"This is the rest home," said firefighter Riddy Butts, a 16-year veteran of the D.C. Fire Department, gesturing toward two trucks, both more than 12 years old.
"This equipment should be put out to pasture," said Butts, who is stationed at Engine Company 29, on MacArthur Boulevard NW opposite the Georgetown Reservoir, "just like the horses that used to pull the fire wagons from this station."
Engine Company 29 is a 1925-vintage firehouse. For years, the unit has been shunned by many firefighters who prefer the busier stations where they are likely to be more active.
In this well-to-do part of town, a firefighter leads a quieter life, maybe responding to one run a night. In a section of the city where residents pay more taxes per capita than in the rest of Washington, homeowners are getting less fire protection for their money, according to some firefighters at Engine 29, who complain their trucks are too slow and have many mechanical and electrical problems. Lives may be endangered as a result, some say.
"Maybe it takes someone getting killed," said Robert Clark, a 15-year veteran who this year plans to take a sergeants' examination for the first time. "I hope not, and I hope it's not a firefighter, but we've got to keep that in the back of our mind here working with this old equipment."
To some of the 15 firefighters who make up the three shifts assigned to Engine 29 it was not surprising that last June when the fire department allocated nine new trucks among its 10 engine companies, their station turned up last on the list and without one of the $185,000 trucks.
Engine companies have two pieces of equipment: a "lead truck" and a "pumper." Currently, the front piece at 29 is a 1973 Ford truck rebuilt by the Young Company in 1980, after which it was assigned to Engine Company 29. The station's pumper is a 1966 Ward LaFrance, built by a company that is now out of business.
D.C. Fire Department officials refused to comment on the condition of the equipment, but Lt. Theodore O. Holmes said that Engine 29 has the fewest year-to-year runs, "clearly justifying our decision not to give them equipment that is needed in more active stations."
According to District budget documents, the fire department is trying to keep its equipment modern by following standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, which call for the primary truck in an engine company to be 10 to 15 years old.
Capt. Wayne Preddy, who runs Engine Company 29, acknowledged that he has "second-rate equipment. I'm not particularly happy about that, but no one is listening to me."
Preddy, who has spent the last 18 months of his 18-year career at the station, said the last time the house got a new piece of fire apparatus was in 1957. That engine -- a Mack truck -- was replaced by "that piece of junk that sits out there," Preddy said, indicating the rebuilt truck.
"Neither of them will go up hills very fast," Preddy said. "That could cost us precious time in a critical situation."
Department spokesman Holmes said, "What is important is that the trucks do make it. They did not tell you that the trucks couldn't get up the hills."
Last month, however, the worst happened to Engine Company 29 -- both vehicles broke down in a 24-hour period. On one run, the firefighters answered a "food burning on the stove" fire in the 4000 block of Massachusetts Avenue NW. After they wrapped up the hoses, the truck wouldn't start. The electrical system -- the same one that runs the pumps on the truck -- failed.
"It must have been comic for residents seeing five men trying to push a 21-ton truck down the street at 12:30 a.m. trying to get it started," said Clark.
"They [the Mack trucks] were sturdy, [they] never broke," said Robert Becker, a 20-year veteran of D.C. firefighting who grew up near Engine Company 29. "When it was retired in 1980 it still worked better than some of the pieces that were 10 years old."
The breakdowns don't happen as frequently with newer equipment, Preddy said. "If your life depended on your having a car that worked every time you needed it, would you keep one like this?"
Becker, pulling himself into the driver's seat of the station's lead truck, said, "When they rebuilt it, they pulled the old 250-gallon water tank and put in a 500-gallon tank without hopping up the engine."
"On some of the hills around here, bicyclists pass us as we're running to a fire."
With the larger tank, firefighters said, the truck is now carrying more than a ton of extra weight beyond the capacity its engine was designed to haul.
"If we had a fire, the chances are 50-50 that both of the trucks wouldn't make it there and back in one piece," said Clark. "They, the big brass in this fire department, are playing Russian roulette here.