The move provides capital for Collingswood to invest in a new fire apparatus, while giving Camden a piece of back-up equipment that will support training and its ISO rating. Both companies say they still need new equipment to replace outdated trucks in their fleets.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 31, 2023
In a deal brokered by municipal technical advisors from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), the Collingswood Fire Department will sell its ladder truck to the Camden City Fire Department.
The arrangement will help Collingswood liquidate a piece of seldom-used firefighting apparatus for money to invest in a new truck, while giving Camden a piece of reserve equipment to use in urban firefighting environments.
Their arrangement illustrates a collision of factors at the center of the business of firefighting in 2023, as companies grapple with aging equipment, long wait times for replacements, and a drought of volunteers preventing them from operating as they once did.
Within the Collingswood Fire Department, the vehicle in question, a 2007 Seagrave ladder truck, is primarily used for training, Collingswood Fire Chief Geoff Joyce said.
“When our firefighters are working, they’re either assigned to the fire engine, or one of the two ambulances,” Joyce said. “I don’t assign firefighters to the ladder engine because it doesn’t have a water pump.”
In the last two years, Joyce said the ladder has responded to only two emergencies, and those happened when rescue assignments were dispatched at shift change, and the firefighters used it as a response vehicle because it was the only truck available.
“It’s not being utilized, and from a budgetary standpoint, I have to pump thousands of dollars into this thing for routine maintenance and testing,” Joyce said. “We’re spending a significant amount of money on an apparatus that’s not serving the taxpayer to the fullest.”
The ladder is not used as often as it might otherwise have been in Collingswood, because under the Camden County fire dispatch system, any fire involving a building big enough to necessitate a ladder rescue would trigger a mutual aid response from surrounding communities.
Fire departments in neighboring Oaklyn, Camden, and Pennsauken all have ladder trucks, Joyce said. So does nearby Westmont, which automatically responds to an emergency involving a building or dwelling fire in Collingswood.
“In a sense, we’re kind of slowly moving towards an informal regionalization,” Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said. “If six or seven towns put in together, you’d probably need two ladders.”
Camden City, however, staffs three ladder companies and six engine companies, as well as two battalion chiefs, all 24 hours a day.
Of its three ladder trucks, Camden City Fire Chief Michael Harper said one apparatus typically functions as a spare.
In the past year, however, Harper said that his department “ran into a period of time where we had more than one [ladder] out for service,” which could have compromised its ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating.
ISO ratings indicate the capability of a fire department to serve its community, preserve life and property, and reduce the risk of fire locally. They are scored on a scale of 1 (best) to 10 (least).
“Some communities need to maintain a ladder to maintain their ISO rating,” Harper said. “We need three to maintain our current ISO rating of 2.”
At $125,000, the Collingswood ladder is “definitely going to be a reserve piece,” for the Camden City Fire Department, Harper said. It will become the second-oldest apparatus of its kind in the fleet, behind only the 19-year-old tower ladder that the department is looking to replace (the others are 13 and 15 years old).
“In an urban city like ours, you want an apparatus to have 10 years of frontline service, and five years in reserve,” Harper said. “It’s unheard-of for a city to be keeping apparatus for 15 years.”
Moreover, the tower and ladder trucks don’t perform strictly the same rescue functions, the chief said.
“In cities like ours, we tend to use tractor-drawn aerial ladders for ease of use in the streets, and tower ladders,” Harper said. “The tower ladder has a basket on the end of the ladder. Collingswood’s ladder is a straight-stick aerial ladder; it doesn’t have a bucket.”
In Camden, the Collingswood ladder primarily will be a piece of back-up equipment, Harper said. It will require repairs and refurbishment before it can be placed into service, but should serve a stopgap function while the department waits to purchase a new tower ladder.
However, supply chain issues in the fire apparatus manufacturing industry have created purchasing backlogs of two years or longer, while costs continue to spiral.
A new tower ladder now is around $2 million, Harper said, and “isn’t something that you can buy off the shelf.” Likewise, it’s rare that a fire company might have a ladder available in usable enough condition to put into service after refurbishment, he said.
“If you critically need something right away, it’s a waiting process, or you need to find something that’s available,” Harper said. “It’s unfortunate that everybody’s stuck with that.”
In a written statement provided by Camden City, a spokesperson for its municipal government notes that “…the purchase price and repair costs [of the Collingswood ladder truck] made it a prudent acquisition – especially given supply chain delays in obtaining new apparatus and parts to fix existing apparatus that are currently out of service.
“The City further brought an outside fire apparatus mechanic to look at the truck and the repairs that would be required to make it fully operational for the City,” the statement read. “We believe this to be a win-win for the City and the Borough.”
Meanwhile, Collingswood will dedicate the $125,000 netted from the sale of its ladder truck to acquiring a new pumper apparatus, Maley said. That would replace a 14-year-old engine that has “been in the shop more than in the streets” in the past two years, Joyce said.
Although the Collingswood ladder truck hasn’t been used much for firefighting duties in the past few years, it held a place of prominence in annual borough holiday traditions, whereby a firefighter dressed as Santa Claus kicks off the season by descending down its ladder from the roof of borough hall to greet the crowd below.
Not to worry, Maley said.
“We’ll just borrow a truck for the holiday.”
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