The need to update Lawrence's firefighting equipment is a little less hypothetical following the failure of the department's largest ladder truck during an early morning fire on Thursday.
Officials no longer have to wonder "what if" the equipment operated by Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical fails at the scene of the fire. Such a failure occurred Thursday when firefighters were unable to deploy the ladder out of the truck. According to Fire & Medical Chief Mark Bradford, the failure directly affected the department's ability to fight the fire.
At least in this case, the failure didn't hinder the rescue of any occupants in the house. Everyone had escaped the structure by the time firefighters arrived, although one suffered serious injuries when he jumped from a third-floor window. If someone had been trapped in a taller building, the malfunctioning ladder could have had tragic results.
In June, Lawrence city commissioners decided to move ahead with the purchase of $2.1 million worth of fire equipment that was approved as part of the 2008 budget. They have been unable, however, to find money in the 2009 budget for an additional $2.3 million worth of equipment requested by Bradford - including a new ladder truck. The current plan is to include money for emergency equipment in the proposed 0.3 percent sales tax for city infrastructure improvements that is expected to go to voters in November.
It's true that the city faces difficult financial times. There are many needs, and commissioners are determined not to place an additional burden on property tax payers. However, the main charge of municipal government is to provide basic services, and it doesn't get much more basic than fire protection.
Bradford is not making extravagant requests. The reserve ladder truck, which was put on active duty after Thursday's failure, is 22 years old. The truck that failed is 10 years old. It was repaired on Friday, but it won't last forever. Is the older truck an adequate backup if the primary truck fails again when a ladder truck is needed to save lives?
Thursday's fire and ladder truck failure should provide ample warning of the risk the city is taking by delaying any further the replacement of key firefighting equipment. Sales tax or no sales tax, this item needs to move to a higher position on the city's priority list.