Given the modest size of the circa-1968 maintenance shop at Silver Spring Fire Station 16, the quantity of things housed there is awe-inspiring: chain saws, ladder trucks, ambulances, logbooks, grease-stained mechanics, alternators, transmissions, and boxes of fuel filters, air filters and oil filters stacked to the ceiling. A single room is devoted to storing rows of tires the circumference of a small dining-room table.
And this is just the building's interior. Outside, where the spillover goes, is where the mechanics do much of their work. The biggest vehicles, chief mechanic Robert Haas said, simply don't fit into the confines of the little garage on University Boulevard East, just outside the Capital Beltway.
So they do their work outside -- at least when the weather's not too bad. When it is snowing, raining or sleeting, a ladder truck may just have to wait for a much-needed tuneup or a new set of lights or even something minor such as an oil change.
"It's a juggling act," said Haas, a tall, slender man who has seen to the well-being of Silver Spring's ambulances and firetrucks for 11 years. The facility is in charge of maintenance and repair for three stations in Silver Spring, one in Takoma Park and whatever other vehicles are sent there from elsewhere in the county.
Fire and Rescue Service officials and elected leaders say the county is approaching a crisis in the maintenance and repair of ambulances and firetrucks. Officials say the problems Haas encounters are minor compared with those of many maintenance shops in Montgomery's fire department that are struggling to keep up with an aging fleet and an increase in accidents involving emergency vehicles.
No repair shops in the Washington area do body work on fire and rescue vehicles, said Steve Lohr, an assistant fire chief in charge of fleet management, so the county has to send ambulances and firetrucks to Baltimore or elsewhere for body repairs. That can mean a vehicle remains out of commission for many months, Lohr said.
During the first nine months of fiscal 2004, there were 117 collisions involving fire and rescue vehicles, resulting in 182 claims for repair coverage, county records show.
The county's insurance carrier, Volunteer Firemen's Insurance Services Inc., has told the county it may lose coverage if the accident rate remains so high. The company is still covering the department, but last month it raised the annual premium 17 percent, from about $1.38 million to $1.62 million.
Meanwhile, funding for new vehicles has consistently fallen below what the county calls for in its apparatus replacement plan. There has been no money from homeland security grants for new fire and rescue vehicles. The county's five maintenance shops are strapped, officials said. Vehicles frequently must wait days or even weeks for minor repairs because major problems must be tended to on other vehicles, said Lohr.
"We don't have enough shop capacity to take care of what we have," Lohr said. "Because we have so many running repairs, the preventive maintenance duties get pushed aside."
Nearly half of the county's fire engines were out of service for maintenance or repairs for at least a week during the month of July, according to a Fire and Rescue Service report submitted to county officials last month. The same report noted that 16 of the county's 18 ladder trucks were out of service for at least a week during the same month.
That report came on the heels of an extensive study released in January by the county's Office of Legislative Oversight. It described a fire and rescue service burdened by chronically sidelined equipment and a rapid rise in the number of calls for service.
When that report was released, county officials called the findings alarming and asked the fire service to come up with a plan addressing the problem. The answers, in subsequent meetings between the County Council and fire officials, can be boiled down to two general categories: more money and better organization.
The fire service's fleet of vehicles is "basically at bare bones," said Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty). "We have exactly the amount of resources we need to respond, but if any of the apparatus go down, we really don't have reserves to fill in."
When the council reconvenes in two weeks after its summer recess, it is expected to consider appropriating emergency funds to the fire department for new equipment. Knapp said the council probably will dole out additional money in $250,000 increments; how much it ultimately approves, if anything, is a big variable.
In addition, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) is expected to forward to the council next month a proposal that calls for charging a fee for ambulance use in the county. Fire officials said they will recommend that all the revenue from the fee go toward maintaining equipment or purchasing new vehicles.
The council shot down a similar proposal last year after some local volunteer fire companies objected on the grounds that a fee could discourage people from calling 911.
Council members have said resistance to the idea may be weakening. Several council members said privately they expect the idea to pass, in part because most large jurisdictions in the area already charge such a fee -- causing many insurance companies to factor the fee into health premiums for Montgomery residents -- and partly because the need for new fire and rescue apparatus is so great.
More fundamental than money shortfalls, officials said, is a profound lack of coordination within the fire service.
Unlike other large jurisdictions in the area, Montgomery has no systemwide standards for maintaining emergency vehicles, no central maintenance facility and no system for quickly determining which vehicles are out of service and in need of repair.
The lack of a central maintenance authority stems in part from the county fire service's command structure, unique among large jurisdictions nationally. It distributes power among 19 volunteer chiefs, a career chief, a civilian fire administrator and a seven-member board of fire commissioners.
The tangle of authority will be simplified in January, when the county's first true fire chief starts work. The position, created by the County Council this spring, has authority over the county's entire fire and rescue service. The current career fire chief, Thomas W. Carr Jr., has direct authority only over the county's 1,000 career firefighters, not the hundreds of volunteers and nearly 20 volunteer chiefs.
The new chief may have more luck coordinating apparatus maintenance than previous chiefs, officials said, because he will have more statutory authority to command local volunteer fire departments to comply with county mandates. Volunteer chiefs traditionally have guarded their authority closely and have often bristled at commands emanating from Rockville.
At the same time, the county's population has grown rapidly, and the number of incidents requiring fire department attention has grown even faster.
In 2003, fire and rescue vehicles responded to 99,537 incidents, 20 percent more than in 2000, according to county records. The increased workload demands greater coordination among multiple volunteer fire companies, officials said. But that often doesn't happen, particularly when it comes to vehicle maintenance.
County officials said Haas's shop in Silver Spring is run as smoothly as can be expected, given the workload. But because he answers directly to the board of the Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department, and not necessarily county officials, there can be disagreements about what gets repaired, how and when.
For his part, Haas said he does the best he can with what he has. He is responsible for 16 pieces of heavy apparatus -- ladder trucks, ambulances, engines -- and eight pieces of light equipment, such as pickup trucks. One other mechanic works with him.
Many of the vehicles he repairs are, for the most part, older than the 12 years that the National Fire Protection Association recommends as retirement age for frontline vehicles. Because of the increased number of 911 calls the department receives, many of those vehicles have well more than 100,000 miles on them.
The oldest vehicle for which the shop is responsible is a 1984 Seagrave ladder truck, which, with 105,000 miles on it, has been a frontline vehicle since the department bought it two decades ago. One-quarter of the county's 60 fire engines are more than 15 years old, Lohr said.
More common are vehicles such as a pumper truck stationed in Gaithersburg that is seven years old -- young, by the department's standards -- but has more than 200,000 miles on it, Lohr said.
"Not too many years ago, it was not uncommon to operate equipment for [more than 15 years]," Lohr said. "What has changed is the demand, the number of calls these things have to make. They're getting much more mileage, much more quickly, than they used to."
Haas sees the results: trucks worn down before their time and vehicles that need a lot of attention before they're road-worthy.
"I don't put anybody in anything I wouldn't feel safe in myself," Haas said.