By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune
When the alarm sounds, Powell Volunteer Fire Department vehicles come to the rescue looking new and shiny. Even after fighting wildland fires off-road, it’s rare to catch a glimpse of the equipment looking anything but perfect.
After the fire is out, but before returning to their jobs and families, volunteers often take the time to clean. The effort is partly pride, but mostly to make hard-fought for equipment last.
“We take a lot of pride in our fleet,” said Powell Fire Chief Dustin Dicks. “We keep them on an amortization schedule so we don’t end up with an aging fleet and have to replace multiple trucks in the same year.”
Every piece of specialized equipment is expensive: fire trucks alone cost Powell taxpayers between $200,000 and $750,000 each. The department was due to buy a new tanker this year. It would have replaced a 1987 model still in use but needing repairs. But with a price tag of about $450,000, the Powell fire district’s board decided to put the purchase on hold.
“We have it on the depreciation schedule, but with the economy and all that, we chose not to do it this year. We’ll revisit it next year,” said board president Bear May.
The 34-year-old tanker looks fresh and is only on the road about 1,000 miles a year. It’s garage-kept and has all the maintenance records. It would be a dream vintage find if it weren’t such a specialty item, yet the department will be lucky to unload it.
The department has 10 trucks, said Dicks, including three tankers, two pumpers, two brush trucks (with one doubling as an extrication truck), two extrication/rescue trucks, and one support truck that serves as a command post. If they weren’t tucked away out of the elements in the heated bays at the station, it might look like a car lot.
Unfortunately, even if the vehicles were sitting out front with a for sale sign in the window, used equipment is a hard sell. In an effort to sell the department’s used tanker, district administrator Kenny Skalsky, the department’s only full-time employee, created a mailer and sent out more than a hundred of the flyers to prospective buyers. But there were no takers.
“There’s a ton of trucks for sale and nobody is buying,” May said.
The department often sells its used equipment to smaller departments with less cash, like those in Clark or Ten Sleep. The Powell district offers to help by selling the equipment for pennies on the dollar and even financing the purchases. Without interest from a local department, though, the only options left are selling equipment to freelance firefighting teams, local farmers looking for a water truck or someone willing to transform the trucks into a different type of tool.
Ten years ago the department purchased its “snozzle” truck for nearly $750,000. It’s still in great shape, but it won’t be long before the board is forced to go shopping. It takes a long time to save tax proceeds to afford the bigger trucks, and prices continue to rise for new models. And even at the high prices, there’s a waiting list of a year or longer.
“We’ve got a great fleet of trucks out here, one of the best,” May said. “I’m proud of what we have. We can go anywhere and do anything; we can go anywhere. And we take good care of them.”
Tax dollars are used to buy all the equipment, from the bunkers the volunteers wear to the hoses and the fleet. In the fiscal year that began July 1 and runs through June 30, 2022, Park County Fire District 1 expects to receive $503,322 in property taxes to help support a $600,2000 budget.
There’s a large list of expenses that might not be obvious. For instance, the department spent more than $20,000 on a new thermal imager this year. The equipment is an upgraded model allowing firefighters to find hotspots while fighting fires.
Bunkers (firefighting clothing) always need to be replaced. Firefighters finally were outfitted with lightweight wildland fire suits recently, allowing crew members to work in the heat of summer.
“Traditional bunkers are about 75 pounds,” May said. “When we’re out there fighting wildland fires and it’s 100 degrees, the new gear will keep the guys from getting heat stroke.”
There are also requirements for periodic testing of equipment — everything from hoses and tips to the air used to fill self-contained breathing apparatus.
“We drop the pump on every truck, we test every hose,” May said. “Just for our air, it cost us quite a bit. Every quarter, it’s quite a bit of money to have somebody come in and test the air that we put in our air bottles.”
Two years ago the department was retrofitted with a sprinkler system and fire alarms after decades of going without. A blaze similar to the one that destroyed a large chunk of the Powell school district’s bus barn last year could devastate fire response in the Powell area, May said.
The board has fought hard to keep the fleet in shape, and wants to ensure firefighters have the safest equipment available.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to take care of these guys because they’re volunteers, you know, we want them to have the best stuff,” May said. “Every one of the board members has their backs.”