Fired Up 

A battle between the firefighters union and the city administration over proposed new vehicles gets heated.

Firefighters Matt Harris, left, and Jeff Pannell answer calls at Fire Station 17.

Justin Fox Burks

Firefighters Matt Harris, left, and Jeff Pannell answer calls at Fire Station 17.

It's only about seven miles from City Hall, but Fire Station 17 at Summer and National is a world away from the machinations that so often — some might say too often — underlie the decisions made downtown. For the men and women who spend their 24-hour shifts at No. 17 or any other of Memphis' 57 fire stations, budget issues are an ever-present but indistinct threat that recedes the moment a call comes in.

At that point, it's about moving fast. Nothing else matters.

"It can go from nothing to 90 real quick," says 23-year-old Jeff Pannell, a recent Memphis Fire Academy graduate who's been working as a firefighter for 10 months now. "It can be very easy or very hard."

Easy is taking a nap or watching TV, maybe cutting grass or cramming for the next hazardous materials certification. It's cooking steaks with your buddies and actually getting to eat without being interrupted by a call.

Easy (but certainly frustrating) is a fussy old man calling an ambulance over a stubbed toe or an uninsured mom looking for a smoother ride to the emergency room. The fire department is required to handle it all.

But hard? Hard is being wrenched from a sound sleep to the scene of a crash where the victim's body is so entangled with the remains of his car that jaws of life are useless to extricate him. Hard is pulling a dead child from a backyard pool.

Hard is watching a woman die from smoke inhalation who could be breathing still if only you'd arrived a minute earlier. Hard is continuing to do your job, sometimes for hours at a stretch, after one of your co-workers has collapsed inside a burning building and probably won't live to tell the tale.

And the real kicker? It's never knowing when all of the above might leap out at you, snapping and snarling for your jugular. Death in the afternoon or the boredom of an endless night?

"When that alarm comes in, they're full-speed, 100 percent," says Larry Anthony, president of the local firefighters union and a 40-year retired veteran of Memphis Fire Services. "They might fall down, but they don't slow down."

Anthony has been a regular at City Hall lately, either in person or by proxy. He and other members of International Firefighters Association Local 1784 are voicing their displeasure with a fire department proposal to buy eight alternative response vehicles, or ARVs, instead of what firefighters insist are badly needed: larger and better-equipped trucks.

Their main argument since the proposal first surfaced January 4th has been one of safety, since the ARVs can only handle medical calls but can't transport victims to the hospital. Additionally, firefighters in ARVs are the first on a scene to stabilize patients and calm family members or neighbors until reinforcements arrive. However, they have to leave their multipurpose trucks at the station with limited personnel, effectively putting the trucks out of service.

Once on the scene, firefighters can't leave until they've addressed the problems they encounter. That's not a big deal if a medical call is simple, but it becomes more of a challenge when medical calls are complicated or when other pressing emergencies are announced over the radio.

Sometimes, the ARV team has to call for help from a neighboring station that might be dealing with its own emergencies. Union members contend this extra layer of red tape can slow response times and be dangerous for firefighters and the public. "There's a lot more to it than just changing a procedure in the fire department," Anthony says. "When you start changing a procedure such as this, you're talking about safety."

Alvin Benson, director of the Memphis Fire Department, disagrees and to dispel the safety perception cites a 2007 study by Deloitte & Touche that found the chance of department personnel exceeding a standard nine-minute response time for all calls is about 16 percent in Memphis. Most first-due response times occur in five minutes or less, according to fire department data, and responses to life-threatening emergencies happen within nine minutes a little more than 90 percent of the time.

"The odds are that there will always be some truck available in any given emergency," Benson says.

Underlying the safety issue is a concern about jobs. Up to 96 fire department employees could be affected if even eight trucks are taken out of service, Anthony says. That kind of loss, if it happened — and Benson has maintained it's not likely — could translate directly to citizens.

"Is Lindsay Jones going to suffer?" Anthony asks this reporter rhetorically. "I don't think the dollars they're trying to save are worth your son's life. Could that ever happen? It wouldn't have to happen but one time."

Anthony and union spokesman Robert Kramer, a fire department driver, have stressed on several occasions that 100-foot aerial trucks are stocked to confront any issue and allow firefighters more options when the worst happens. They've also admitted that the worst doesn't happen all the time. But when it does, they say it is best to be prepared.

"I'm here on behalf of 1,800 other men and women who do this job every day," Kramer said during a recent Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee session. "We put our life on the line every single day. It would be a tragedy beyond what had to be if somebody died that didn't have to because you've got firemen pulling up to their house [without the equipment they need]."

Benson took that to mean he's focusing too much on budget constraints and not enough on safety.

"I am almost offended that somebody would suggest that perhaps this director cares less about firefighters or family members," he responded. "I would never have brought [the ARV proposal] to the table if I thought it would jeopardize firefighters and their families, period."

