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Budget cuts leave towns with risky, run-down fire and emergency gear

Posted October 8, 2010 06:34 PM

Last year, the Andover Fire Department’s nine-year-old ambulance broke down three times while transporting patients.

Andover Fire Chief Michael B. Mansfield said good planning prevented those incidents from becoming catastrophic, but they became the catalyst for the town’s decision to purchase a new ambulance.

Last month, North Andover Fire Chief Andrew V. Melnikas went before the Board of Selectmen to inform them that his department is operating with a 25-year-old backup engine truck that no longer meets national safety standards, and is in need of a new engine and radiator. Also, the ladder portion of the department’s 1994 ladder-pumper combination truck does not work, he said. To fix it, along with the severe rust to the truck, would cost around $250,000. Replacing both — Melnikas’s preference — would cost around $1.2 million.

As municipal expenses continue to escalate in a weak economy, fire departments across the state have been continually asked to make do with what they have so that funding can be put toward larger expenses, such as schools.

For many firefighters it means working with equipment that no longer meets National Fire Protection Association safety standards, said Paul J. Zbikowski, first vice president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts and chief of the Ashburnham Fire Department.

“What’s acceptable, and what’s the level of risk we’re willing to take? That’s what it comes down to if we don’t have the necessary equipment,’’ Zbikowski said. “What danger are we willing to put our firefighters in? That’s up to each department to determine.’’

In a post-terrorism era, the training demands on fire departments have increased exponentially, but budgets have dwindled and grants have evaporated. Grants that remain, mainly from the federal government, have become extremely competitive.

In May, Andover’s chief Mansfield jumped at the chance to apply for a federal grant earmarked specifically for the replacement of air packs used by firefighters to enter situations where the air quality is poor.

Andover firefighters are using air packs that are about 18 years old and that don’t meet US Department of Homeland Security requirements to filter out chemical and biological elements, Mansfield said.

“Some of them have not been serviceable, but we spend funds trying to keep these older units in service,’’ Mansfield said. “The funds have not been available through the budget process in the town of Andover for quite some time.’’

Despite economic difficulties in town, Mansfield said the apparatus replacement program has been good, and that the department just finished replacing personal protective clothing that was nine years old.

“There are a lot of projects that need to be addressed that the town can’t do all at once,’’ Mansfield said. “There’s a prioritization of what projects are going to get funded. . . . We’re trying to get funds from the same pot of money, and it’s a competitive process in town.’’

Billerica Fire Chief Anthony Capaldo knows all too well the difficulty of competing for limited dollars. His department has not had any capital improvement projects funded in the past three years, he said. The department runs with a 17-year-old engine truck and a 22-year-old ladder, Capaldo said. The two reserve engine trucks are 25 and 26 years old, he added. Billerica has been among the communities hardest hit by foreclosure filings in the area.

“I’ve been asking for a ladder for the last six years, and the engine I’ve been trying to get rid of for the last couple of years,’’ Capaldo said. “A new fire pumper is in the $500,000 range, and a ladder is between $900,000 and $1 million. That’s why things don’t get replaced like they used to.’’

Capaldo said he understands the town needs to prioritize expenditures and that, realistically, taxpayers cannot afford to replace two trucks at once. But the money being spent on repairs of these older trucks is extensive, he said, adding that it cost the department around $54,000 to rebuild the ladder’s transmission earlier this year. The value of that ladder truck on the open market is between $10,000 to $15,000, he said.

In North Andover, the Board of Selectmen reminded Melnikas that the five-year capital improvement plan does not call for the Fire Department to get funding for a new ladder truck until 2013 and a new engine until 2014, but the chief told the board that the extent of repairs is such that it is “like putting money into a car with 150,000 miles. [It’s] throwing good money into a bad investment.’’

“My ideal solution is to buy both vehicles and set us up for the long range,’’ Melnikas said in an interview. “If they do this now, we won’t ask for a new truck in 10 years.’’

In a meeting Monday, Town Manager Mark Rees recommended to the Board of Selectmen that the town should purchase a new pumper engine, but rehabilitate the ladder truck. Selectmen are in the process of deciding on what, if anything, they will recommend. A Special Town Meeting date, Nov. 17, was approved by the selectmen in anticipation of their decision.

Melnikas said the longer the department continues to operate with a broken ladder, the more he has to lean on mutual aid from neighboring towns.

Mutual aid calls among communities have increased in the past few years, whether to borrow equipment or because of a manpower shortage, said Zbikowski. To make due with limited resources, fire departments continue to look for ways to share resources, such as regionalizing hazardous materials vehicles, he said.

The association also began a cooperative-bids process for fire trucks, which allows communities to save time and money, he said.

“Without intervention of state and local government, we’re doing everything we can,’’ Zbikowski said. “The economy is going to turn around. Things will get better. It goes in cycles. Will we ever be fat, dumb, and happy? I don’t think so. We’re just trying to break even.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.

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