TUSAYAN, Ariz. — It’s a typical warm summer morning in northern Arizona, but inside the engine bays at the Tusayan Fire Department, the air is heavier, warmer and smells strongly of diesel fuel.
Fire Chief Greg Brush places the palm of his hand on the hood of Engine 51, the department’s all-purpose utility apparatus. Today, it’s running. Tomorrow, he’s not so sure.
The truck, a 2002 Ford F550, is the department’s workhorse. It’s the first unit dispatched on most calls – including medical calls, structure fires, smaller wildland fires and traffic accidents – from Grand Canyon all the way to Valle.
Brush said the truck’s age, appearance and even mileage aren’t that troubling, at a glance. But take a look underneath the hood, both figuratively and literally, and you’ll see a host of problems that need to be solved.
“It doesn’t have a ton of miles, but they’re tough miles, going down these washboard roads at high speeds,” Brush said. “Almost every system is starting to fail. She’s just used up.”
For starters, the unit is overweight with only basic, necessary equipment. There have been shorts in the electrical system, battery charging failures, pump engagement and control panel problems, leaking rear wheel seals that took several attempts by both department staff and a diesel mechanic to repair and a bent rear axle that had to be replaced.
At this rate, Brush said he’s concerned about the potential effects on the department’s ability to perform its duties.
Brush estimated the truck responds to anywhere from 95 to 98 percent of all incidents called in to the department. That means when there’s a breakdown, firefighters have to move equipment to a smaller vehicle mainly used for fighting brush fires. That process can take two or three hours, he said, leaving a window where the department may be delayed to an incident.
“Any time we take this (vehicle) out of service, we have to swap all the gear onto an inferior truck,” he said. “The pump is not as high capacity, it doesn’t have the same storage … it gets by, but it’s in even worse shape than this one.”
Aside from the strain of having its primary vehicle out of commission, constant repairs also strain the department’s budget. There’s the cost of the repairs, but there’s also the cost of calling in additional personnel to drive the truck to a dealership in Flagstaff. Because of those concerns, Brush said most of the department’s staff tries to repair issues that arise themselves.
“We try to avoid taking it (to Flagstaff) because we’re looking at several hundred dollars just to get it there,” he said. “We do what we can in house.”
Although the truck needs to be replaced badly, Brush said the probability of that happening any time soon is fairly low.
The department applies for several grants each year for equipment, but only two of them award enough money to replace an entire apparatus, which can cost up to $500,000 for a brand new equipped vehicle. The main grant the department applies for, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), only awards two apparatus grants per year, per state.
Although he’s still waiting to hear if the department is a lucky recipient of any of the grants it has applied for, Brush said he’s grateful for the support he’s received from other agencies and the town of Tusayan, which boosts the department’s budget by paying for most of the payroll.
“The town gives us that money for payroll assistance and it’s huge,” he said. “We would be shut down without it.”
Tusayan residents also voted last year to keep a tax override, allowing the department to collect more tax money temporarily. The department recently received a small grant from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to purchase a tool that alerts firefighters to the presence of toxic or flammable gasses.
Missing from the garage today is Ladder 51, which was dispatched to another repair shop in Flagstaff after mechanics found puddles of oil and antifreeze pooling underneath. The ladder apparatus was purchased for the department by the town of Tusayan in 2013, and Brush said he was looking to replace some parts on it to keep it running. It’s the department’s largest-capacity water pump and the only ladder truck in the Grand Canyon area. That means if a structure, like a hotel, were to catch fire and guests could not be evacuated through the ground floor, Ladder 51 is the only truck in the area that could safely evacuate them from the upper floors.
Brush said the department was looking at rebuilding the truck’s engine, which would cost around $25,000. By the end of the day, however, he received even worse news — the cost to rebuild the engine and get the truck in operating condition exceeds the department’s budget, along with the value of the truck.
“We’re unfortunately down one apparatus,” he said.
The department will continue to step up efforts in the face of a dangerously dry fire season.
Firefighter Stephanie Root said the department has been engaging in more patrol activity along with the National Forest Service looking for illegal campfires in the forest. Although the area has been in Stage 2 fire restrictions for weeks, Root said they still come across abandoned campfires.
Root and Brush said educating visitors and even residents about the current fire restrictions is a high priority.
“This morning, we heard from a local hotel that some of the guests were flicking their cigarette butts out,” Brush said.
To make sure everyone is aware, Brush said the department developed flyers to hang on every doorknob in town as a reminder to guests and residents alike. The town of Tusayan purchased the flyers and their interns distributed them last week.
Brush expressed his appreciation for Tusayan residents as well.
“They’ve been keeping an eye out for potential fires, which is crucial to keeping the town safe,” he said.