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With one engine out of commission, Farmington firefighters had to call for help

Maybe it was just bad timing, or maybe it was bound to happen sooner or later. Either way, Farmington firefighters were down one engine when they were called to a fire that destroyed a Farmington resident's home Friday.

Last Tuesday, Farmington firefighters took Engine 1 out on a call. When they returned to Station 1, they noticed some moisture coming from underneath. At first, they thought it was a water leak, but when one of the firefighters got down to check it out, he found a leak to the fuel tank instead. The city's mechanic was called, the engine was taken into the shop. That left Farmington with just one engine at the ready.

Then, around 6:40 a.m. Friday, local firefighters got a report of a fully-involved house fire. They had to summon the Lakeville Fire Department to help put out the fire.

When attacking fires such as Friday's, Farmington fire chief Tim Pietsch said, the theory is to have two engines on site - one group of firefighters runs off one engine, attacking the blaze from the outside, while the firefighters from the second enter the structure to attack from inside. But that couldn't happen when they went after the Davis home until the Lakeville unit arrived.

The incident put a little sting in a wound that's been open for several years - the Farmington Fire Department has been asking for funding to purchase a third fire engine for more than five years.

"The hope, when we opened Station 2, was that we would get another engine. Then we would have a spare engine just in case one of the other two would go down," Pietsch said.

Currently, Engine 1 - a 2001 model - is kept at Station 1 on Denmark Avenue. Engine 2, a 1994-model, is stored at Station 2 on Pilot Knob Road. When Engine 1 went down, Pietsch decided to keep Engine 2 at its home at Station 2. That decision proved to be the right one, given the circumstances.

"That was probably a good move because the fire was not too far from Station 2. Sometimes you get lucky," he said.

If the department had a third engine, both of the stations would have engines available even if one was out of commission.

When the city's second fire station opened in 2006 the department hoped to get a third engine and make the 1994 engine a reserve. The department has requested funding every year in the city's budget.

"You put it off for a year, then next thing you know, it's five, six, seven years," Pietsch said. "Unfortunately, we're not the only department that's in that boat. Every department is fighting for a little piece of the pie. We have chosen to go down the course of trying to educate council and staff on why we need what we need. Most of the stuff that we need are all big ticket items."

The fire department is asking for $579,000 for a new engine. Pietsch figures the cost for a new engine has gone up between $100,000 and $150,000 since FFD first made its request for a third engine. To buy a new truck is one thing, Pietsch said, but nozzles, hoses, axes and all the other equipment increases the cost.

Technical difficulties

Friday's fire was the scenario Pietsch and Powers had worried about for some time. Having a close neighbor in Lakeville, and having a mutual aid agreement in place with LFD, made things a little easier, but it affected the way first responders were able to work.

When they arrived, the fire at the Davis house had already destroyed the garage and was spreading rapidly across the back of the house. Firefighters surrounded the fire from the outside and hit the blaze from different angles. But they were not able to get inside until Lakeville arrived, and by that time they had the outside pretty well under control.

Powers said if the second engine had been there sooner, they may have been able to save more of the content from the home.

"But safety wise, when we don't have the equipment there, our decision making has to be more cautious. I'm not going to risk firefighters' lives without giving them the proper tools," Powers said.

Future funding

Farmington City Council members understand the trucks and equipment are the fire department are old and in need of replacement. But coming up with that kind of money has been difficult.

This year, though, they may be able to find a few dollars. A separate fund for fire equipment has been proposed as part of the 2012 budget plan. That fund would come at the expense of taxpayers, who may see a sizable leap in their property taxes to help pay for a number of needs within the city of Farmington.

Under the plan, the FFD would not get a new vehicle until 2014. Right now, that proposal is earmarked as a replacement rescue truck. A new tender truck is on the schedule for 2015. A new engine is not on the books, but Powers said the department is looking to retire its 1986-model rescue truck, replace it with an engine, and equip it as both a fire and rescue vehicle.

Council could also utilize all or part of $367,000 in one-time dollars from the city's fiscal disparities payout. Should council decide to use that option, the fire department may be able to get a new vehicle sooner than 2014.

Those are part of the decisions council members will have to make during a 6:30 p.m. budget workshop Nov. 15 at city hall, city administrator David McKnight said.

Mayor Todd Larson said council members are ready to look for a solution. Larson said he would look to replace a truck, not add a third engine out-right, but would be willing to consider options.

"It sounds like they need a new one sooner than (2014)," he said, adding, "Fire trucks need maintenance just like anything else. Just because we had to call Lakeville because one of our trucks was down, that's not uncommon at all."

The out of commission engine was repaired and ready for action just hours after firefighters put out the blaze on Upper 183rd Street.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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