Brattleboro mulls potential need for new ladder truck

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BRATTLEBORO — Fire officials are urging the inclusion of a $950,000 aerial ladder truck in the budget, but Select Board members remain skeptical of the cost.

"For me, I really have to look at the working poor that are really just getting by around here," board member John Allen said at a meeting Tuesday.

A 24-year-old aerial ladder truck was purchased this year. But officials expect a new truck will be needed sooner, rather than later. Originally, the proposal had a price tag of $1 million.

If the board does not support buying a new truck just yet, Town Manager Peter Elwell suggested at least putting money aside for it.

"It takes a year from the time an order is placed until a new truck is in service," he said.

Fire Chief Mike Bucossi said the recently acquired truck is considered only "a bridge" to purchasing a new one. A 26-year-old ladder truck was taken out of service in August, and he applied for a Federal Energy Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters grant to replace it but did not secure the funding. That truck was "deemed out of service indefinitely due to the need for several major repairs that more than outweighed the value of the truck," according to a memo from Bucossi.

At the meeting, Bucossi insisted the issue was of age, not maintenance.

"There was nothing we were going to do to head off what we were going to face with the ladder truck," he said, noting that steel had corroded over time. He cautioned the board to allow purchases of used trucks as the exception rather than the rule. "This ladder that we have now, although it's in much better shape than what we gave up, it's not a guarantee. It's not something we would go out and buy, because it doesn't have all the options we would have in a truck. It doesn't have a water tank or pump."

A truck would need to be ordered according to specifications special to Brattleboro, Bucossi told the board. Construction projects and Victorian buildings around town made him "very nervous" thinking about not having a ladder truck in the fleet if something were to go wrong.

Bucossi thanked the town of Putney for allowing Brattleboro to borrow its aerial ladder truck for two months this year. He warned that the cost of fire equipment tends to increase 3 percent each year or more and the town could lose an opportunity to sell the truck it recently bought. He mentioned local departments expressing interest in the vehicle because they would not need to use it nearly as often.

"We can't run it until it dies because it leaves us with this gap for fire safety," he said. "We wouldn't be in front of you, as your fire administration, if we didn't feel this purchase was necessary."

Assistant Chief Len Howard said the town would have had to rent a truck for about $5,000 a month without the generosity of Putney. Town Finance Committee Chairman Franz Reichsman thought that was a good number to know if the department found itself without a truck.

"For $1 million, you could rent that truck for 16 years and eight months, which isn't that far off the expected lifespan of the truck," said Reichsman.

Select Board member David Schoales recognized the need but had concerns about the cost. The town is paying off bonds associated with wastewater treatment plant improvements, relocating the police station to Black Mountain Road, a new fire station in West Brattleboro and renovations at Central Fire Station downtown.

"We're trying to retire all these loans and bonds and not trying to borrow more," said Schoales.

Select Board Vice Chairwoman Brandie Starr worried about safety.

"I'm not going to sleep well wondering if there's a fire on Main Street," she said.

Bucossi said the truck goes out about once a day and responds to any reported fire, smoke in a building or automatic alarms in the municipal alarm system. But it is used for firefighting efforts "probably a couple times a month."

"I know you guys do a great job but I hate it," Allen said. "We always say, 'Well, it's an old truck.' I've got an old car. It still runs great. I don't think we can always go by an age of the vehicle."

Bucossi said fire trucks are different in that they do not rack up a lot of mileage but get a lot of usage.

"Whether it's once a week, once a month, once a year, it gets used a lot," he said. "They get worked hard."

Bucossi recalled a truck being used at the Brooks House fire in 2011 for 20 hours straight and people being rescued from the building with the ladder.

Allen said he did not want to be pressured into the purchase with scare tactics. Select Board Chairwoman Kate O'Connor joined him in calling for more research to be done on financing plans. But Bucossi insisted the truck is "a necessity in this town."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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