The Tulsa Fire Department is replacing five of its most expensive ladder trucks after years of malfunctions and mounting maintenance costs rendered the $1.4 million assets unusable for firefighting operations.
The E-One truck and Bronto Skylift ladder combos, purchased under the previous Fire Department administration, were a major expense. Three of the fire engines were purchased just five years ago for $1.4 million each.
Two more were purchased years earlier for about the same price but already have been removed from service.
Now, after hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on maintenance, Fire Chief Ray Driskell said the fate of the trucks is unknown but that he hopes the department can sell them as surplus them to make up some of the lost investment.
“When they work, they are very unique in the type of functions they have,” Driskell said. “The problem is they spend too much time down.”
The most recent malfunction came early Thursday when one of the Bronto Skylift ladders malfunctioned halfway up during a chemical fire at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa, Fire Capt. Stan May said.
Driskell knows the ladder-truck model well, having been assigned to one before becoming fire chief.
“We knew what a good ladder was like, and this was not them,” Driskell said. “They are very unique in what they do, but they don’t do any good sitting in the garage.”
Driskell said he and other firefighters hated them.
The then-new trucks were highlighted in a 2013 Tulsa World article in which fire officials touted the truck’s ability to extend the ladder 114 feet in the air to reach high-rise structure fires — a need the department still wants to fill with new, more-reliable trucks.
Replacements that are being looked at will cost about $1.3 million each, Driskell said. In recent months, the chief said, he worked with the Mayor’s Office, and they shifted around capital-fund projects to make room for the purchase.
The city plans to buy four replacements for about $4.7 million total, Driskell said.
The E-One trucks at issue are outfitted with Bronto Skylift ladders, manufactured in Finland, and were funded through the city’s third-penny sales tax.
Driskell said the E-One truck itself is not a bad engine and that the Fire Department operates several. But when outfitted with the specialized ladder, the weight of the vehicle balloons to 40 tons and causes problems to the truck in addition to frequent issues with the ladder itself.
“The engine that we bought from them is a good truck,” Driskell said. “It’s the Bronto ladder attached to the chassis that gives it problems.”
The main feature of the Bronto Skylift, other than the ability to reach higher than most ladders, is an extra joint at the top that allows a platform to move independently of the main body — allowing access to places where a straight ladder wouldn’t reach.
The problem is that the computer-controlled ladder and platform simply malfunctioned too often, leaving firefighters in potential danger or a ladder short when they needed it most, Driskell and several firefighters under his command confirmed.
Maintenance costs mount
A Tulsa World analysis of city records shows the maintenance costs for the E-One/Bronto trucks purchased in 2012 have been about 50 percent higher than the average of the department’s fleet, including fire engines purchased 17 years ago.
Two of the three specialized trucks have among the highest per-year maintenance costs in the entire fleet despite being among the newest.
Averaged over its five-year lifespan, one of the trucks has cost about $75 every day in just repairs and routine maintenance. That is $27,200 per year since it was bought in 2012.
The three trucks purchased just five years ago cost an average of $66 in repairs every single day, totaling more than $363,300 spent in the shop in more than 330 work orders, about 65 per year in service.
For comparison, the entire rest of the Fire Department’s fleet of engines averages about 31 work orders, or repairs, per year.
“This (replacement) came down to the fact that there’s so much down time on them,” Driskell said. “At some point, you have to look at your return on investment.”