Currently, the city has 27 aerial trucks, 56 engines, or pumper trucks, and 33 fully functioning ambulances in its fleet, according to information provided to the city council. Five additional aerial trucks are kept in reserve, although union members question the age and condition of those vehicles. Plus it can take months for repairs to be completed on trucks that break down.

Buying the ARVs would cost about $500,000, or $62,500 per vehicle. Buying ladder trucks — the ones that help firefighters punch ventilation holes in roofs to draw out smoke and toxins during fires — would cost millions. The average ladder truck costs about $800,000. Pumper trucks or engines run about $500,000 apiece. Both kinds are expected to last at least 20 years before being replaced, if they are able to make it that far.

No matter how much Benson himself also might want to buy such equipment — and he's said as much publicly — the money just isn't there, especially not in a city facing a $70 million or more budget shortfall next fiscal year.

The fire department's 2011 capital improvement budget designated $4.5 million for vehicle purchases. Aside from the $500,000 for the ARVs, the rest of the money would be used for four fire trucks. The latter request was granted by the council last month.

Next year's citywide budget is projected to be about $65 million, but that doesn't guarantee any trucks can be bought, Benson says.

The idea behind the ARVs, at least from Benson's perspective, is to have something more maneuverable and less costly that will still serve citizens. For example, the average fire truck is able to go two miles per gallon of diesel fuel, whereas an ARV (similar to a sports utility vehicle) gets about 16 miles per gallon.

Benson often refers to a four-month pilot program conducted last spring on vehicles similar to the ARVs.

"In April 2010, a pilot program was conducted to determine the feasibility of using an ARV instead of a fire truck on EMS calls," says a report handed out during a council committee session. "After four months, fire companies indicated that the concept of using an ARV was supported and met department expectations."

Originally, Benson wanted to buy 20 SUVs, but changing priorities made the eight ARVs more feasible.

"I believe, still believe, this is an opportunity to save money," Benson says.

But how much might be saved in the short or long terms has been questioned. As it stands now, the ARV proposal won't be decided until the city council meets again on March 15th, if then. As usual, the item will start out in committee before going before the full council. That almost happened last month, but the proposal was sent back to committee for further consideration.

The fire department's ARV proposal has been kicked down the road for about two and a half months, sometimes because of disagreements over financial projections and sometimes because city council members have hesitated to make a decision until they're sure what they're hearing is true.

How common is it for firefighters to go straight from one emergency call to another, they asked? Will ARVs really save up to $17,000 per vehicle per year? Councilman Jim Strickland, chair of the council's Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee, calculated about $4,500 of savings a year per vehicle, which raised the question of whether it's wiser to buy more expensive equipment upfront and save more over time.

Some faulty information from Memphis' General Services Department initially riled union members, who felt they were being misled by an already scandal-rocked organization. General Services is in charge of repairing fire and other vehicles in the city's fleet. It recently came under scrutiny for allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Numbers provided to Local 1784 after a series of Freedom of Information Act requests showed truck parts costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. In one instance, a work-order cost summary showed a more than $44,000 charge for a truck that went in for repairs in April and returned to its station in June. The problem? A faulty temperature gauge that supposedly took almost 282 labor hours to fix.

Martha Lott, who became General Service's new director in October, called the faulty numbers a software glitch and later provided more reasonable figures to the union representatives. Even so, they still found fault with the information and complained that their presentations to the council were limited by these questionable numbers.

"The things they gave us were still not the way it's supposed to be," Anthony says. "It does not take 220 quarts to change the oil in a piece of equipment. Maybe 30, 40 quarts, something like that. Two-hundred-twenty quarts is a whole barrel of oil."

During the Public Safety & Homeland Security's most recent meeting on March 1st, Kramer presented a counterproposal that asks the council to approve $4 million for trucks that carry all equipment but ladders. He said doing so could save between $7.2 million and $11 million over 15 years. But the counterproposal still wouldn't solve the department's growing medical emergency needs, which account for the majority of calls it handles. And that's why Benson called the counterproposal flawed and something he couldn't support. He said the union's counterproposal is a reaction to fears about losing jobs. "This was just a strategy to have a more cost efficient, effective department," he says. "My position remains the same."

But back at Station 17 and others like it, such discussions come in a distant second to the tasks at hand. Those tasks might be as mundane as answering the phone or as momentous as reviving a dying infant. One thing is certain: The experiences firefighters share can forge a bond stronger than family.

"I don't think anybody can understand unless they had to do it themselves," Lt. Matt Harris says.

Imagine missing your first wedding anniversary or the birth of a child because of a fire call. Imagine having to concentrate on an ambulance run when your mother has been hospitalized for chest pains.

"You either love [this job] or you hate it," Harris says.

But ultimately, no matter what happens with ladder trucks or ARVs, Harris knows his people will pull together and do what they can with what they've got. Or haven't got.

"We're just like a family," says battalion chief Keith Smith, who's been in the department for almost 26 years.

And Pannell, that 23-year-old rookie who just completed his training? He hopes to be in it at least that long. "Definitely," he says. "I love this job."

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