The I-Team is investigating major equipment that Chicago firefighters say is so old it puts them and the public at risk.
They are startling figures: 40 percent of the city’s fire department engines and ladder trucks are too old for safe front-line use, according to industry standards. And within a year, that fire hazard will significantly increase.
The I-Team uncovered one of the worst cases: a busy Chicago firehouse with equipment from 1985, 31 years old. Firefighters say this slows down response times and puts lives in danger.
Tower Ladder 34 rolls out of this Southeast Side fire house heading for action. But city records show this rig is 31 years old, actually obsolete.
“It’s an antique, it’s out of date, it’s just not the equipment we should be using in a city like Chicago,” said Andre Pennix, a retired CFD Battalion Chief.
Pennix and J. Paramore are retired Chicago Fire Department battalion chiefs who worked in this fire district and counted on Tower Ladder 34 to save lives in emergencies. They say this apparatus and its fixed ladder are crucial to help rescue people trapped on upper floors and prevent massive fires from spreading.
“The particular rig that they’re using right now is a spare of a spare which is 31 years old,” Paramore said.
“So many times it has happened that the rig didn’t even get out of the firehouse, you’re dead in the water,” Pennix said.
The I-Team uncovered a history of serious problems with the equipment assigned as Tower Ladder 34: page after page of repair documents showing hydraulic fluid and radiator leaks, a broken horn that “will not crank” and “won’t stay running”, and even from just last month “oil pouring out of motor — massive mech(anical) failure.”
“The tower ladders are raggedy, the equipment is being faulty, we’re making constant excuses about why we can’t get this,” Paramore said.
“It’s actually putting the community at risk,” Pennix said.
The National Fire Protection Association sets safety standards for first responder equipment. They recommend apparatus more than 15 years old should be removed from front line service because it lacks modern safety upgrades. Anything more 25 years old should be replaced.
City records obtained by the I-Team show that of the 209 fire department ladder trucks and engines, 82 are at least 15 years old. City officials say their large number of spares increase the average age of the fleet.
Records reveal that within the next year, 60 additional rigs will also be considered too old for frontline service.
“Many communities are struggling to maintain their frontline fleet. The citizen, the person who calls for service wants to be assured that they’re going to have as quick of response as possible on a piece of apparatus that will do the job,” said Ken Willette, National Fire Protection Association.
This firehouse has had to depend on outdated rigs since 2009, when its regular equipment was in an accident. Fire department officials would not speak on camera for this report but in an email said at no time will the city “release a front-line or spare unit into active duty if there is even the slightest possibility the unit will not be able to safely allow firefighters to reliably respond to an incident.”
“They put their lives on the line, and I think they deserve the equipment that can save lives as quickly as possible,” Pennix said.
The I-Team started asking questions about Tower Ladder 34 almost two months ago. Fire department officials told us they have replaced that rig with equipment that is 14 years old and that they have put the old model on standby as a spare.