Two Colorado Springs firefighters sent to the hospital recently for suspected carbon monoxide poisoning are proof the department needs to update its aging fleet, the local firefighters union says.
Three times in a two-week span starting in December, firefighters working on Engine 6 reported feeling sick after suspected exposure to carbon monoxide within the cab of the truck, the Colorado Springs Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 5 President Dave Noblitt said.
The Fire Department confirmed the incidents.
“Your family deserves better,” an IAFF Facebook post about the exposure said. “Until our public safety needs are met, you can count on your Colorado Springs Firefighters to continue to sound the alarm to ensure a #SaferSprings for your family and ours.”
The first incident was reported on Dec. 20 as the crew was returning to its station off of North Union Boulevard. One firefighter complained of a headache while his supervisor had trouble punching information into his computer, Deputy Fire Chief Steven Dubay said.
The firefighters were sent to the hospital where one showed elevated levels of carbon monoxide in his blood, Dubay said. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that can be toxic to humans in high doses, causing symptoms such as a headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and blurred vision.
During an inspection, mechanics repaired two areas on the 1996 truck where exhaust was leaking into the cab, a work order showed, and the truck was returned to duty.
Two weeks later, one of the firefighters again reported feeling sick on runs, though Dubay said another round of tests did not show elevated concentrations of carbon monoxide in his blood.
That time, mechanics found “nothing to indicate there was a problem” with the truck, Dubay said. Still, they sent it to MHC Kenworth’s repair shop for a second opinion. Kenworth also found no exhaust issues, but it did make $950 in repairs for an oil leak, an issue that work orders show had been reported to department mechanics six times over the last year.
The engine has since been retired to the reserve fleet and replaced by a 2018 engine as part of what Dubay said was a scheduled upgrade — the department recommends replacing major apparatus after 17 years.
But the firefighters union argued in a Facebook post that the “out of date and unsafe fire engine” from 1996 put crews at risk. IAFF also worried about future problems with the six other apparatus in the aging fleet of 22 that also date back to the ’90s or early 2000s.
“Some trucks are so old that when there are mechanical issues the manufacturer has to go back and do a custom build because they no longer make those parts,” Noblitt said.
The department wants to replace aging apparatus but doesn’t always have the funding to do so, Noblitt said. Fire engines which pump water cost about $500,000. Firetrucks, with ladders attached, cost about $1 million, records show.
The city, in recent years, has committed to helping the department update the fleet, but in stages and as the strained budget affords — additional funds also have been allocated to hire more police and firefighters and boost salaries.
Last year, the department purchased three new engines, and this year it’s getting four, though two are being paid for by the Cimmaron Hills Fire Department and the Colorado Centre Metropolitan District as a part of mutual response agreements.
Each upgrade helps, Noblitt said, but in some cases it feels too little too late.
“We should have started this four years ago so that we wouldn’t have gotten ourselves into a situation where our apparatus is 20-21 years old,” Noblitt said.
Dubay disagreed with Noblitt’s conclusion that the age of the fleet poses a safety risk to employees. He called the carbon monoxide exposure a “fluke” that had nothing to do with the engine’s age.
“If it works and it’s functional, is it outdated?” Dubay said. “Do you replace your washer and dryer just because it has reached a certain age? … Just using the date of the manufacturer is not a good indicator (for replacement).”
Regardless, the Fire Department is committed to assessing vehicles and replacing them as the budget allows, Dubay said.
“Is the fleet aging? Yes. Does it function just fine? Yes. Do we have a plan for replacement? Yes,” he said.
Contact the writer at 719-636-0362 or find her on Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin.