Fire rigs are big, red, and noisy. You'd think that counting them would be a task roughly as difficult as tracking a bleeding elephant in the snow. Well, you'd be wrong.
Last week, SF Weekly broke the story that, down to its last two spare rigs, the San Francisco Fire Department spurned state requests to send a five-vehicle "strike team" to battle the ongoing SoCal Station Fire. This did not look good for the city; a cynic would say that the inevitable finger-pointing that will occur after The Big One hits San Francisco was moved up to the present.
So when the question of just how many reserve fire vehicles there are in San Francisco came up late last night during a Fire Commission meeting, the scene suddenly began to resemble a verbal version of the famous Marx Brothers stateroom scene; every other person in the vicinity was being consulted on the matter. Deputy Chief Gary Massetani said it was five, but then upped his answer to six. This came as a surprise to Firefighters Union Boss John Hanley and Fire Commission President Victor Makras, because they walked out of a Wednesday City Hall Meeting with the understanding that the number was four.
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White quickly stepped in to affirm the tally of six; there are four rigs that are ready and two that aren't in great shape -- but usable. No sooner had she said this but another fire official said three more rigs are due back from repair at Central Shops by next week -- upping the total to nine. Meanwhile, Central Shops Supervisor Mike Braun later told SF Weekly that, in a pinch, he could toss two more rigs into action. Sure, one of them is from 1974 -- but if you kick the tires they won't fall off!
Of course, the notion of tossing a fire rig from the Ford Administration into the fray prompts the question of why San Francisco hasn't been replacing its aging vehicles. Hanley told SF Weekly that millions of dollars for equipment has been sitting, untouched, since 2005 -- and orders for new rigs were only put in last week. The department, meanwhile, blamed five consecutive budget cycles of getting stiffed by the city -- and, last week, Hayes-White told SF Weekly that 90 or 91 percent of her department's budget was sucked up by workers' wages and benefits and there wasn't enough money to restock rigs.
Massetani last night presented a detailed plan on how many rigs the department hopes to buy over the next decade or so -- with the grand plan being that the SFFD will have 42 engines that are 15 years old or younger by the time your current grade-schooler is in college.
Here's the catch, however -- the department's plan depends upon the city approving the funds it requests to replace aging rigs. Which isn't happening. So Massetani's meticulous -- color-coded, even -- plan appears to be strictly theoretical.
The Fire Commissioners grew testy. They passed a resolution calling for many of the identical purchasing goals in Massetani's plan back in 2007 -- and no one bothered to follow it. "In 2007 we passed a resolution and a number of people looked at it and went 'eh,'" said Commissioner Paul Conroy. Added Commissioner Stephen Nakajo "Because the city has a deficit, is all of this lip service? Are these rigs going to be real?"
Hayes-White, candidly, said she doesn't think they are.
"I am very skeptical," she said. "I can't say we're going to get this funding. I don't want to give you any false hope. I know that's not politically correct and not what you want to hear, but I'm not a politician. You're sensing frustration and I am frustrated."
But there's more bad news for San Franciscans hoping to be pulled out of the rubble following a large quake. Several of the reserve engines the city actually does have are sitting, empty, without any equipment on them.
Commission President Makras pushed for a resolution to equip these engines -- and he dared any of his colleagues to tell him this wasn't a good idea. Literally.
"I went by the fire station at Sanchez and Market and one of the trucks was completely empty. It didn't even have flashlights on it. You're asking [emergency firefighters] to come into the city and spend the first hour of a crisis to load up the truck?" Makras said. "Who wants to stand up and say [this station] should have a truck empty? Let that person stand up and say this is a good way to run our business."
Hayes-White, sounding for all the world like the matriarch of a dead-broke family on a trip to the amusement park, said there simply wasn't any money to stock up these reserve rigs. Massetani said that fully stocking a fire engine or truck could run well over a million dollars. Hanley scoffed at that estimate and said the department was including the cost of fancy computers and other cutting-edge equpment that drove the price into infeasibility. He claimed that a bare-bones "fire-ready" truck with just ladders, fittings, and hoses could be readied for tens of thousands of dollars.
Makras agreed to hold off his resolution until the department returns with a list of what needs to be on a stripped-down, "fire-ready" reserve truck and how much that would cost by the middle of next month. Let's hope The Big One waits, too.