Breakdowns highlight decaying state of New Orleans Fire Department’s fleet _lowres

Advocate file Photo by Eliot Kamenitz -- 'I'm not really happy my firefighters don’t have the finest, newest fire trucks," said N.O. Fire Chief Tim McConnell on the lack of the department's new equipment.

Firefighters preparing to rush to the scene of a vehicle fire early Friday found themselves stranded at their Clara Street station when their truck wouldn’t start.

To make matters worse, while an engine from another nearby station was dispatched to the blaze on Toledano Street, firefighters who headed out to New Orleans East from the Clara Street station found that the spare truck they were planning to pick up there also was inoperable.

The breakdowns highlight the decaying state of the Fire Department’s fleet, which is mostly made up of engines that are more than 10 years old.

While both Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and firefighters agree there is a need to replace the trucks, the speed with which that will occur has opened a new front in the ongoing battle between the two sides.

The age of the trucks has been a problem for years, firefighters union President Nick Felton said Friday.

“This is an ever-growing problem. Now, it’s getting worse and worse, and it’s going to happen continuously,” he said. “The spare fire truck that they just placed in service has broken down continuously.”

While promising that moves are being made to replace at least some of the trucks in the fleet, Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell said there just hasn’t been money to buy new equipment.

“I’m not really happy my firefighters don’t have the finest, newest fire trucks,” he said.

Firefighters union officials, who have been locked in a battle with Landrieu over lawsuits dealing with back pay and pension issues, highlighted the breakdowns and other recent equipment failures Friday as part of their ongoing effort to portray the Landrieu administration as indifferent to firefighters and their safety.

“It’s just inappropriate and dangerous. I’m concerned that someone’s going to get hurt,” Felton said.

The truck problems at Engine 38 on Clara started when the report of a car on fire came in at 2:30 a.m. As of Friday afternoon, the truck that was originally dispatched was still being repaired.

The truck from Engine 16 that was sent in place of the first engine arrived within eight minutes, McConnell said.

Still, with one truck out of service and another at a fire, areas of Uptown were left without fire protection, Felton said.

The administration plans to put a request for some new trucks out to bid next week, though the exact number to be purchased will depend on the cost. Fire trucks must be custom-built and can cost up to $500,000.

McConnell said the administration and firefighters have been working on the specifications for some time.

City officials estimate that replacing the city’s entire fleet would cost $30 million and take five or six years.

“We’re dealing with a fleet we inherited that is in very poor condition,” McConnell said.

He noted that a majority of the city’s fire engines were purchased in 2004 from American LaFrance, which closed its doors a few years later. Then, when Landrieu took office in 2010, it took years to clear up the city’s woeful financial picture.

But Felton, noting that other city agencies, including the police and health departments, have gotten new vehicles in recent years, questioned the city’s priorities and suggested the lack of new trucks for firefighters might be retaliation for the legal wrangling.

“It’s buying what you want and begging for what you need,” Felton said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.