When one of the city’s worst fires in a century broke out in The Metropolitan apartments downtown last month, the Raleigh Fire Department sent 24 engines from all over the city.
But it was the five ladder trucks that played the most visible role. These $1.2 million trucks can put firefighters and their equipment 100 feet in the air, allowing them to aim water at the inferno from above and to prevent the fire from spreading to the six-story Link Apartments building across the street.
The fire department keeps its ladder trucks at nine stations scattered across the city, and in the coming years plans to demolish and rebuild three stations to accommodate the larger trucks. Adding the new stations will allow for future 15-firefighter ladder companies, and let fire officials shift companies to better locations. The move is a recognition that Raleigh isn’t only growing out, it’s also growing up, with multistory office and apartments buildings going up all over town.
In the past decade, at least 20 mid-rise structures similar to The Metropolitan have been built across the city, according to Raleigh building records. But the ladder trucks are also used for getting above shorter buildings, to punch holes in walls or roofs to ventilate smoke and superheated air or to gain access to upper floors to make sure no one is inside. The trucks carry rescue equipment not found on the typical engine.
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Raleigh’s fire department has 29 engine companies – a ratio of about three engine trucks to every one ladder truck, said Raleigh Fire Department Chief John McGrath. Since McGrath joined the department 11 years ago, the number of ladder companies has grow from seven to nine, and he says he will request the department’s tenth in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2018.
McGrath said he expects the department eventually will get two more ladder companies beyond that, but no firm date has been set.
Sending a good mix of vehicles and crews to fires is important because firefighters, assigned to different roles based on their vehicle and company, can descend on a fire scene and quickly get a blaze under control.
“We don’t send one ladder, one engine for every fire,” McGrath said. “We have a philosophy of go early, go big.”
Fire officials are making the moves to arrange ladder companies in hopes that no ladder truck is more than 8 minutes from any point in the city, said Raleigh Fire Department Chief of Operations Brad Harvey. The department also aims to have an engine no more than 4 minutes from any place, Harvey said.
The first fire engine arrived at The Metropolitan fire 57 seconds after the initial call came in, Harvey said. Two of the five ladder trucks traveled 10 miles to get to the downtown fire, from North Raleigh and the southeast corner of the city.
Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire in The Metropolitan, which was still under construction and lacked the sprinklers and other fire protection measures required in completed buildings.
Ladder companies are housed north of downtown on Leesville Road, Trailwood Drive, Brier Creek Parkway, Durant Road and the corners of Duraleigh Road and Glenwood Avenue, as well as the corner of Six Forks and Sawmill roads. They are also located near the Interstate 440 Beltline off Capital Boulevard, near the corner of Rock Quarry and Barwell roads and downtown on South Dawson Street.
The department also has two older reserve ladder trucks that are fully stocked and ready to be pressed into service if one of the department’s main trucks breaks down.
The three stations slated for a rebuild to accommodate ladder companies in the future are Fire Station 6 near the Five Points neighborhood; Station 12 off Poole Road, and Station 14 near Rex Hospital. Station 12 and 14 will also be relocated slightly to optimize response times, said Andrew Langan, planning officer for the Raleigh Fire Department.
Station 6 dates back to the 1940s and houses an engine company. The $6.4 million rebuild is scheduled to begin in May, Langan said.
Station 12, southeast of downtown on Poole Road, will be moved about a mile east outside the Beltline to Bus Way, the city’s transit operations facility, Langan said. The ladder company now at the station on Barwell Road will be moved to the new Station 12, improving coverage in the southeast part of the city.
The project will cost about $5.3 million and is slated to be completed by next winter.
Station 2 on Pecan Road in south Raleigh is also expected to get an estimated $1.5 million overhaul that will be completed by fall. The remodels are being funded by $6.8 million in Raleigh’s capital improvement funds that the department hopes will pay to overhaul at least 10 aging stations, Langan said.
“Once we redo these, these stations will be good for another 30 to 35 years,” McGrath said.
In the more distant future, Station 14 – now on Lake Boone Trail – will be moved to 3510 Harden Road, a property purchased by the city in October 2014 for $590,000. The request for bids to rebuild Station 14 has been not issued yet, so an estimated cost is not available, Langan said.