Owen Courreges: The Ladder 5 gamble

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Ladder 5 at the Arabella fire station, photographed in March. (UptownMessenger.com file photo by Robert Morris)

Owen Courreges

This weekend saw the departure of the New Orleans Fire Department Ladder Truck No. 5 from the Arabella Fire Station.   A final effort to save Ladder 5 came to naught when Mayor Landrieu’s office rejected an alternative plan proposed by affected Uptown residents. 

The reason for the change was, of course, budgeting.  The city, facing a tight budget, lost $4 million in funding to the NOFD with the lapse of the three-year federal grant.  The NOFD wanted to keep all its pumper trucks, so two ladder trucks had to go.  Of the ladder trucks serving the Uptown area, Ladder 5 was the most expendable.

The problem is that Ladder 5 was not, in fact, expendable in the broader sense.  The city itself acknowledges that a huge swath of Uptown will now fall short of national standards for ladder truck response time.  This includes Children’s Hospital, which would really, really need a ladder truck immediately in the case of a major fire.  On the other hand, the NOFD is under a hiring freeze and has not been able to maintain national standards for sufficiently manning their current fleet of trucks.  The entire issue is something of a double-edged sword.

From the city’s perspective, it has more than doubled funding to the NOFD over the past five years.  Since 2007, the NOFD’s revenue from the city’s general fund has ballooned from $42 million to $85 million as post-Katrina federal monies dwindle.

However, like road repair and park maintenance, fire protection is an area where the city has simply gotten used to saving money.  In 2009, the Inspector General’s office issued a report comparing New Orleans’ funding in various areas to several comparable cities.  The study found that New Orleans was overfunding virtually everything, including the mayor’s office itself.  Only two areas were below average funding levels, and one was fire protection (although just barely).

What this means is that certain departments are getting too much money, but the NOFD isn’t one of them.  Allowing budgetary issues to compromise the NOFD’s ability to meet national standards is simply poor management.  The money is there, but instead of going to something fundamental like keeping our homes from burning, the money is spread throughout various bloated departments.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that Landrieu’s ability to affect seismic change in our budget is probably minimal.  Overall, he has actually struggled to reform the budget.  Still, one wonders why he couldn’t have found some way to get the funding to save a single ladder truck.  It’s a continuation of the NOFD being the red-suspendered stepchild of the city’s budget.

In part, the NOFD is becoming a victim of its own success as there are fewer fires per year and the city becomes more complacent, but this is something we need to be wary of.  New Orleans is a veritable tinderbox of wood-frame Victorian homes chocked with old wiring.  It might not happen this year or the next, but if we continue to short-change the NOFD something bad will happen.  There’s going to be a major fire, a figure screaming in a window, and a ladder truck that doesn’t get there in time.

It certainly isn’t too late to save Ladder 5, but this is about more than one ladder truck.  It’s about whether we are really going to fund this department and keep it at national standards, or cross our fingers and hope for the best.  That’s gambling with peoples’ property and lives.  That’s the decision our city has decided to make.

[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mayor Landrieu did not meet with residents about the issue. In fact, Landrieu met with neighborhood leaders at his office Thursday, July 11, about the issue, a spokesman said.]

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

8 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: The Ladder 5 gamble

  1. What’s the ladder truck status at the fire station on Magazine Street? Just curious…. my building had an electrical fire in the apartment on the ground floor about 5 weeks ago and I’m on the third floor. The response was fabulous (but rumor has it that the daughter of a high ranking fire official lives next door).

  2. RE: Your correction
    The Mayor agreed to and did meet with concerned residents, only TWO of them–on his terms, on his territory, with several members of his “team” (including Chief McConnell, of course) to back him up. He NEVER met with the group of residents who repeatedly requested a face-to-face meeting. In fact, his staff said at the time that he could not possibly meet with them before August (this was in early July, and the decommissioning of Ladder 5 was set for July 14). Only when he was publicly “called out” on the “Save Ladder 5” Facebook page for ignoring his constituents did he deign to approve a meeting with TWO of the neighborhood activists. He absolutely refused to face this neighborhood as a whole. And the budget meetings being held now are NOT a substitute for the direct interaction his constituents repeatedly requested.

  3. If the mayor would get rid of the deputy mayors then the money for Ladder 5 would be available. We have fewer residents living in the city and the civil service work force is smaller then when Morial and Nagin were mayors so why does Landrieu need these high priced positions. If we need these deputy mayors then why do we need the heads of these departments ? Cut the waste Mitch !!! The cuts to the fire department and other agencies will only get worse once this police consent decree kicks in. How did our wonderful mayor not realize that the feds weren’t going to pay for this ??? Anyone else for mayor then this joker.

    Also when you see fire engines and ladder trucks sitting in a station that does not mean they are being manned it just means that this piece of equipment is being stored there. It looks good but that’s all it does and the public feels safer because they see a ladder truck in a firehouse and think that it’s there for them wrong !!!
    When you call 911 do you want a firefighter, police officer or EMT at your door ??? No , you may not get one because Landrieu needs his deputy mayors and their staff. We know the Deputy mayors make over $100,000 a year but what does the entire staffing of each office cost ??? Come on Mitch cut the fat and save a life.

  4. If Mitch cuts all his Aides and top staff then he couldn’t do stuff like this:

    December 12, 2012

    NEW ORLEANS, LA— In an effort to demonstrate New
    Orleans’ support for the regions affected by Hurricane Sandy, Mayor
    Mitch Landrieu will travel to New York City with top chefs and musicians
    from New Orleans to host a holiday lunch for residents, first
    responders and volunteers on Saturday, December 15. The effort is part
    of the City of New Orleans’ Pay It Forward initiative.

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