Dozens of firefighters and community members gathered outside of Palo Alto City Hall on Monday afternoon to welcome the fire department's newest member, a $1.2 million ladder truck.
The star of the ceremony, the Pierce Tractor Drawn Aerial Ladder Truck, glistened, parked in front of the City Hall flagpoles. Eric Nickel, Palo Alto's fire chief, and Mike Sartor, director of the Public Works Department, introduced those in attendance to the new truck before cutting a ceremonial ribbon strung along its side.
Afterward, the fire department opened the passenger-side door for community members to look inside. A number of children in attendance climbed up into the passenger seat while parents snapped photos. Many also watched as firefighters raised the 100-foot-long ladder into the sky, towering over nearby flagpoles.
The old ladder truck that this one replaces was purchased in 1997 and features a 75-foot-long ladder that falls short of current standards for reaching high-rise buildings, Sartor said. Though high-rise buildings are uncommon in Palo Alto, firefighters maintain that an extra 25 feet of ladder will benefit the community.
"In our line of work, sometimes inches and feet is the difference between life and death," Palo Alto Fire Captain Bill Dale said. "If you're on the sixth story of a building and I can only make it to the fifth, there's no chance of helping you. Now, I can make it to the sixth, seventh, eighth."
Nickel said that even in skyscraper-dotted San Francisco, the fire department doesn't have many trucks with ladders longer than 100 feet.
However, one of the new ladder's greatest assets might be not its height, but its capacity to extend in other directions.
"Out at the Stanford hospital, with the hole that they've dug, if a worker were to get injured out there we would not be able to reach that worker with the old ladder," Nickel said, referring to the construction project underway at the hospital. "This new ladder doesn't just go up, it can go straight out, almost as a crane, to get people out."
The new ladder truck also offers increased storage for equipment used in vehicle extrication, technical rescue operations and water evacuation.
"Currently, that's not the case," Dale said. "Our important tools are stored in a trailer that we have to tow, which delays time in treatment to people."
The new ladder truck, though bigger than its predecessor, can better navigate Palo Alto's streets thanks to its tiller, according to the fire department. Tiller trucks are driven by two people, one who steers the front tires and one in the back -- known as the tillerman -- who handles the rear tires.
"Now, we can get into tighter spots that are very difficult to get into in our old truck without doing 10-point turns," Dale said.
Members of the fire department have logged 40 to 50 hours of training behind the wheel of the tiller truck, according to Dale. They received help from two retired members from the San Francisco Fire Department who were tillermen for 30 years.
"The San Francisco guys really put us in a bunch of challenging positions where you had to learn how to get out of them and into them," Dale said, "and there's a lot of capabilities with this new truck."
The new ladder truck not only offers safety benefits but also financial benefits, according to Nickel. Palo Alto used an existing design specification that the city of San Jose had written, which saved the city about $200,000 in staff time. Nickel also said Palo Alto qualified for a multi-vehicle discount because San Jose had already purchased a few ladder trucks and the contract was still open.
The savings could also extend to the community, officials said. Commercial fire insurance rates are based on a community's rating under the ISO Public Protection Classification system. Palo Alto sports an ISO Class 2 status on a scale of 1 to 10, with Class 1 representing superior fire protection and Class 10 indicating deficient fire protection.
"Having a ladder truck of this caliber preserves that, which keeps our fire insurance rates low for our business and residential community," Nickel said. "There's a chance we can go back and get rated from an ISO 2 to an ISO 1 … which would lower insurance rates even more."
The City Council approved the purchase for the new ladder truck last June. Under Palo Alto's vehicle policy, ladder trucks are to be replaced at 15 years and/or 50,000 miles. The old ladder truck exceeds both age and mileage guidelines, according to the fire department.
The new ladder truck will last 20 years, with 15 years in front-line service and five years as a backup, Sartor said. The fire department plans to keep the old ladder truck in service as a reserve.