City Beat

Fresno’s fire shop tries to catch up with the times

The Fresno Fire Department is finally on its way to a repair shop fit for the 21st century.

Deciding what the shop looks like — now that will be a barn-burner.

The current shop dates back to the last days of the horse-and-buggy era. It’s so small that mechanics must move ladder trucks out into the elements to work on them.

But the City Council by adopting Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s new budget gave Chief Kerri Donis the green light to begin fixing things. She and other city officials have sent word to the consulting industry that they want to hire an expert to come up with ideas for a new shop’s design and funding.

Three consulting firms submitted contract proposals by Tuesday’s deadline. A new fire shop (as the chief calls it) may be several years away, but a key step has been taken.

“This has been on our radar for more than 10 years,” Donis says. “We’ve outgrown that shop many years over. It’s time for a state-of-the-art shop appropriate for a city of this size.”

City Manager Bruce Rudd says the shop and the fleet it services are the foundation for effective fire service.

“That foundation needs work,” Rudd says.

Fire equipment mechanic Dave Aguilar explains how this sentiment applies to Fresno’s half-million people: “If I can’t do my job properly, then the firefighters can’t do theirs.”

No one suggests the current shop’s shortcomings have compromised public safety. At the same time, city officials say there’s no sense in ignoring the law of averages.

The fire shop is housed in a 100-year-old building next to Station 3, on the southeast corner of Fresno and E streets. A narrow alley separates shop and station. Workers digging there several years ago unearthed several horseshoes, remnants from the days when the fire shop doubled as horse stables.

The Fire Department has a substantial fleet. There are about 60 fire engines and ladder trucks, some stationed on the front lines, others held in reserve. Then there are about 50 support vehicles, ranging from your standard pickup to specialty trucks to aid firefighters in the field.

Several factors complicate this scene:

▪ Just about everything, but especially fire engines and ladder trucks, is a complex piece of machinery.

▪ Just about everything is pivotal to an effective fire department, hence the shop’s 24/7/365 operating schedule.

▪ The wear and tear on machines is substantial. Firefighters so far this year have responded to more than 21,000 calls for service and fought more than 1,000 fires of all sizes.

▪ The Great Recession is over but not all that far in the past. City departments across the board are rebuilding. Police and fire, almost always at the top of City Hall’s pecking order, must share in relatively scarce funding.

But just any building won’t cut it as a fire-shop replacement.

Then again, even loyal fire horses might balk at a return to the current building.

The fire shop has a two-story parts room in back. Somebody every summer hooks up a portable air conditioner and sticks it in the doorway. There’s no way the cool air ever gets to the second-floor recesses.

The service bay has room for two fire engines. The cabs must be tilted for mechanics to get into the innards. The cabs at full tilt graze the ceiling’s support structure.

Forget about full tilt on the ladder trucks. That work must be done outside, whether it’s 110 degrees or raining.

A new fire shop, Donis says, “is way overdue.”

The biggest question, of course, is cost. That’s far down the road. The more immediate challenge is deciding what needs to be changed.

Rudd says the consultants will dig into everything, with a focus on staffing, administrative responsibility and shop location. For example, Rudd says, the fire shop might move a mile north to the City Yard, where the city’s immense fleet of cars, trucks and buses is serviced.

The fire shop is just one part of the Swearengin administration’s effort to rebuild a fire department hammered by the Great Recession.

There was a time not long ago when the department had six two-company (fire engine and ladder truck) “houses.” Then there was none. Donis will soon have a second two-company house and expects to have a total of four by the end of 2016.

The administration and City Council have committed to an eight-year replacement cycle for fire engines and ladder trucks. The department at one point was forced to nurse selected ladder trucks through a 16-year life span.

The Fire Department’s repair seems to be happening at a dizzying pace. Donis says actually it’s just the beginning.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” the chief says.

George Hostetter: 559-441-6272, @GeorgeHostetter