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Jury's still out on firefighting 'quints'

City says new rigs work well; union says safety is compromised


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A new quint is demonstrated to the press by Portland Fire & Rescue officials.Controversy about Portland’s newest piece of firefighting equipment is not new. Unions representing firefighters in other cities have criticized the so-called “quints,” which combine the functions of two separate vehicles: a water pumping engine and a ladder truck.

Portland Firefighters Association President Alan Ferschweiler is repeating complaints from other unions when he says the quints compromise public safety. And Fire Commissioner Dan Saltzman is repeating justifications from other cities when he says quints are only one part of the city’s firefighting arsenal.

“I think you have to look at the fact that no fire station is an island. We have 30 fire stations throughout the city and they’re designed to back up each other,” Saltzman said when the city debuted a newly leased quint at a news conference on Aug. 25.

Another city where the controversy is playing out is Memphis, which has acquired four quints during the past 18 months. Memphis Fire Fighters Association President Tom Malone says his members are unhappy with the quints because they do not carry as much water as a conventional engine or as many ladders as a ladder truck.

In addition, Malone says the four-person crew cannot spray water and deploy ladders at the same time, meaning the quints are not true dual-purpose vehicles.

“Quints are sold as being able to do two jobs, but that’s not true in the real world,” Malone says.

But Memphis Fire Department spokesman Lt. Wayne Cooke says the quints are working well in the field.

“We haven’t had any complaints from the crews,” Cooke says.

One reason for switching to quints may help explain the controversy. They save the departments money by reducing the number of on-duty firefighters from eight to four.

“Two crews should always respond to a fire — one crew to put water on it and the other crew to search for survivors,” Ferschweiler says.

But Portland Fire Chief Erin Janssens called the switch a reasonable approach to the budget cuts the Portland Fire & Rescue was facing this year. The City Council also voted to lay off 26 firefighters, but has applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to save their jobs by October.

“With limited resources, I think this is the most equitable response citywide that we can provide,” Janssens said at the news conference.

Quint is short for “quintuple combination pumper.” To most people, it probably looks like any other fire engine or ladder truck. One quint is responding out of the Northeast Portland station. Another is responding out of a North Portland station, in the Kenton neighborhood.

The quints are being leased for $100,000 each. Saltzman says they will be evaluated every few months to see if they are a good fit for Portland.

KOIN News 6 contributed to this story.