SF Fire Department needs $28.1 million to replace aging vehicles 

click to enlarge Adam Guerrero
  • Juan Pardo/special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Machinist Adam Guerrero works at the Fire Department’s central shop in the Bayview, which does regular maintenance on the aging fleet.
After 15 years and over 200,000 miles on the road, most ambulances would call it a career.

That’s especially true for one with a crack in the frame above a front wheel well — the result of both age and hard driving over possibly the toughest topography of any American city.

But in San Francisco, that ambulance will keep rolling.

After a brief pit stop to weld the crack at the Fire Department’s Fleet Management Shop on Jerrold Avenue in the Bayview district, that 1999 ambulance is back on the road — and could be the one making the siren noises you hear every day.

A series of lean city budget years and a preference for spending on personnel over gear means that the SFFD’s collection of engines, trucks and ambulances are on the road well past their normal service lives, according to Fire Department records.

A fire engine or ambulance should be in service for a maximum of 15 years — 10 as a front-line everyday vehicle and five in reserve.

But of The City’s 300 Fire Department vehicles in service, about 30 are 15 years old or older, according to Assistant Deputy Chief Ken Lombardi

Many of these are on the front line, and some rigs better suited for museums — like the 1991 ladder truck waiting for service at the Jerrold Avenue shop on a recent morning — still traverse the streets.

While the vehicles are kept in working order through constant repair and are safe, “Ideally, we’d like to get rid of them,” Lombardi said.

But with another fire station opening up in Mission Bay in the fall, and nothing else to put on the road, there’s not much of a choice.

This is nothing new. With 40 vehicles 15 years or older in service in 2007, the Fire Commission set an ambitious purchasing goal: 18 new aerial trucks, 31 new engines and 20 new ambulances over the next four years. Engines are vehicles that pump water, while trucks sport ladders, including the aerial ones used to reach high-story windows.

Things have fallen a little short. In that time frame, the department has received 10 new trucks, 15 engines and 15 ambulances. It hit that number thanks to a big purchase in better budget times last year of 10 engines and six trucks, Lombardi said.

Getting all the old vehicles off the road would require $28.1 million, Fire Commission records show. That’s the bill for 10 new trucks, 20 new engines and 35 new ambulances.

With a $163 million citywide budget shortfall projected over the next two years, the Fire Department — like all other city agencies — is being asked to cut its $332 million budget by 1.5 percent.

Mayor Ed Lee is adding firefighters and paramedics to the department, which had its ranks frozen by years of canceled academy classes, over the next six years.

As for equipment needs, it will be “worked out as part of the budget process,” according to mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey, but Lee will ensure firefighters “can protect life and property, which they’re doing now.”

“Every year the mayor makes sure that public-safety departments have what they need to fulfill their mission,” she added. “This year will be no different.”

In a way, the Fire Department chose this situation. When picking what to cut during repeated shortfalls during the Great Recession, department brass trimmed maintenance rather than personnel.

And rather than fill its ranks with cheaper newcomers, the department uses veterans on overtime to meet mandated staffing levels.

The department’s money woes go beyond its vehicle fleet. In 2010, a review of The City’s 50 Fire Department properties revealed $350 million in deferred maintenance needs for such things as rotting floors and collapsing ceilings.

In 2010, the department got $70 million via a voter-approved bond. That means there’s still several hundred million dollars in improvements — like 100 new station doors for all 41 stations ($5 million) and 40 new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems ($17 million) — left to do.

“Everything is old,” Lombardi said, ticking off the list of outmoded equipment: station doors that won’t open if the power goes out, ventilation systems not up to standards, four roofs that need replacing and 10 boilers.

Voters could approve another $85 million bond in June. But that’s all for capital needs — none of the funding can go to equipment.

Whatever money The City’s firefighters do get, “We’ll have no trouble spending it,” Lombardi said.

Fleet of tomorrow

About 10 percent of the Fire Department’s 300 vehicles have been in service for longer than their recommended functional service life of 15 years. To field a fleet of newer, modern vehicles, the department needs $28.1 million.


Trucks: 18

Engines: 31

Ambulances: 20


Trucks: 10

Engines: 15

Ambulances: 15

Sources: Fire Commission, Fire Department

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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