Debate Over Fire Department Vehicles Continues at City Council

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The Memphis Fire Department’s alternative response vehicle saga continues.

After about two hours of debate at a Memphis City Council committee meeting on Tuesday, the fire department director and union members still couldn’t see eye to eye on buying eight alternative response vehicles (ARVs) for the department’s fleet.

Council Public Safety and Homeland Security committee chairman Jim Strickland sent the issue to be considered before the full city council on February 15th.

The disagreement over the ARVs first began January 4th, when the department requested to amend its budget to buy the smaller, lighter, less expensive vehicles. Union members objected because of concerns about response times during emergencies, saying much larger fire trucks are equipped to handle a variety of calls, not just medical ones.

Alvin Benson, director of Memphis Fire Services, said Tuesday that the main challenges are “cost versus benefit and risk versus reward.”

On one side, Benson says using the ARVs will save on fuel, maintenance and other costs. On the other side, members of International Firefighters Local 1784 wonder if cost savings are worth potential dangers or delays. Right now, about 79 percent of the fire department’s calls are medical emergencies. That’s why Benson would prefer first responders to be in ARVs instead of fire trucks.

“Fire calls are going down,” Benson said. “EMS calls are going in the other direction.”

However, a presentation during Tuesday’s committee session showed cost savings from the ARVs could be more negligible than previously thought. At earlier meetings, Benson said each ARV could save about $17,000 a year per vehicle in maintenance and other costs. But, according to Strickland’s math, savings might only come out to $4,200 a year per vehicle.

Robert Kramer, the union’s spokesperson, also said vehicle age, and not the number of runs, probably is the key to keeping costs down. However, Kramer said he still hasn’t received amended numbers from the city’s General Services Division that would allow him to back to his point.

The union initially had requested such records using the Freedom of Information Act. During the first meeting about ARVs, Martha Lott, the new division director, said the numbers were incorrect.

Whether savings are substantial or negligible, Kramer still worries about risk. “In a nutshell, that’s what all of this is about,” he said.

Councilman Bill Boyd suggested that a four-month PILOT study of smaller vehicles by the fire department should have lasted a full year. That suggestion is likely to be considered at the February 15th council meeting.

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