Customized transportation may be every driver's dream, but Baltimore County can't afford it for firefighters and paramedics anymore.
So the county will stick with the standard models of firetrucks and ambulances to save more than $1.3 million as it embarks on the largest single purchase of fire equipment in county history.
"I have never in my life seen this amount purchased at one time," said Chief Elwood H. Banister, a 37-year veteran firefighter.
The county will buy eight ambulances, seven pumpers, two ladder trucks and two "Quint" combination ladder-pumper trucks. The cost is estimated at $3.2 million to $3.5 million, with all but the ambulances paid for with loans of three to five years, said James Gibson, county finance director.
With budgets tight, county executives over the years have put off substantial purchases of fire and rescue equipment because of the high cost. The county bought a pumper three years ago for $300,000 and a hook and ladder truck for $500,000. The new pumpers will cost $150,000 to $185,000, each, and the ladder trucks will cost $425,000 apiece.
As a result, the Fire Department has been working with old equipment, some of it barely roadworthy. Chief Banister said he sometimes has to recall old engines on loan to volunteer fire companies.
By buying "off the rack," the county will pay $59,000 for each of its eight new ambulances, compared with $90,000 for custom ambulances. The new units have heavier suspension systems and are easier to service. Paramedics also give them high marks.
"They're putting new stretchers in them that are easier for one person to use," said Tracey Marvel, a paramedic assigned to one of the new units in Hereford. "You don't have to lift it as high."
The new medic units look like traditional trucks, with a cube-shaped unit on the rear. The older trucks have van fronts, a design that turns a simple oil change into a two-hour job, said Capt. Mark F. Hubbard. The ---mounted radio equipment in the older units has to be removed to get to the engine.
The new medic units, built by the Taylor Made Co. in Arkansas, should begin arriving in January, Captain Hubbard said.
Kevin O'Connor, the county fire union president, objects to the two "Quint" trucks the county plans to buy. Baltimore has had repeated electrical problems with the extension ladders on its two Quints, city fire officials say.
The Baltimore County fire union voted unanimously Thursday to oppose the purchase because it fears they trucks are "a guise to reduce manpower," Mr. O'Connor said.
He said firefighters are worried that the county would use each of the combination-use Quint trucks to substitute for two existing trucks. That would cut the number of firefighters from the nine who now operate separate pumper and ladder trucks to the six or fewer on a Quint.
Mr. O'Connor said he has not been informed about plans for new equipment.
Chief Banister said he wants the Quint trucks to replace four reserve pumpers eliminated during 1992's budget cuts. The extra pumpers -- stationed in Towson, Catonsville, Essex and Dundalk -- were used to fill in when pumpers at smaller stations were out of service.
The Quint trucks, with pumps and 100-foot extension ladders, can help replace those lost trucks, he said, because a station with a Quint and a pumper will always have a spare pumper.
Firefighters at the Fullerton station test drove a Quint truck several weeks ago. They were dismayed when the long vehicle got stuck trying to turn off Belair Road onto narrow Fullerton Heights Avenue, department sources said.
The county has 26 first-line pumpers and eight first-line ladder trucks, not counting volunteers' equipment. The county's 25 fire stations and 33 volunteer stations answered 56,000 fire calls and 59,000 medical emergencies last year.