Heated Debate 

Incorrect data and safety concerns fuel union opposition to using utility vehicles for non-fire emergencies.

Some of the heat appears to have abated in a disagreement between Memphis Fire Services and its union over the purchase of eight utility vehicles to be used for non-fire emergencies.

Last Tuesday, sparks flew during a Memphis City Council committee meeting at which fire officials proposed buying the utility vehicles to save money on maintenance, fuel, and other costs. Union officers expressed concerns about longer response times during emergencies.

Larry Anthony, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1784, said the union would prefer the fire department buy larger, better-equipped trucks that can respond to a variety of emergencies instead of just medical calls.

But his objection to the utility vehicles isn't an attempt to call the shots; it's mainly a safety concern, he said. It also hinges on some erroneous maintenance data that caused a flap at the council committee meeting last week.

"I do not want this to become a battle of us against them," Anthony said.

That's exactly what it looked like after last Tuesday's meeting of the city council's Public Safety & Homeland Security committee devolved into a shouting match just after it adjourned. Part of the conflict stemmed from data the union obtained through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the city's scandal-rocked General Services Division.

The data showed exorbitant charges for simple maintenance tasks that raised eyebrows — and tempers — at the meeting before Martha Lott, the division's new director, admitted the numbers probably weren't accurate.

General Services, recently the subject of an FBI investigation for questionable charges and suspicions of cronyism, has been in charge of repairing Memphis Fire Services vehicles since 2008. Mayor A C Wharton brought Lott in to head the troubled division in October.

"The mayor didn't quite tell me the scope of the problem before I came in to fix it," Lott said.

When the union's FOIA request came in, Lott's staff began working to sift through invoice records to supply the requested information.

"We gave them what they asked for," she said. "A work order cost summary."

However, one entry showed a charge of more than $1,400 to replace a battery that Lott says actually cost $174. That was one of the much smaller "glitches" in the system, as she called them. Other reported numbers for repairs stretched from $30,000 to $50,000, but actually cost much less, she said.

Lott said she's concluded that something is wrong with General Service's computer system. Sometimes a charge might come up one way onscreen but print out completely differently, she said.

The main source of frustration for Anthony now, besides the discrepancies in the numbers he was given, are safety concerns with the alternative response vehicles.

Last year, Memphis Fire Services set aside $600,000 to buy new vehicles. Then it conducted a four-month test in the spring to see whether SUVs would be more efficient than larger ladder trucks, said Memphis Fire Services director Alvin Benson.

"What the pilot program told us was that we needed a light kind of utility vehicle like an SUV," he said. "The whole notion here is that the ... utility vehicle would be less expensive to respond in than the traditional fire truck."

Utility vehicles can get about 16 miles to the gallon, while fire trucks burn up a gallon of fuel in two miles. A brake job for a smaller vehicle runs about $545, while the same procedure costs about $2,500 for a fire truck.

No one disputes that Fire Services probably would save $17,000 a year per vehicle, but the problem with alternative response vehicles is they can only respond to injury calls. Fire trucks are equipped to handle a variety of situations.

"In essence, we do run fewer fire calls. But it's the lower frequency, high-risk incidents [that are a danger], and we need to be able to deal with them safely," said Robert Kramer, a union member who spoke out against the alternative SUVs at last Tuesday's council meeting.

Too much emphasis on cost savings and not enough on safety is what worries union members most. They insist their objections have nothing to do with labor worries, but they want adequate equipment to deal with emergencies.

"Sending the fire truck is an all-hazards approach to public safety," Kramer said.

The city council has requested corrected numbers from the General Services division. The matter will be taken up again at the council's next meeting on January 18th.

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