The Little Engine That Couldn't

Broken-down fire trucks leave Center City vulnerable.

By Mike Newall
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 30, 2006

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Illustration by Paul Hoppe

If you live or work in Center City West, you may want to double check your smoke detectors and rewire any faulty electrical outlets. That's because the fire engine protecting you is a broken-down, stalling, rusted, dented, leaky 20-year-old jalopy with more than 120,000 miles on it.

Still, it's a marked improvement over the previous truck, which was in service until two weeks ago. That one couldn't pump water right.

The firefighters of the Engine Company 43 firehouse station at 2110 Market St. provide fire protection to an area stretching from 32nd to 15th streets, and South to Vine. They're the first responders to Rittenhouse Square and to Parkway apartment buildings, to One Liberty Place, Two Liberty Place, the Mellon Bank Center and the Cira Centre. They protect the Art Museum, the Free Library, the Franklin Institute, the Cathedral and potential terror targets 30th Street Station and Suburban Station.

These are buildings with lots of people, lots of important and expensive stuff, or both.

In early June Engine Company 43's sleek 1998 American LaFrance Squirt truck experienced transmission problems, and was sent to the department's repair shop, where Big John mans the desk.

Big John has a big ledger in which he keeps track of the department's broken trucks. Big John is constantly writing in this book since roughly 90 percent of the department's 24 reserve trucks are either being repaired or are already on the street in place of broken front-line equipment.

The Engine 43 firefighters suspected they'd be getting a junker. They weren't disappointed.

"We just stood there stunned," says one fireman, recalling the moment the 1987 Emergency 1 Pumper with 140,000 miles on its odometer creaked up to the station house.

The truck was dented and rusted. Its cab drooped and sagged. There was no adjusting the driver's seat, the steering wheel shook badly and the gas pedal was as stubborn as a heavy-duty spring. Unnerving shiplike noises emanated from the engine as the truck reversed into the station.

Within minutes the firemen realized the truck's 500-gallon internal tank was leaking. The internal tank holds the water used in the initial stages of fighting a fire. The firemen realized it was leaking when they saw a small lake spread across the station house floor.

Next they noticed the compound pressure gauge was broken. That gauge measures how much water the truck pulls from a hydrant. Without it, a hose crew could run out of water during a fire.

"Can you believe this piece of junk?" said one of the firemen.

One week after arriving at Engine Company 43, the truck failed the "pump test," which evaluates whether a truck's water pressure meets department standards. Adequate water pressure is important to Engine Company 43, which responded to 35 high-rise fires last year.

The firefighters immediately complained to the department.

"Sorry, that's all we got," they were told. "You gotta run with it for now."

The firefighters angrily made do. They spraypainted over the rust. (They accidentally painted over part of the insignia, which now reads "Philadel Fire Department.") A shorter driver stacked phone books on the broken front seat, and others exercised their calf muscles so they could hammer down on the stubborn gas pedal. A garden hose pumped water into the leaky tank.

One recent evening smoke filled the hallways of a Center City high-rise apartment building. Engine Company 43 groaned its way to the scene, leaving a water trail in its path, and parking with a decompressing thud. The setting sun highlighted the dull paint and boxy cab.

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