Northampton fire chief calls city’s ladder truck ‘severe safety hazard’

  • A Holyoke firefighter, top, aboard a ladder tower, douses the top story of East Heaven Hot Tubs on West Street in Northampton on June 7 after Northampton’s ladder truck, in front, malfunctioned. Firefighters from Easthampton and South Deerfield also responded to the call. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2021 7:01:15 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council is considering a plan to borrow $1.09 million to replace a Northampton Fire Department ladder truck that has malfunctioned during several recent fires, creating what the fire chief called a “severe safety hazard.”

Fire Chief Jon Davine told the council this week that, even if his request for a bond authorization is approved, the new truck would not be delivered for at least 18 months due to manufacturing delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Wednesday’s meeting, which was rescheduled from Thursday due to Yom Kippur, the council’s Finance Committee held its first reading of the request and made a positive recommendation to the full nine-member body.

The truck, a 2003 E-One Cyclone, experienced “several major breakdowns” over the summer and has been taken out of service, Davine wrote in a letter to the council. Northampton is “the only department” still using a Cyclone ladder truck, he wrote, and “all other departments” that purchased a Cyclone have traded them in or “mothballed them.”

“Our current ladder is a liability and I don’t trust that it will work when we need it,” Davine wrote. “Thankfully, we have not needed it to rescue victims but it is only a matter of time before we will.”

During the June 7 fire that caused $500,000 worth of damage to East Heaven Hot Tubs, firefighters set up the ladder to access the roof, but it raised only six feet before malfunctioning.

“The crew was unable to move the ladder up or down and our mechanic had to be called to the scene to override the electronics system so the ladder could be put back down,” Davine’s letter reads. “Recently, at a small fire on Vernon St. crews set up the ladder to access the roof and it rotated approximately 90 degrees toward the building and malfunctioned again.”

Speaking to the council on Wednesday night, Davine said the original estimate to fix the ladder was $50,000, but that could reach $85,000. In the meantime, the department has been “relying on” Hadley, Holyoke and Easthampton for use of their ladder trucks.

“For any call — if it’s a reported fire, a possible fire, smoke in the building — we are calling them automatically,” Davine said. “We’ve gotten about 20 years out of this (ladder truck), and it’s the biggest headache I’ve ever seen.”

The department plans to buy the new ladder truck from Pierce Manufacturing of Wisconsin. The last three trucks purchased by the department have come from Pierce. Davine said that the 18-month delay would not change if the department chose another vendor.

“We’re still waiting on a new ambulance that’s been delayed forever,” he said.

Mayor David Narkewicz told the council that, in order to place the order, the city needs to identify a funding source, but “with the 18-month lead time, we wouldn’t necessarily go out to bond right away.”

“This is normally something that would appear on a capital plan, but due to the emergency nature, we wanted to get it in process right away,” Narkewicz said. “We may use a different mechanism for funding.”

Davine told the council that the new ladder truck will be “less fancy” than the Cyclone. The current truck features its own 500-gallon water tank that allows it to serve as a fire engine when needed, but Davine said the tank leaks and the pump often malfunctions. The new truck will not have a water tank.

“We decided we really don’t need to go that route again,” Davine said. “If we did, you’re looking at probably, conservatively … $1.5 or $1.6 million.”

He said the lack of a water tank will allow more room for other equipment, such as ground ladders, and storage inside the truck.

“The Pierce ladder will be built to fit under all of our low bridges and will be shorter than our current ladder,” Davine wrote in his letter. “A shorter ladder will cut down on the turning radius on some of the sharper corners in the city.”

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