Sparks flew during a Memphis City Council committee meeting Tuesday over the Memphis Fire Department’s request to buy eight utility vehicles to be used in non-fire emergencies.
Fire officials say the new vehicles will save money on maintenance, fuel, and other costs, while union officers worry about longer response times during emergencies.
“Ultimately, we feel it’s a safety issue to the public,” said Robert Kramer, a fire truck driver and union member. “Even though it might save $17,000 a year, we don’t feel it’s worth the risk.”
The utility vehicles would be used in place of much larger, more expensive fire trucks and would carry four people each. However, Kramer said the utility vehicles can only respond to injury calls, while regular fire trucks are equipped to respond to a variety of emergencies. While firefighters are responding to a call in an utility vehicle, their better-equipped ladder trucks must remain at the station. If it turns out that a fire truck is needed, it would have to be called in from another firehouse, causing a delayed response and possible hazard to victims and fire personnel alike.
Not so, said Memphis Fire Services director Alvin Benson. “There are no safety issues on the table,” the fire chief said. “We will stock the [alternative response vehicle] the same as we would the truck.”
Benson’s rationale was that the smaller, more agile utility vehicles would save thousands a year on maintenance and fuel. Currently, ladder trucks can go one or two miles a gallon compared to 15 or 16 miles a gallon for an SUV, according to a report circulated during the council’s Public Safety & Homeland Security committee meeting.
“We’ve got to do more with less, and the fire department is part of that,” Benson said.
But the union leaders are leery of that approach. They said they fear the fire department is trying to cut costs at the possible expense of lives.
“The union did a series of Freedom of Information [Act] (FOIA) requests to see if [these claims were] correct, and the number of emergency calls isn’t the problem, but the age of the equipment [is],” Kramer said. “Something else that we found is that the maintenance costs seem to be inflated for some reason.”
The city’s embattled General Services Division is in charge of maintenance and repairs for the fire department’s vehicles. Kramer cited a work order cost summary the union pieced together using data it obtained through the FOIA requests.
One entry about a radiator hose being replaced showed a cost of more than $1,900. Another showing a replaced valve came in at more than $2,100.
Martha Lott, director of General Services, said she could come up with better numbers.
“There’s a glitch in the system and I can’t attest to the accuracy of the data,” she said.
Kramer suggested the fire department might be getting “fleeced” on vehicle maintenance and repairs. He also said it was “asinine” to think that emergency response times would not be affected by moving to the alternative response vehicle model. Kramer later apologized for his choice of words, but not before Fire Services deputy director Michael Putt told union president Larry Anthony, “You’ve got to get him out of here.”
After the meeting, Anthony wanted assurances from City Councilman Jim Strickland that there wouldn’t be any retaliation from the fire department.
Meanwhile, Strickland, chair of the Public Safety & Homeland Security committee, requested corrected numbers and other information from Lott and Benson. The matter will be taken up again at the council’s next meeting on Jan. 18th.