Gearing up for trouble

Response: County fire officials see a new vehicle increasing efficiency as firefighters deal with emergencies.

July 27, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

As he watched firetrucks overflow with gear over the years, Lt. John Zimmerman began toying with ideas for managing the specialized tools and equipment firefighters need at emergency scenes.

The Howard County firefighter researched vehicle designs in the United States, but found them lacking.

So he turned to Europe, where he found a wide array of cleverly designed, multifunctional vehicles that served as the inspiration for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services' new platform-on-demand truck. Called POD for short, the hook-lift truck carries steel containers outfitted for tackling different kinds of emergencies.

"Over the years, we just kept jamming" equipment into the emergency services vehicle, said Zimmerman, a member of the department's special operations team. "It really became very impractical, and we could never get to any of the steps where we could grow in any of the [emergency response] disciplines we wanted to get into because we didn't have the space."

Zimmerman and other Howard fire officials are optimistic that the POD truck will help meet some of their logistical needs. The concept is steadily gaining interest among fire departments across the country, particularly as first responders train to handle complex homeland security issues, such as chemical, biological and radiological threats, and accumulate more gear. Only a handful of localities around the country have similar vehicles.

"It's a growing way for fire departments to deal with preparedness for major-scale events," said Alan Caldwell, a former volunteer chief in Fairfax County, Va., and director of government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "You can design these things based on your risk assessment and threat assessment, and what you have in your area."

He noted that Howard County - between Baltimore and Washington and close to such potential terrorist targets as the National Security Agency at Fort Meade - is more likely to require such equipment than jurisdictions in most other parts of the country.

In designing the POD truck and the containers, Zimmerman said the county fire service needed a vehicle that could deliver an increasing volume of equipment to a scene, with modular flexibility.

The vehicle is similar to trucks that haul steel containers to ship products overseas. With its rear hook-lift, the truck is able to pull onto its bed a long steel container outfitted with specialized equipment for different emergencies. A powerful crane capable of lifting 7 tons is also mounted on the truck.

The vehicle cost about $425,000 - which includes the truck, the customized containers and much of the supplies and equipment inside. The department contributed $250,000, while the rest came from federal grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, fire officials said.

Deputy Chief Richard Freas, who oversees the fire department's Bureau of Services, said the county replaces about five major pieces of fire apparatus a year, out of an annual capital-expense budget that depends on revenue collected from the county's transfer tax. This year, the county has $1.5 million to spend on buying and replacing equipment, compared with $1.2 million last year, he said.

The department has two containers for the POD truck. Fire officials expect to purchase more.

One container is designed to respond to mass casualty emergencies; it holds medical equipment and supplies for treating 50 people. It also carries a four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle, a diesel generator and a collapsible decontamination tent. The ATV is used to tow supplies and gear into areas where larger vehicles cannot travel.

The other container carries tools and equipment for dealing with collapse situations. Several of its shelves hold shoring materials: strong composite boards that can buttress trenches, and telescoping rods that can support roofs and beams in danger of collapse.

Other shelves contain heavy-duty power tools, from high-powered drills to saws that can slice through wood, concrete and steel. The container is also outfitted with extra tools, spare parts and accessories, as well as a maintenance work station so that when tools break or saw blades need replacing, firefighters can make repairs or adjustments at the scene and put the tools back in service.

The truck is kept at the Rivers Park fire station in Columbia's Kings Contrivance village.

Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia have similar vehicles.

"It's been very useful," said Mark Brady, spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department. "We can ensure that all the equipment that's needed arrives at the same time."

Chief Joseph Herr, head of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said he was initially skeptical of the truck's usefulness. One of his main concerns: What if the truck broke down and the containers couldn't be moved?

But his concerns were assuaged. Other similar trucks can lift the containers, he was told.

"If you only have one of something and there is no redundancy, you could be in trouble," Herr said. "I asked them some pretty pointed questions on it, and they gave me the answers and they did the research. I give them credit for it."

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