On the day fire gutted five row homes on Delaware Street in 2008 and made 19 people homeless, four Allentown fire engines were out of service, including the one at the nearby Mack South Fire Station. So officials at Mack were forced to send a pickup truck to the fast-moving fire, and Fearless Fire Station, also in south Allentown, helped by sending its engine.
Still, because of widespread equipment shortages at the city’s six fire stations, it would take about 15 minutes for two more engines and a ladder truck to arrive.
Determined to learn from experience, Allentown bought five firetrucks in the next two years and Bob Kudlak, then the assistant fire chief, was tasked with creating a vehicle replacement schedule. He started by taking inventory of every truck, noting age, mileage and location.
“It took a lot of time and effort,” said Kudlak, who retired as chief in 2015.
After submitting the plan, though, “nothing really came of it,” he said.
Nearly a decade later, fire officials say they could be left short-handed again, as equipment ages and no schedule is devised to replace it.
On Memorial Day weekend, for example, two heavily used engines were taken out of service for repairs and two engines in the reserve fleet were sent to replace them. But by the end of the weekend, one of the replacements had broken down, leaving the fire department with few options, according to the firefighters’ local union.
Luck was on Allentown’s side. There were no explosions or stubborn fires. But twice that weekend, Central Fire Station in Center City was manned with a pickup truck because one of its engines was taken out of service.
It wasn’t an unusual situation — pickup trucks have subbed for firetrucks for hours and even days at a time, a union official said.
“It’s a risk no chief wants to sleep on,” said Kudlak, who added that he was barred by Mayor Ed Pawlowski from talking publicly about the shortage while he was with the department.
The situation reached “crisis” stage this year, said Jeremy Warmkessel, president of the local firefighters union, which has been sounding the alarm for new equipment at City Council meetings and on social media for months.
Warmkessel spoke to council members again this week and warned them that two engines will need to be purchased in the coming years.
Pawlowski called the firefighters’ social media campaign “nonsense” earlier this year, a categorization he said this week he stands by. The shortages firefighters are complaining about were “temporary” and “hardly fit the label of a crisis,” he said.
Regardless, Pawlowski said, Allentown will buy two trucks over the next several years.
Pawlowski said he has made public safety his top priority and that the city has spent $4.4 million on fire vehicles during his 12-year tenure. He added that budget decisions are made for “what is best for the city as a whole.”
Council President Ray O’Connell pledged to support the purchases during upcoming budget negotiations. In the last five years, council has never proposed new firetrucks. If Pawlowski does not include the trucks in the proposed 2018 budget, O’Connell said, council is prepared to add funding for two.
Kudlak stressed that the city needs to become more proactive in replacing vehicles before the need becomes dire.
“It’s not just an incident like the Delaware Street fire,” he said. “There’s many occasions when the same situation exists and nothing burns. That opportunity is going to be there … as long as you allow things to deteriorate as they have been allowed to deteriorate.”
Not keeping with standards
The generally accepted standard for fire equipment replacement comes from the National Fire Protection Association, which calls for firetrucks to remain in primary use for no more than 10 years. After that, fire trucks typically have an additional 10-year life in a reserve fleet where they can be subbed in as trucks go down, according to the association.
A Morning Call analysis found that of the seven engines (also known as pumpers) and one ladder truck (sometimes called an aerial) in Allentown’s primary fleet at the start of the summer, five were more than 10 years old. Since then, a new engine arrived in July. It replaces a 1999 model that was moved to the reserve fleet, bringing the total in reserve to five — two of which are older than 20 years.
By comparison, it’s a similar story in Reading, where five of the nine trucks in the city’s primary fleet were built within the last 10 years, city records show. And three of the seven trucks in its reserve fleet fall within the 20-year standard.
Bethlehem’s fleet is older than Allentown’s, but the city has a plan to address that. Half of Bethlehem’s eight primary pieces of equipment — two ladder trucks and two engines — are less than 10 years old and the other half were built between 1998 and 2002, according to Bethlehem firefighters union records. Both of the city’s reserve engines are 20 years old.
But the city has not had to rely on pickup trucks for more than a few hours at a time, said Robert Brooks, president of the Bethlehem firefighters union, adding that pickups shouldn’t be an integral part of the plan.
“We don’t like it. The administration doesn’t like it. But we know there’s a plan to get out of it,” Brooks said.
