Mayor proposes cuts at Station 11

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - 11:33
Ladder truck could get the axe
Ladder truck 11 sits outside the Anchorage Fire Department Station 11 in Eagle River on Saturday, Oct. 6. Mayor Dan Sullivan has proposed cutting funding for the truck and its three-person crew.

When a kayaker found himself trapped beneath a log in the raging Eagle River last month, dozens of specialized emergency personnel sprung into action in a highly choreographed maneuver that resulted in a dramatic life-saving rescue.

Some fear this kind of operation will be made more difficult — if not impossible — if Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan’s plan to cut a ladder truck from Eagle River Station 11 passes the Anchorage Assembly.

“Obviously my top issue is that Station 11 truck,” said assemblywoman Debbie Ossiander.

On Wednesday, Mayor Sullivan said the decision to propose cutting the ladder truck came about because of an analysis done by the department to look at the number of calls each piece of equipment is used on. Because of Eagle River’s low call volume, the truck was identified as a possible cost-saving cut.

“All the choices were difficult choices,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan emphasized that the budgetary process is far from finished, and that the public will have ample opportunity to weigh in.

“This is literally the very first step in the process,” he said.

Every cut hurts, he said, but in order to balance an estimated budget shortfall of $18-30 million, all departments will have to take some of the burden.

“That’s what makes all these choices difficult,” he said.

Sullivan revealed his proposed 2013 budget last week. There are two different packages — one containing about $30 million in cuts and another with about $18 million. However, both would remove the Station 11 ladder truck and its three-person crew from the muni’s budget.

But just what would that mean for Eagle River? Exactly what does a ladder truck actually do?

It’s not just a big truck with a ladder on it, that’s for sure.

Although the truck is instantly identified by the 80-foot ladder on its roof, Capt. Allan Kara of Station 11 explained recently that there’s far more that the ladder truck is responsible for.

When there’s a fire, Kara explained, the ladder truck crew has very specific duties. While the fire engine attacks the fire with water, the ladder truck crew is responsible for ventilating the structure. The crew is also in charge of going into the building to find possible victims.

“Searching is one of the most dangerous things we do,” Kara said.

In Eagle River, the next-closest department is about 15 minutes away. Having both an engine and a ladder truck means Station 11 can spring into action immediately without having to wait for additional personnel from the city.

“It’s going to change our tactics and strategy pretty dramatically,” Kara said.

Kara compared firefighters to a football team. He said if a team has to go without several key players, things break down very quickly.

The ladder truck is also used for several other specialized tasks, Kara said. The truck is equipped with far more vehicle extraction equipment, meaning anyone needing to be quickly removed from a vehicle could find themselves with a much longer wait.

“We have minimal tools on the engine to do extractions,” Kara said. “The truck company is the ones that cut up the car.”

Finally, the ladder truck is invaluable in swiftwater rescues, Kara said. Those operations — like the one that saved the kayaker last month — require many people to pull off safely. Personnel are needed both upstream of the actual rescuers and downstream, as well as on shore.

“Some of the swiftwater operations are very person intensive,” he said.

Ossiander said she plans to fight the cut as hard as possible. A similar proposal in 2010 managed to avoid the budget axe, and she’s hoping the same thing happens this time. She said she plans to stress the truck’s special abilities as reasons why it’s needed in Eagle River.

“What we did before was try to emphasize the unique capabilities of that truck and how it’s linked to the terrain out here,” she said.

Kara pointed out that the truck is equipped with all-wheel steering, meaning it can get into the kind of tight spots found in Eagle River’s hilly, semi-rural landscape.

“It can almost sit here and do 360s,” Kara said.

The public will have a chance to weigh in on the proposed budget on Oct. 23 and 30 during hearings scheduled by the assembly.

The budget must be approved by the assembly before any cuts are final.

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