Nine spanking new, bright red fire engines racing through the District's streets and a sleek twin-engine fireboat gliding over the city's waterways have raised some eyebrows, in more ways than one.
The new acquisitions, part of a $1.5 million effort to improve the District's aging fleet of firefighting equipment, have received generally favorable reviews from firefighters, who say the equipment was long overdue and will make dousing blazes and saving lives easier.
But the new fireboat, a 25-foot Boston Whaler, was bought without proper authorization and sat for several months in dry dock at the Fire Department's apparatus division while department officials tried to figure out where it came from, according to one source.
And the purchase of nine $168,000 pumpers was questioned after one didn't fit into the station for which it was bought and another was taken out of service when it broke down less than two days after its debut.
In addition to the pumper that didn't fit -- dubbed by a source "the little engine that couldn't" -- at least two other new pumpers were a tight squeeze, forcing engine companies around the city to swap gear in a game of "musical fire trucks," the source said.
The new $57,000 fireboat was purchased last year about the time the city's five-year-old fireboat -- the John Glenn -- was sent for a complete overhaul to Norshipco, a Norfolk-based company. The Glenn was in need of repair primarily because of damage it suffered breaking through the icy Potomac River during the 1982 Air Florida rescue.
A fire department source said the department was told by Norshipco officials that repair costs for the Glenn had been overestimated. The source said that a sergeant in the department's apparatus division, without the knowledge or consent of Fire Chief Theodore Coleman, told Norshipco to use the excess funds to buy a new boat from Boston Whaler Inc., a Massachusetts-based manufacturer. The alleged deal also allowed Norshipco to outfit the boat with various other firefighting equipment.
"I don't know if we lost money on the deal, but we definitely did not get the boat through the proper procurement process," the source said. "There were some irregularities . . . . Nobody could come up with the ownership papers for the boat, so it just sat there for several months."
Terry Cunningham, a spokeswoman for Boston-Whaler Inc., said a purchase order signed by a representative of Norshipco was received last April for a 25-foot Whaler with a base price of $17,346. She said the company added two outboard engines, a special firefighting pump, two sirens, spotlights and rescue rails and billed Norshipco $30,698. The boat was delivered to Boston Whaler's dealership at the Washington Marina about four months later.
When questioned about the boat, fire department spokesman Ray Alfred confirmed the purchasing irregularities and said the final cost of the boat was $57,000. It could not be learned what other equipment was added by Norshipco, and a spokesman for the company declined to discuss the purchase.
Alfred said problems with the boat's purchase have been "rectified," and that the sergeant in the apparatus division who ordered the boat has been transferred.
"When we find people who are not following proper procedures, we get rid of them," he said. "We cannot afford to spend taxpayers money unwisely."
Despite the purchasing irregularity, firefighters and others say that the boat is a welcome addition to the department, especially in shallow water rescues.
"It's made a real contribution to the safety of the waterfront," said Ken Cox, vice president of the firefighters' union. Cox said that because of the boat's light weight and speed, it is often the first to arrive at river emergencies.
The nine new pumpers, bought by the fire department last month from Emergency One, a Florida-based fire truck manufacturer, will help modernize the city's overall fleet of 75 pumpers, which have an average age of more than eight years, according to the fire department's 1986 budget request.
The request notes that eight of the city's "first-line" pumpers -- those in active duty -- and all of the city's 11 reserve pumpers are more than 15 years old, which is the maximum life expectancy set by the National Fire Protection Association.
Each of the District's 32 firehouses has two pumpers: one that lays hose when it arrives at a fire, and another that is stationed at the nearest fire hydrant to amplify water pressure through the hoses.
Fire department sources said the main problem with the new pumpers is that they are too big to fit into the city's older firehouses, some of which were designed for old steam-powered engines.
Engine Co. 20, 4300 Wisconsin Ave. NW, was slated to get one of the trucks, sources said, but it was too wide to fit into the front door. At Engine Co. 28, 3522 Connecticut Ave. NW, sources said, there is only a 3-inch clearance on both sides of the garage door and at Engine Co. 15, 2101 14th St. SE, the new pumper was sent back to the shop when its headlights didn't work and problems developed with its pumping mechanisms. CAPTION: Picture, The city's new 25-foot, $57,000 Boston Whaler fireboat was acquired through a purchasing irregularity. The Washington Post