A Colorado Springs police detective was driving his unmarked 2006 Chevy Impala down Powers Boulevard last week on his way to investigate a potential homicide when the front airbags suddenly exploded.
The force cracked the windshield and sprained the detective's thumb, but he was able to safely pull over, said Joseph Curro, who monitors CSPD's fleet of vehicles.
There had been no prior indication the vehicle was unfit, but it had undergone extensive front-end repairs after a collision with a deer in July 2016, Curro said. At the time, the department considered scrapping the car, which was 10 years old - two years past the recommended replacement age. But, with dozens of other vehicles higher on the replacement list, the department decided to make the repairs.
It's the type of prioritizing that police and fire officials say they're faced with daily to stretch limited budgets. While both departments stressed all of their vehicles are safe, as determined through regular service checks, many are becoming increasingly less reliable.
Earlier this year, a Gold Hill patrol officer at the end of her shift pulled into the secure lot to unload equipment into her personal vehicle when the cruiser, which had been flagged for problems in the past, popped into gear and started rolling away. She tried to stop it, injuring her leg, but it crashed into the exit gate, which still hangs bent and battered on its hinges.
Officers told Curro they no longer trust the cruiser, which finally put it out of commission. It's one of at least 11 vehicles now considered totaled and scheduled for replacement next year, he said.
With another 156 vehicles in service that have long surpassed cutoffs for replacement - some by more than five times the age recommendation and double the mileage - and 200 more that have met or exceeded at least one of those recommendations, compromises must be made. Bringing the fleet up to date would take millions of dollars the city and department don't have.
"The guidelines are just guidelines," Curro said, scanning a spreadsheet listing age and mileage for all 585 cars in the police department's fleet. "I've got a 2004 Chevy Impala with over 80,000 miles. Is that going to be replaced? Probably not. I'm going to defer that another year. But this 2003 Ford Crown (Victoria) with 173,986 miles used by a Community Service officer is at the top of my list."
The Fire Department is in a similar situation, with 55 vehicles in its fleet of 200 eligible for replacement, though active firefighting apparatus are no more than six years past the 17-year replacement recommendation. While the "fleet is currently operational," there is still need to upgrade the "critical tools" that keep staff and the community safe, Battalion Chief Steve Wilch said.
"Reliability and safety are the primary concern for vehicle operation," Wilch said. "The engines pump water to firefighters, the trucks have aerial ladders that perform rescues and elevate fire streams for reach and penetration. ... It is important that the front line apparatus are ready to respond at all times."
Like most of the city's departments, police and fire agencies fell behind on fleet replacement during the economic downturn in 2007 and 2008. One year, money was so tight Curro said the Police Department wasn't budgeted money at all.
Now, agencies are playing catch-up.
The city increased the 2018 fleet replacement budget by $1.2 million, allotting just over $2 million to police and $1.3 million to fire. That equates to about 60 new vehicles for police, half of them patrol cruisers, and five and a half for fire.
The recent passage of the stormwater fee, which frees up city dollars for public safety needs, is not expected to increase those budgets, at least not in 2018, a city spokeswoman said. Mayor John Suthers already has pledged that money to hiring 20 police officers and nine fire personnel.
While 60 vehicles is "more than we've seen (in one year) in a long time," it still leaves 97 vehicles in queue for replacement, with several dozen more expected to cross the red line next year, Curro said. And unexpected events like intentional ramming incidents, which are "becoming more prevalent," and freak accidents like Monday's airbag deployment just push other vehicles further down the line, he said.
The department currently has 21 vehicles awaiting repairs at the city's body shop, he said.
Sometimes, totaled or troubled vehicles are stripped for parts to be used in other deteriorating cars. Though it's a practice that Curro criticized, it happens "more than I would like to see," he said. Some years, they've opted for fresh coats of paint instead of replacements. Last year, the department declined to repair dents and dings in some of the older vehicles damaged during the July hail storm, using the insurance money to purchase 12 cars more than their budget allowed.
"Yes, it doesn't look good, and we get citizen complaints, and cops don't like it, but we wouldn't be fiscally responsible if we repaired every car," Curro said.
The Fire Department also has sacrificed, choosing to refurbish 10 fire engines and three aerial trucks instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new vehicles. But now it has nine active apparatus three to six years past their recommended replacement age. Reserve apparatus are even older, though Wilch said they can remain in service up to 30 years.
Alleviating some worries, the department plans to purchase a fire engine, wildland engine, SUV and two support trucks next year. It also is setting aside $500,000 in 2018 and 2019 to purchase a new aerial truck that will be delivered in 2020, Wilch said.
Evidence labs mobile but dated
The good news, even the older fire engines have relatively low mileage. Engine 3, for example, has been in service 21 years yet has less than 125,000 miles. The oldest apparatus, all reserve vehicles now, are 24 years old, but have between 75,000 and 180,000 miles, fewer than many of the newer trucks actively running in the city, records show.
But as police Crime Scene Investigator Amanda Kimball said about the second oldest vehicles in the department's fleet - two 20-year-old crime lab vans with only 30,000 miles: "The mileage doesn't really reflect the wear and tear."
Parts of the lab trucks, like the steps meant to make hauling evidence into the back easier, are folded up and rusted in place. The batteries require replacing often and die quickly on scenes when staff isn't careful about how long they charge their equipment. Some of the storage compartments holding tools on the outside of the trucks are so rusted they no longer lock, creating a security issue. And the trucks are too small to transport larger pieces of evidence, like mattresses.
It still "runs fine," Kimball said, but it's not reliable or up to date with today's needs. One of the trucks is expected to be replaced next year.
"For crime scene investigators, this is like our toolbox," Kimball said.
As inflation, technological advances and equipment costs continue to drive up vehicle costs, police and fire officials fear it will only become more costly to update the fleet the longer they wait. And with both departments pushing to increase staffing - police by more than 100 officers in the next 10 years - the need only grows.
Even the class of 62 police recruits that entered the academy in July is worrisome, Curro said. While that number is now down to 54, Curro still wonders whether there will be enough vehicles to go around once those officers hit the streets on their own.
The long answer is it depends on how they're divvied up among the four divisions and the impact it has on experienced officers, who may be pulled to specialized units. Some of those units do have a spare vehicle, but most do not, Curro said.
The shorter answer: "Probably not," he said. He estimates the department needs to increase the fleet by at least 15 vehicles - increase, not just replace - to be comfortable.
"My concern is already 2019," Curro said.
Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362
Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin