“Total-Quint” Strategy May Have Saved City 

That helped last week, when a half-finished apartment building near Virginia Commonwealth University caught fire and quickly spread across the street into the Carver residential community.

“All the fires started on rooftops,” says Lt. Keith Vida, the city’s assistant fire marshal. Before the Quints, he says, the city had only about eight trucks with ladders. “If we had not had so many aerial ladders on the scene, we would have lost many more buildings.”

The strategy started on the watch of former City Manager Robert C. Bobb, who ordered the fire department to slash costs in 1996. Jack McElfish, fire chief at the time, proposed switching to an “all Quint” fire force to save millions. By buying the new trucks — at about $500,000 apiece — the department could reduce staff by 50, which would result in net savings of $13 million during the next 15 years.

Since, the fire department’s staff has dropped from 474 to 415. Meanwhile, Richmond acquired 23 Quint trucks — a few are in the shop — giving firefighters an advantage when tackling fires that start along rooftops. The trucks are bit cumbersome when responding to remedial fires — they are big and difficult to navigate down narrow streets — but come in handy when building fires get out of control in hot March winds.

That’s precisely what happened last week. As the fire jumped from building to building, the Quint trucks sprang into action. The trucks’ 75-foot and 100-foot ladders dotted the cityscape, allowing firefighters to snuff out a fire that started at about 12:30 p.m. and lasted until late afternoon. All told, 19 buildings were condemned at press time, says Vida, with a total of 29 buildings damaged. Twenty-two cars burned as well.

St. Louis is the only other city known to have a Total Quint fire force, although there could be others, says Carl Peterson, assistant director of public fire protection for the National Fire Protection Association. And there is a trade-off when going all-Quint. Often, cities think they can accomplish too much with too little.

“The biggest object is to make sure you have the staffing,” Peterson says. “I think where some communities fall down, they think they can buy one Quint and replace a pumper and a tanker. Firefighting is a very labor-intensive job.”

Last week, at least, the city didn’t lack firefighters, Vida says. All told, with some help from Chesterfield and Henrico counties, there were 200 firefighters on the scene.

“If there is anybody out there doesn’t believe in the Quint concept,” he says, “they do now.” — Scott Bass

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