A quarter of the District's 16 ladder trucks are out of service, and two additional trucks are in very poor condition, D.C. fire officials said.

To compensate for the shortage, the fire department has shuffled two ladder trucks, one from upper Northwest and one from downtown, to under-covered areas of the District. The shortage has increased the average response time for a ladder truck to a fire scene by "an additional minute or so," said Battalion Chief Stephen M. Reid, a department spokesman.

Ladder trucks are used less frequently than the District's 33 engine trucks, or pumpers, which are used to hose down fires and often are sent to medical emergencies.

However, both a ladder truck and an engine truck must be dispatched to a fire call. Ladder trucks are critical when people need to be rescued from a tall building or when firefighters have to be lifted to open up a roof to ventilate a raging fire or be lowered from a building if something goes wrong. The ladder trucks also are used to look for victims in search-and-rescue efforts and to support spotlights at poorly lit fire sites.

Firefighters and affected residents have begun expressing concerns about safety.

"We're at risk from a safety standpoint, and [citizens] are at risk from a protection standpoint," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union that represents D.C. firefighters.

The District has lost six ladder trucks since 1995, Fire Chief Donald Edwards said in an interview. Two collided with each other, one rear-ended a Metrobus, one fell on its side during an emergency call, and two were "rendered useless" by fires, Edwards said.

With four trucks being repaired, there are more out of service than at any time since Edwards became chief in July 1997. One is expected to be returned to service as early as this week, officials said. Two new ladder trucks also are on order. But the present shortage reflects longer-term problems the city has in keeping up a serviceable fleet of firetrucks, officials said.

The city allowed upgrades, routine maintenance and purchases of new fire equipment to fall behind in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Battalion Chief John W. McDonald, the fire department's fleet manager.

The trucks have been sent to private companies for repair, McDonald said.

These trucks are out of commission:

* Truck 7 was the latest ladder truck to break down. A short while after the truck returned to the firehouse at 414 Eighth St. SE from a call, flames leaped out of the truck's wiring. The 19-year-old truck is now in Beltsville for repair.

* Truck 10, built in 1987 and based at 450 Sixth St. SW, is in Roanoke for upgrade work and safety tests. The truck, which includes a platform that can be lifted to rescue people, serves the White House.

* Truck 16, built in 1994 and based at 2425 Irving St. SE, is in Richmond for warranty work.

* Truck 13, built in 1993 and based at 1342 Florida Ave. NE, is in Alfarata, Pa., for ladder rehabilitation.

In addition, Truck 5, which covers Georgetown and the western tip of the city, and Truck 15, which covers the upper reaches of Northeast Washington, were both built in the late 1970s, McDonald said. Truck 15 will be replaced by a rehabilitated vehicle, and replacements for Trucks 5 and 7 were ordered in March, McDonald said.

The widely accepted National Fire Protection Association standards say most fire apparatus have a 15-year "front line" lifespan and an additional five-year life as a reserve unit. Officials said those lifespans are generally shorter in the District, which in 1998 was sixth among U.S. cities in the number of emergency calls. In addition, many D.C. roads are narrower and in worse condition than those in other cities.

Residents in upper Northwest have begun to protest the strategy of rotating ladder trucks to fill in for out-of-service ones. Truck 12, at Tenley Circle, is now filling in for Truck 16 in Southeast Washington.

More fires occur in the poorer sections of the District, where older structures abound and arsons take place more frequently. The upper Northwest residents, however, said the strategy amounts to gambling with statistics.

"Ward 3 is exposed and vulnerable," Anne M. Renshaw, chairman of the 3G Advisory Neighborhood Commission, wrote in a July 27 letter to Edwards and two D.C. Council members. "Area residents should be able to count on local fire coverage rather than apparatus from across town."

Sneed, of the firefighters union, said procurement problems are as much to blame for the shortage as insufficient budgeting. McDonald said the two trucks budgeted in fiscal 1998 and ordered in March are expected to arrive next year. The department hasn't yet ordered two ladder trucks and 12 pumpers that were budgeted in fiscal 1999, which began in October, according to McDonald.

In addition, the D.C. Council must review the purchase of the trucks, which each cost $500,000 to make, Edwards said.

The shortage also has resulted from the mishaps that destroyed trucks and from the length of time it takes to get a truck custom-made, which is usually one year. Often, additional mechanical problems that weren't seen initially add time to the repair process, Edwards said.

Reid said that money for firetrucks comes out of the department's capital budget and is not lost if not spent right away.

"I don't want anyone to believe that this agency is not about the business of ordering needed apparatus," Edwards said, adding that he hopes to have all 16 ladder trucks in service by mid-September.