F-550, which will be equipped with a host of emergency medical supplies and other EMS tools, to shuttle firefighters and EMTs to calls where an actual fire truck is not needed.

Examples of calls the truck might be used for include a report of carbon monoxide detectors going off, sending firefighters to dig a hydrant out of a snow bank and minor traffic accidents. Currently, a full-sized fire engine is dispatched for each of those types of calls. That’s a cost that adds up, Guimond said, considering that firefighters in South Portland were called 150 times in 2014 just to check on chirping CO meters.

“Statistically, we put water through a fire hose about eight times a year,” Guimond said. “That’s not the type of call we’re doing now. We had three structure fires last year, but 3,000 EMS calls. Using this truck is a culture shift for the entire fire department, but I think it’s the right shift. We do a lot of service calls that I think we can be more efficient at.”

Councilor Patti Smith favored the move, noting that prior to her election, it was not uncommon for her to write the city and complain about seeing a fire truck idling while crews dug out a hydrant. The smaller truck, she said, will help to fulfill aspects of the city’s recently adopted Climate Action Plan, which calls on city use, to the extent possible, of smaller, more efficient vehicles.

“As a new councilor, I was very surprised to learn we were sending the big trucks out on every single call,” agreed Councilor Melissa Linscott. “This just makes a lot more sense for wear and tear, gas used, and general efficiency.”

Guimond said using the smaller F-550 should help put off the day he will appear before the council with a $550,000 request to replace Squad 4, or Engine 5. Frugality has been a watch-word under Guimond’s leadership. He’s spent “$80,000 in the last few years” repairing the city’s older ladder truck, rather than inflict the million-dollar bill a new one would cost.

“I’m trying to use this truck to nurse that truck (Squad 4) for another six or seven years,” he said. “Basically, we’re trying to buy a Band-Aid.”

“I am very much in favor or smaller, less expensive things for us to pay for,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher.

Still, Blake remained unconvinced.

“I always and still am very supportive of downsizing,” he said, “but we are spending $100,000 just to move people around. If that’s our objective, we already have pickup trucks.”

Guimond said his department now has four pick-up trucks. However, two are hand-me downs from other city departments used exclusively for snow plowing —and are generally not road worthy enough for much else, he added — while one is equipped to respond to hazmat calls.

Blake countered that the F-550, which he said, “is not a light utility truck by any means,” should at least be equipped with a small water tank, a pump and a booster line, just in case a crew sent on what was initially believed to be a simple service call does in fact require water. What if, he asked, a report of smoke turned out to be a working brush fire?

Guimond said the F-550 will have fire extinguishers. Adding a pump to the truck would boost the price another $40,000, he said. That cost would be unnecessary, he said, considering that a fire truck would be dispatched for a report of smoke, even under new dispatch rules being developed to better regulate what type of vehicle goes out when. Those rules mirror ones enacted one year ago, he said, to better align the type of equipment sent to medical calls received.

Also, he noted, the fire department has mutual aid to rely on. The F-550 purchase is designed to prevent sending out fire trucks when they are not needed, not to augment the fleet with another vehicle to service brush fires.

“We have way more pumping capacity in this city than we need,” Guimond said. “And I don’t have a lot of (wooded) acreage to protect. The Maine Mall doesn’t have a lot of brush to burn. I we need a brush truck, I’ll call Cape Elizabeth.”

Again, Blake took the opposing view. Better, he said, to have more equipment on hand than needed, than not enough.

“We are, in my opinion, being put in a position where we are going to be caught with out pants down. I think we are potentially putting our people in harm’s way,” Blake said. “If it takes $30,000 or $40,000 to make this vehicle truly a rapid response vehicle, I am ready to spend that money.”

Guimond said that if the council voted down the purchase, he would not return with a pump add-on.

“If this is defeated, I won’t be back before you with anther truck. I’ll come back to replace Squad 4 next.”

“I appreciate the fact that the chief is coming to us just with what he feels like he needs,” said Mayor Linda Cohen. “I don’t want to say ‘No, I think you need something else.’”

Every member of the city council not a retired firefighter agreed.

The new truck, funds for which were previously approved as part of the capital improvements program for the current fiscal year, should arrive in about six months.

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