PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré acknowledged Tuesday that some of the city’s fire trucks need replacing, while also insisting that the vehicles are safe and would not be allowed on the road if they were not.
Paré took questions from the City Council’s finance committee in response to a recent campaign by the Providence Firefighters Union to replace fire vehicles that are, in some cases, more than 20 years old and still on the road.
“Our fleet is old, no doubt,” Paré said. “We have an engine that’s 21 years old and we have a ladder that’s 27 years old.” He said financial constraints have prevented the department from replacing them faster.
The public conversation about the age of the city’s emergency vehicles began earlier this month, when Local 799 president Derek Silva sent a letter to City Councilman James Taylor, a retired fire battalion chief, outlining concerns about the fleet.
The union launched a full-throated media campaign on the issue, including sponsored social media posts, giving specific examples of mechanical issues in ladder trucks and engines. Just a few days after Silva sent to the letter to Taylor, a ladder truck lost two wheels on its way back from an emergency call.
“We have trucks that are literally older than the firefighters driving them,” Silva said.
The city’s new $15 million Master Lease, a budget for equipment recently passed by the City Council, includes funding for a special hazards truck, pumper truck and ladder truck. Paré said the department is seeking a federal grant to help pay for new vehicles.
But Taylor — who recently filed an ethics complaint against Paré related to his decision not to hire a fire chief — pressed Paré on the scope of the problem.
“The standard for replacing engines and ladders … is a 20-year replacement,” Taylor said, adding that trucks should spend 15 years on the front line and five additional years in reserve. “Six out of 12 engines should have already been replaced.”
Paré said a ladder truck can cost $1.2 million, while an engine costs up to $800,000. “I wish we could replace them, but we didn’t have the money,” he said.
“Failing to plan is planning to fail,” Taylor responded.
According to the fire department’s inventory list, six frontline fire engines are older than 15 years old — two from 1999, two from 2000, and two from 2002. The five reserve engines — which are only used if a frontline vehicle has to be taken out of service — are from the 1990s. The oldest engine is 30 years old, from 1990.
Six out of the nine ladder trucks are also from the 1990s. The other ladders are from 2004, 2007 and 2018 — the newest vehicle in the fleet, acquired through a federal grant.
Paré said he trusts the city’s certified mechanics and the fire department’s automotive superintendent George Lazzareschi to determine if vehicles are roadworthy. Asked if he has ever overruled Lazzareschi’s judgment, Paré gave an empathic, “Never.”
“He has the absolute power to take the vehicle off the road if it’s unsafe. He’s done that and he’ll continue to do that,” Paré said.
“No one’s life is in jeopardy because of these apparatus,” Silva said. “Our point is that if we don’t develop a plan, we don’t develop a policy quickly, we will have issues responding to runs.”
Several committee members were incredulous to learn that the city was tracking the maintenance of the decades-old vehicles using papers in folders, rather than on a computer.
“Is there anything stopping the city from using Excel?” asked Council President Sabina Matos.
“We should get beyond the paper folder, but the answer is we are not,” conceded Michael Borg, the outgoing director of public property. “We are providing a path and a solution that will take place starting in July to track our vehicle records.”
The new fleet management system will include a barcode scanner to automatically connect parts and maintenance to VIN numbers of city vehicles, Borg said.
The union presented a proposal to get all of the vehicles younger than 20 years old by spending $612,000 per year for 15 years in a lease-to-own plan. The proposal suggests the city could raise the money by billing car insurance companies of at-fault drivers when firefighters respond to car accidents.
For example — a basic car crash could lead to a $506 bill for the at-fault driver’s insurance company, while an extrication could cost $1,520. Silva said under the union’s proposal to the council, drivers would never be billed directly.
Finance Chairman John Igliozzi said the council would reopen the recently passed Master Lease plan in order to discuss adding more vehicle purchases, and said the fire apparatus would be part of the overall budget discussions in the coming months.
“When it comes to public safety, we can work together with this administration to try to figure out where we’re going to get the money and try to make it work,” Igliozzi said.