MADERA COUNTY — As the County struggles with ways to replace the aging fleet of fire engines and water tenders and address the crisis in Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs) needed to drive them, the Board of Supervisors today considered the expenditure of over $500,000 to purchase two water tender/fire engine hybrid units to be put in service at Stations 12 and 19.
In a presentation to the Board, Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming told the supervisors that the County faces an immediate need for two new water tenders, and should also look at getting on a schedule to replace at least one piece of fire equipment every year.
“Due to the recent fiscal crisis and other budget challenges, the County has not been able to replace any fire engines or other equipment for several years,” said Fleming. “It is recommended that your Board direct staff to develop a fire equipment replacement policy which would call for the replacement of at least one fire engine or other equally priced piece of equipment annually going forward.”
The cost for each water tender is estimated at around $270,000, and Fleming recommended that the purchase be funded from a combination of fundraising donations, development impact fees, and charges for fire equipment rentals to other agencies.
“The general fund would only be recommended if the sources above cannot cover the balance of the purchase,” said Fleming.
Supervisor Brett Frazier noted that supporters of Station 19 have raised over $40,000 through BBQs and fundraising to go toward new equipment, and reminded the Board of a home that burned down just blocks from the station when there was no qualified driver for the water tender sitting unmanned.
While water tender drivers must have special licenses, the 2,000 gallon units being considered are a hybrid water tender/fire engine that can be driven by anyone qualified to drive an engine.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Matt Watson, who serves as Administrative Battalion Chief for Madera County Fire, sees this acquisition as a good first step.
“These new water tenders would open up driving pools for PCFs so we can actually get water at scene,” said Watson. “And we can cross-staff them with career staff [Cal Fire firefighters]. One of the biggest problems we’re having is onsite water. It’s also a big factor in the ISO rating. This is one piece of the puzzle we’re trying to work on.”
The new water tender units would be housed at Station 12 in Oakhurst and Station 19 in the Madera Ranchos, both busy stations that are centrally located in the mountains and in the valley.
As for fire engines, the County has purchased no new engines since 2007, and only the six acquired at that time are newer than the replacement age of 10 years; about 65 percent are older.
“We have an aging fire fleet, with front line engines as old as 29 years,” Watson told the Board. “Front line engines should be in service for 10 years, then be in reserve for 10 years. The engines purchased in 2007, which are our newest engines, are now approaching that 10 year mark.”
Watson said that if the County replaces just one engine a year, it would take 17 years to replace the fleet, and many of those units are already well beyond retirement age. That doesn’t include the replacement of the 9 water tenders — one of which is over 30 years old — which are crucial to firefighting efforts, as Cal Fire doesn’t have water tenders; they contract for those services.
“This tactical water tender also has a tank on the side that can be left on scene so the water tender can leave its water and return to a water source for more,” says Chief Watson. “It will help with our water flow needs to actively fight a fire and potentially help with the county ISO rating.”
Watson also said that the mechanic who works on the County’s fire equipment often has to search junk yards for spare parts or fabricate what he needs because some of the engines are so old, no parts are available.
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler noted that the County requires their other vehicles to be replaced once they reach a certain mileage, but not so for the fire equipment.
Bill Ritchey, a strong advocate for first responders who has been working with supervisors and fire officials to develop a plan for reinvigorating the department, suggested that the Board consider the purchase of multiple units this year.
“Much of the fleet is nearing obsolescence, and in recent years the cost of fire apparatus is rising faster than the rate of inflation,” said Ritchey. “To make a dent in lowering the age of equipment and obtain a multi-engine discount, I would encourage a purchase of five engines at one time, financed over five years. You may end up always trying to play catch up, and right now we’re so far behind, the cost of equipment is going up faster than the rate of financing, so you would likely save money in the long run. Ultimately it’s going to take about six to eight more water tenders over the next few years, but this is a step in the right direction.”
The Board then directed staff to look into that possibility and come back on Sept. 13 with facts and figures to inform their decision.
Read more about the challenges faced by the Madera County Fire Department: