H-GOOD QUESTION

Jul 4, 2012 8:44 PM

GQ: Why does San Luis Obispo's long-ladder truck go out on all calls whether there's a fire or not?

The San Luis Obispo Fire Department works out of four stations, dividing the city into four sectors. Three of the stations have fire engines, Station One has a ladder truck. The ladder truck is designed to fight fires so it goes out to all fires in the city. But most of it's five calls a day are for medical emergencies in sector one. That prompted someone to ask this good question: Why send the ladder truck on calls where's there's no fire to fight?

In most good-sized cities, a fire engine responds to emergencies like heart attacks, hazardous material spills, and car accidents. It also goes on fire calls, joined by a ladder truck. But in San Luis Obispo, a new million dollar ladder truck responds to every kind of call. "We combine the qualities of both of those into one apparatus," says Chief Charlie Hines about his department's ladder truck.

The ladder truck is loaded with gear for every crisis: from medical emergencies to water rescues to cutting open a car. Just like a fire engine, it's got ground ladders, pumps, water and hoses. It's also got a 100-foot ladder that can reach places older truck ladders can't, like higher floors and that are set back from the road.

Chief Charlie Hines says using only the ladder truck is cost efficient because he doesn't have to staff two different vehicles. Plus, if a fire engine crew on a medical emergency got a fire call, it would have to return to Station One to get a ladder truck before heading to the fire.

"Most departments have 3 or 4 firefighters on an engine and 3 or 4 firefighters on a ladder truck out of the same station," says Hines. "We're doing both of those with only 4 fire fighters, so there's two less people on the payroll. We have 3 shifts, that's 6 less firefighters on the payroll than other normal fire departments have."

If a firefighter's compensation is rounded off to $100,000 a year, Chief Hines says he's saving $600,000 a year in by staffing only the ladder truck. He says the savings outweigh the cost of maintaining the more expensive ladder truck.

Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Paso Robles, Five Cities and Santa Maria all have ladder trucks, but they don't staff them full time. So the fire crews have to go back and forth from the stations and switch from engines to ladder trucks depending on the emergency.

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