DeKALB – Don Faulhaber can’t keep the smile from his face when he thinks about his first day as a DeKalb firefighter.
Lately, the 18-year veteran who started as a paramedic and moved up the ranks to fire captain and vehicle maintenance coordinator has been peppered with reminders.
“When you get new guys, it makes you think about your first day and how excited you were, the nervous energy and all that stuff,” he said. “It’s infectious, and it affects everybody. You need stuff like that to prop you up once in a while.”
Between welcoming and training new recruits and helping to design, prepare and put to work new equipment, Faulhaber sees a department that had been doing more with less for the past several years starting to turn around.
“Baby steps,” he said.
After years of budget cuts, overtime and worn equipment, the DeKalb Fire Department looks to be coming out of a rebuilding period. Renovation projects, new heavy equipment and increased staffing levels have firefighters such as Faulhaber confident that the department can meet the needs of a bustling city.
“The city has invested heavily in public safety over the last few years,” Fire Chief Eric Hicks said. “They’ve done the police station, they’ve done the fire station addition, they’re purchasing new equipment. Those are the kinds of things that you need to operate efficient public safety.”
Adorned in DeKalb Fire Department livery and freshly-scrubbed chrome, a new fire engine and a new ambulance both entered service for the department last week.
The $253,000 custom Alexis engine, which is housed at Station 1, was purchased using a 15-year no-interest loan that the city obtained from the state. The new truck is expected to serve as a front-line vehicle for 10 years before moving to the reserves. The new American Emergency Vehicles ambulance, which makes its home at Station 3, is expected to be on the front line for five to seven years.
It’s the first time since 2007 that the department has replaced one of its three fire engines and the first time since 2011 that one of six ambulances has been replaced, Hicks said. Both vehicles had been in the works for about a year, since the custom manufacturing process takes time, he said.
One of the department’s other ambulances, which has been in service since 2005, has racked up 75,000 miles and 6,900 operating hours just within the city limits.
“It’s really nice to see, and it really helps our operation out,” Hicks said. “When you have really old vehicles with high miles, the maintenance costs are high – the down time is there.”
The department also has the go-ahead from the city to increase its staffing levels by five firefighters – from 52 to 57 – which would almost bring it to pre-recession levels. In 2008, the department employed 60 firefighters, but the numbers dwindled to 51 in 2012 – and overtime went way up.
Firefighters racked up 11,000 hours of overtime in 2012 when responses reached an all-time high of 8,521 – up from 7,675 in 2011.
“I’m pleased that we have been able to reinstate some positions, doing some additional hires to increase our ranks as well as some equipment acquisitions,” DeKalb Mayor John Rey said. “That ensures that we’re able to provide valuable services to our community in a sustainable way.”
In addition to the new equipment and new hires, a $254,000 renovation project is underway at Fire Station 2 to increase living quarter space and add new bathrooms. Renovations at Fire Station 3, which included a new roof, took place in the spring.
The last piece in the puzzle will be to replace the department’s dinosaur of a ladder truck, which has been making the rounds since 1990. While it isn’t often called and has passed yearly testing, mounting maintenance costs and harder-to-find parts are putting pressure on finding funding for a replacement, Faulhaber said.
“Part of our pride is in trying to take care of that stuff, but some of the mechanical parts only last so long,” Faulhaber said. “You can polish all you want on it, but stuff still breaks down.”
Rey said the city has looked into finding funding sources for the aging ladder truck, but that other communities with still older equipment still are getting more priority from the state.
“Our equipment isn’t old enough, but it’s a priority,” he said.
By the numbers
2013 custom Alexis Fire Engine
Water capacity: 750 gallons
Pump speed: 1,500 gallons a minute
Crew capacity: Four
Hose capacity: 2,000 feet
Power: 330 horsepower