EASTHAM — Fire Chief Kent Farrenkopf is looking to add a ladder truck to his department’s resources. Twenty-three years ago, one saved his life.
In 1997, when he was a Harwich firefighter, Farrenkopf rode to a four-alarm blaze at Brackett Road and Route 6 in Eastham. “I was ordered to the roof to ventilate,” he told the select board and finance committee on Feb. 3. With no ladder truck at the scene, Farrenkopf and his captain propped a ladder against the building and climbed up with a chainsaw. They pulled up some planks and “pitch-black” smoke enveloped them.
“We were trapped on that roof with no way down,” Farrenkopf said. He didn’t know that a ladder truck from another department had arrived, and that a firefighter visiting from Boston had warned, “You’re going to lose those guys unless you get that up to the roof.”
“It was like something out of a movie,” the chief said. “The ladder came through this fire and smoke. … Ladders are very close to my heart. That ladder saved my life.”
Two decades later, Eastham still has to rely on neighboring fire departments for a ladder truck, either Wellfleet’s aged vehicle or one from Orleans that is often busy on calls there. That’s why the chief is asking to tap $1,087,540 in ambulance fund revenues for a new multipurpose truck known as a quint. Carrying a water tank, pumps, hose, ground ladders, and an aerial device, a quint is “the Swiss Army knife of apparatus,” said Deputy Chief Daniel Keane.
“It’s not for height, it’s for reach,” Keane said. “You need to be in front of a building and have access.” Currently, if a ladder truck is called from another town, the Eastham apparatus that was first to respond has to back out to let it in. “Quicker access to the front of the building is our priority,” the deputy said.
The extendable ladder will put personnel over the roof so they can battle the fire from the top down. “We have never been able to attack a fire from above,” Keane said. “The reason we’re on the roof is to cut holes to create a chimney and vent the roof. We have to climb up there in all weather conditions. It’s part of the job, probably the most dangerous part.”
Keane said the “bare bones” new truck, listed in the capital budget to be approved at town meeting, would be acquired under a buy-to-lease arrangement with 10 years of $108,754 annual payments from ambulance receipts.
“There are net-zero tax implications on residents,” he said. “The benefits include a safe, reliable work platform, a multi-tool [vehicle], less reliance on mutual aid, and increased ISO ratings [leading to lower insurance costs]. A lot of people will save a lot of money. … Everything will become much more safe for the fire dept. and residents.”
When asked about buying a used ladder truck, Farrenkopf said, “You do not get rid of a million-dollar piece unless it’s got problems. I’m not interested in buying another problem.” The chief noted that while the proposal is to pay for the truck over 10 years, “the lifetime is 25. That’s not to say that we may have to go out in 18 years for maintenance.”
Staffing the new vehicle won’t be a problem, the chief said, but he noted that he’s continuing to rely on overtime in the absence of new recruits. “We had five or six postings to hire people,” he said. “We’re unable to get people to take the jobs. It’s very puzzling to me. I had 82 people competing for my job as fireman when I came on [in the 1980s].”
Farrenkopf said he can’t compete with the Hyannis Fire Dept., which is in the midst of hiring four recruits a year for three years. He said another department in Barnstable, Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills, offers a starting salary almost $18,000 higher and chips in a higher percentage of health insurance.
“And the housing is cheaper,” he added. “It’s always been that way. … The people we are holding onto are the people from here, Capies. They say, ‘I want to stay close to where I grew up.’ ”