By Lindsay Jones
Technical jargon and a mind-numbing array of numbers flustered city council members Tuesday morning, again delaying Memphis Fire Service’s two-month-old request to buy eight alternative response vehicles (ARVs).
At a Memphis City Council committee meeting Tuesday, Robert Kramer, a spokesman for International Firefighters Association Local 1784, presented a counterproposal that would require a $4 million budget allocation to buy eight ladder-less fire trucks instead of $500,000 for the ARVs.
While he acknowledged the much greater front-end cost, Kramer said his counterproposal could save the city millions in maintenance and other expenses over time. He said the city could save about $2.4 million to $3.4 million during every eight years of the trucks’ service, or $7.2 million to $11 million over 15 years.
Under the department’s current model, it forecasts spending $700,000 in maintenance when trucks reach a certain age, usually from 15 to 32 years. Then another truck is bought for about $800,000.
“Why commit $700,000 in maintenance over a 15- or 16-year time frame when you could just buy another [truck]?” he said.
However, fire department director Alvin Benson was far from convinced and said he couldn’t support the counterproposal from an EMS perspective. About 75 to 80 percent of the fire department’s calls involve injuries, not fires.
“It’s totally flawed, what they’re presenting here, and I think we should go with my original plan,” Benson said.
When city councilman Bill Boyd asked Jim Strickland, chair of the council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, if he still had any reservations about approving the fire department’s $500,000 purchase request, Strickland responded in the affirmative.
“I don’t know if I understand it enough to have a question,” Strickland answered.
The item, which went to the full council two weeks ago but was punted back to committee, will be considered again in committee on March 15th. It first came up at a committee session on January 4th.
Meanwhile, Benson remained as tactful as he could muster Tuesday morning, although his usually pleasant demeanor showed a few cracks here and there.
“This has drug on for a long time,” Benson told the council. “The longer we postpone this, the longer it takes to get any solution.”
The two main sticking points since the department first raised its proposal have revolved around money and safety.
Benson’s position, which he reiterated Tuesday, is that buying the smaller, more maneuverable ARVs would save on fuel, maintenance, and other costs.
The union’s position, on the other hand, is that putting 100-foot aerial trucks, or trucks with ladders, out of service in favor of first responses to EMS calls, creates a danger because it limits what firefighters can do during emergencies.
Kramer and others’ arguments from day one has been that trucks can respond to a greater variety of emergencies than ambulances, and any cost savings might not be worth the risk of deaths or injuries to firefighters or the public. Although the eight trucks he proposed Tuesday would not be equipped with ladders, they would have everything else a normal truck would have. That would leave 19 ladder trucks in the fire department’s fleet.
However, with the city budget facing a $70 million shortfall, Benson said there’s no guarantee any money will be available for trucks. And he remains certain that having ARVs instead of trucks will not pose a danger to anyone.
“I would never have brought this to the table if I thought it would jeopardize firefighters and their families, period,” Benson said.
He added: “We don’t have $4 million to invest in a project like this.”
Benson also reminded the council that San Antonio does fine with its 16 ARVs, so why can’t Memphis chug along with eight?
“I think there’s fear of job cuts with the [union] and that drives their position on this,” Benson said after the meeting.