MEMPHIS, TN – A controversy is smoldering at the Memphis Fire Department over a realignment plan officials say will improve efficiency but firefighters fear will threaten public safety.
The dispute involves acquisition of two so-called “quint” fire trucks that get their name by combining five functions into one. Both a ladder truck and a pumper, they have fire hoses, aerial devices and a water tank.
The change culminates July 1 when MFD plans to decommission four ladder trucks, move four others and add two quints.
“We’re going to have to deal with it; the quints are here,” said Larry Anthony, president of the Memphis Fire Fighters Association, the local firefighters union, who says fewer trucks will weaken fire response. “But this is about people’s safety.”
The quints are designed to replace two pieces of equipment each. By decommissioning trucks and adding the quints, the city can build up its reserve fleet, which Fire Director Alvin Benson concedes is below standard.
“If I had four trucks in an accident today, my reserve allows me to only replace three of those,” he said. “One company would be out of service.”
As part of a three-year strategy to reduce staff through attrition, MFD decommissioned two ladder trucks last year. MFD will accelerate the plan this year, Benson said in a letter posted to the city’s website.
A 2007 efficiency study by Houston-based Deloitte Consulting LLP in partnership with Berkshire Associates said the department appeared to have significantly more employees than cities of comparable sizes.
Mayor A C Wharton’s Strategic Business Model Assessment Committee, using information from the 2007 report, said Wharton should look for savings in department operations.
Benson said the department will continue to meet national standards set by the National Fire Protection Association.
“We can maintain our response time and coverage even with only 19 trucks,” Benson said. “We wouldn’t want to do that, but we could.”
Fire response statutes require a four-minute first response to 90 percent of incidents. Fire departments should deploy a full response within eight minutes.
Benson published a chart showing the city’s coverage area with circles corresponding to each station’s response zone.
But when fires occur that require significant numbers of personnel and equipment, the size of those circles can double, Anthony said.
“This is going to continue to happen,” Anthony said. “But they (MFD) aren’t telling you that.”
This comes as Station 7, 1017 Jefferson, and Station 28, 1510 Chelsea, are completing certification on the new quints, which cost the city more than $800,000 each.
“You could have bought two trucks for that,” Anthony said.
Firefighters also are concerned with the bulkiness of the quint. It’s heavier than the trucks the department uses now. With a single rear axle, maneuverability is restricted. For Station 7, which responds to more calls than any other unit in the city, that’s a problem, Anthony said.
“One quint is already damaged,” he said. “They were training on it and they bottomed out, exiting a parking lot. And the gas tank is only 15 inches off the ground.”
While the MFD is purchasing new quints, other cities are moving away from the quint concept.
The St. Louis Fire Department issued a letter in February, saying it scrapped its quints to reduce costs and improve response efficiency.
Smaller and lighter pumper vehicles will allow St. Louis to respond “more effectively and efficiently to all incidents,” said Dennis Jenkerson, fire chief in St. Louis.
Benson said MFD’s goal is to “reduce dispatch and response times, thereby improving services” and “to reduce loss of life and property,” backing his decision to institute the quints.
Anthony said if Benson wants to improve service, this is a step in the wrong direction.
“If these things are the wave of the future,” Anthony said, “then why are all these other cities getting rid of them?”