Tulsa Fire Department blames city for allowing $4.5M in new trucks to not be used for 18 months

TULSA - It was December 31, 2011. Firefighters were ringing in the new year battling a blaze in north Tulsa. Then suddenly, one of their own needed rescue.

"Breathed in a lot of gases at a house fire and we actually had to revive him in the front yard. He spent several days in the hospital," said Stan May, a Tulsa Fire Department spokesman.

The Tulsa Fire Department and city leaders made it a priority to figure out what happened to Tulsa firefighter James O'Neal that day. TFD believed the breathing apparatus that firefighters use may have malfunctioned. So while O'Neal fought for his life in the hospital, employees in the TFD equipment management department went to work taking apart every one of the department's 400 breathing apparatuses.

"The fire chief, the mayor, they decided we needed to rebuild all of them, [to] make sure this doesn't happen again," said May.

But that diligence had repercussions of its own: while crews sifted through its pile of breathing tools, other work was put on hold, including the outfitting of three brand new fire trucks.

The process, which usually takes only three months, has been delayed about a year, according to May. And without the proper installations, those ladder trucks -- each of which cost the city $1.4 million -- sat unused from April 2012 to this past October.

And while those trucks were parked, Tulsa firefighters were forced to put even further strain on the stations' older engines.

"[The trucks] start to become unreliable. The maintenance is terribly expensive on them," May said. "We started spending more money on maintenance than we would've payments on a new truck."

The worst of it? May says a single hire could have prevented the delay.

"If we would've had another employee to attend to that, we would've been right on schedule with what we normally do," he said.

According to May, the fire department has asked the city for an extra maintenance employee for the past several years with no success.

Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, who spoke heavily of job creation throughout his recent campaign and during his second-term inauguration ceremony Monday, confirmed the fire department has requested extra help in the past but bristled at the question.

"That's true. They could do better but can we afford it?" he said. "If they want somebody and they make a good case for it, that's great, but tell me where we're going to get the savings to pay for it."

And as the City of Tulsa remains on a hiring freeze, Bartlett says a new position means cuts elsewhere.

Still, Mayor Bartlett says the city is making some changes to the maintenance department. In October, it moved a shift. Bartlett says that made it so a mechanic is at the shop more hours of the day.

"We're still making changes, and it's going to be a better-reacting department, I can assure you that," Bartlett said.

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