“These guys over in Allentown, they’re going through a heck of a thing,” he said. “It’s poor planning.”
Bethlehem has been trying to replace one piece of fire equipment each year, Brooks said. Sometimes deliveries have been delayed because a vehicle takes about a year to build, but the upgrades are coming as scheduled.
“If you don’t replace any over five to six years, then you’re really playing catch-up for a long period,” Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez said. “That’s really not in the interest of public safety.”
Asked to comment on how Allentown’s equipment stacks up to that of other cities and whether he’s satisfied with the fire department’s current fleet, Pawlowski said, “I am not concerned with how we stack up equipment-wise with other municipalities. I am concerned solely with whether our equipment is adequate to protect the safety of the members of the department and the general public and to keep the damage from fire in the city to a minimum.”
Allentown — whose department handled 11,497 calls in 2016, more than twice as many as Bethlehem’s 5,192 — hasn’t adhered to a replacement schedule, Kudlak said. Of the trucks purchased during his seven years in fire administration, only one was included in the capital budget, he said. The others were purchased on the fly as serious problems with trucks arose, Kudlak said.
The demo trucks, such as the 2016 model that arrived in July, aren’t built to fit Allentown’s aging fire stations, fire officials say. Making room for the new truck at Central Fire Station, they said, took some rearranging.
“The fire administration always had a plan, but they were not able to implement their plan,” Kudlak said. “And whose face is the camera going to be on when something bad happens?”
Fire engines cost $500,000 to $600,000, with ladder trucks going for about $1 million. Because of their hefty price tags, they often are listed in a city’s capital budget, which is largely financed by borrowing.
In Allentown, capital budget requests are prioritized by the mayor and some are ultimately eliminated.
Pawlowski said, “Department directors and bureau managers get to advocate their position in budget meetings, but when a final decision is made, that is the verdict for all departments and I expect department directors and bureau managers to be on board with it.
“In the end, it is one citywide budget that the taxpayers have to afford,” Pawlowski said. “The city can’t function with one department publicly fighting with another department over resources.”
Chief repeatedly asked for equipment
In April, when Pawlowski was asked about the complaints voiced by city firefighters, he said he was not informed of concerns until that month, when firefighters took their fightto the public.
But emails and minutes from the public safety committee, labor management committee and fleet management committee dating to 2012 show that the last three fire chiefs have voiced concerns over equipment.
The Morning Call filed a Right-to-Know request June 6 for internal city emails about fire trucks in the last five years. The city turned over 17 emails, including one almost entirely redacted message from Kudlak to city administrators. The city solicitor’s office said the email was redacted because it showed “predecisional deliberations” regarding the 2015 budget.
The request did not disclose any emails from 2017.
But between early April and late May, fire Chief Lee Laubach emailed the mayor at least five times with his concerns about the fleet, according to emails independently obtained by The Morning Call. A “catastrophic failure” of one fire engine coupled with another engine that had broken down “long-term” was putting the fleet in a “desperate situation,” Laubach wrote April 5.
“There is distinct possibility of not being able to have the required complement of units to respond on a daily basis,” Laubach wrote.
Pawlowski did not respond, according to the email chain.
An email dated April 12 states that the city’s West End was being protected by a pickup truck with “no water or rescue capabilities.”
“We need to address this issue now before public safety is even more negatively affected,” Laubach wrote.
The emails show Pawlowski authorized the city to buy a demo model fire engine April 19. The next day, according to the emails, the discounted truck the city was considering — available for $426,000 — was sold to another fire company in Montana due to a delay in Allentown’s financing paperwork.
Laubach said he is not authorized to comment about the emails or the department’s requests.
Labor management meeting minutes show that Laubach’s requests for vehicles go back several years. In March 2015, after the city ordered an engine that would be placed at Hibernia Station at Ridge and Tilghman streets, Laubach said he would look to buy a new engine “ASAP,” minutes show. At an August meeting, Laubach said he would like to lease-purchase three new engines, one to be delivered in 2016 and two in 2017, minutes show. The city went ahead with one of those purchases, records show.
In October 2015, the committee discussed plans for the chief to meet with Pawlowski in February 2016 to discuss future truck purchases. In August 2016, Laubach put in a request for three engines, according to meeting minutes. No engines were funded by the 2017 budget.