CHARLESTOWN — Six months after Charlestown voters rejected funds to upgrade the fire department’s aging and outmoded second engine, Charlestown Fire Chief Charlie Baraly and Deputy Chief Mark LaFlam said that the price tag for the replacement may be higher by next March, when voters will face the question again. While understanding the overall tax burden felt by residents, Baraly and LaFlam said that there are risks of more substantial costs if the engine isn’t replaced soon.
The department’s second engine, a 1991 American LaFrance, is almost 29 years old, near the end of its life cycle. Its cab’s outmoded design poses a health and safety risk for department members, Baraly said. Replacement parts are expensive and increasingly difficult to find, as the engine manufacturer went out of business in 2014.
Labor costs to repair the engine are also high, due to the lack of mechanics who specialize in older LaFrance models.
“[Cornish mechanic] Larry Dingee said that for this LaFrance, not only would the cost for a new pump be expensive, but that the labor cost would be twice as much as the pump,” LaFlam said.
Baraly said that the engine’s pump was last repacked (replaced with new valves and parts to prevent leakage) about six or seven years ago, but that their repair company, Valley Fire Equipment, in Bradford, said that the next time the pump would need to be completely replaced.
More concerning is the engine’s cab, which has fallen considerably behind modern fire safety standards established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The 1991 LaFrance model has an open cab, in which the cab rear is not enclosed. The NFPA now requires all vehicle cabs to be fully enclosed.
Barely said that firefighters riding in the back are exposed to the elements and unsafe sound levels — of 85 decibels or higher — created by the wind, siren and engine, which is built alongside the rear cab.
The seats also lack shoulder harnesses (also out of regulation with NFPA policy), and LaFlam said that unlike modern fully-enclosed cabs, if the 1991 LaFrance overturned the cab would be crushed on impact.
“Could we build an enclosed cab?” Baraly said. “Yes. But to do that for an engine this old is pouring money down the drain.”
Keeping two operational pumper engines is essential to keeping the department’s current fire rating, a score based on the ability of fire departments to put out fires in that community, which insurers use to determine homeowners’ insurance rates.
LaFlam said that last March he stood outside the polling station with information, to communicate that the additional $20 per tax bill to fund the engine upgrade would pale in comparison to the cost of each person’s homeowners insurance spike if the department lost its current rating.
In March Charlestown voters rejected the article to fund the purchase of a new engine, at a cost of $550,000. Baraly said that by next March, that same engine may cost $600,000, due to a combination of an average annual price growth and U.S. tariffs.
Prices increase each year by an average of 3%, Baraly said. However, costs added by current U.S. tariffs may increase the engine’s price by 8%, or higher if the White House pushes through additional tariffs under consideration.
Baraly said that the town warrant in March may also require voters to consider a bond for town building repair, which the town Capital Improvements Committee intended to put on last year’s warrant but postponed until next year.
Last year Baraly did not initially plan to request the new engine because of the bond anticipation, because he did not believe that voters would be willing to pass both the bond and engine request. When the bond request was postponed, Baraly brought their specs and proposal to the town finance committee, though the finance committee said that they did not have sufficient time to review the information, according to Baraly.
For the next town warrant, Baraly and LaFlam said that they will renew their request for a new engine regardless of whether or not the warrant includes the other bond request.
“We understand the economic issues affecting our residents,” LaFlam said. “But in order to meet the safety needs of our firefighters, we have to provide them with the proper equipment.”
Baraly is encouraged by a decision this year by members of the Finance Committee to establish a town vehicle committee, who will look at each department’s vehicles to create a schedule of replacements. This will hopefully allow the town to manage ongoing costs for vehicle turnover, Baraly said.
LaFlam said that ideally the fire department’s vehicles — particularly its two engines and water tanker — should be replaced every eight years, given the average longevity of 20-to 25 years for modern apparatus.