Des Plaines rescinds ambulance purchase in heated meeting

Des Plaines was set to become one of only a handful of suburban municipalities with a vertical exhaust ambulance, which city council supporters say is safer than the current fleet of vehicles that releases harmful diesel fumes at ground level near firefighters and the public.

Others, including Des Plaines Fire Chief Alan Wax and Mayor Matt Bogusz, say purchasing an ambulance with a vertical exhaust system may have been trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist.

That's why Bogusz asked the council Monday to rescind the purchase.

Bogusz cast the deciding vote, breaking the council's 4-4 tie, and officially rescinding the ambulance purchase. He said the council's 5-3 vote two weeks earlier to buy a vertical exhaust ambulance "took me by surprise."

Second Ward Alderman Jack Robinson changed his vote, but said he didn't want to discuss why.

Fifth Ward Alderman Jim Brookman, a retired Des Plaines firefighter who pushed for the vertical exhaust ambulance purchase, said he doesn't recall a Des Plaines mayor ever pushing for a resolution to rescind a previous council vote.

"It invites the opportunity for arm twisting, which is exactly what went on. I think that's disappointing. I think the motion to rescind was improper and illegal," said Brookman, who promised to ask the Office of the Illinois Attorney General for an opinion on the matter. "He shouldn't have the right to rescind what the council did, and in the meantime twist arms and alter the vote."

Bogusz said at Monday's meeting that he asked City Manager Mike Bartholomew a week earlier to put the resolution on the council's agenda - which is ultimately up to the council to approve or deny.

"It's my belief this is a solution in search for a problem," Bogusz said. "It's not a policy decision. It's an operational decision. I believe this body needs to work to stick a little bit closer to policy."

Though the council approved the purchase March 3, fire department officials didn't make the purchase.

In response to questions from Fourth Ward Alderman Dick Sayad, Wax said the first he heard of the possible vote to rescind was last Friday when he was informed by Bartholomew. Wax said he didn't push for such a vote.

The fire chief said he believes there isn't a problem with the current horizontal exhaust ambulance fleet, since new vehicle emission standards disperse fumes quicker than before. Fire department officials surveyed 40 nearby communities - two of which, Evanston and Winnetka, had vertical exhaust ambulances. Wax said ambulance manufacturers interviewed by the Northwest Municipal Conference Suburban Purchasing Cooperative report selling and making few ambulances with vertical exhaust systems.

Brookman said Des Plaines needed to go "above and beyond" to protect firefighters and the public who could be harmed by exposure to diesel fumes from idling vehicles. He cited health studies from the World Health Organization that show diesel fumes contribute to cancer risk.

At the March 3 council meeting, Brookman became emotional when talking about Des Plaines firefighters he knew who died of cancer, including his best friend.

It would only cost an extra $1,500 to put a vertical exhaust system on an ambulance, but would cost $75,000 to add a vertical exhaust capture system in fire stations.

Wax said there's no funds budgeted in the current year to pay for the work, but some aldermen suggested it could be discussed during future budget hearings.

On Monday, Brookman and Wax engaged in a heated back-and-forth dialogue about whether there was a problem with the current fleet of ambulances, which give off emissions from tailpipes at the back of vehicles.

"I was on the ambulance for 15 years of my 30 years on the job," Brookman said. "There's no way to be on the ambulance and not breathe diesel fumes that are pumped out of the side of the ambulance. It's impossible. I don't understand how you can say there is not a problem."

Wax said he didn't have any evidence to suggest fumes were making their way into ambulances.

"It does go in the back because I've been on the rig," Brookman responded, "and I know when you open the doors, the air goes inside, and if there's diesel fumes all around the rig, it goes in. There's no way for it not to happen."

"I don't know there are diesel fumes all around the rig," Wax countered.

"If they're pumped out the side of the rig, where the hell do they go?" Brookman said.

"They dissipate into the air. They go whatever direction the wind is going," Wax said.

"They come up from the ground and you breathe them if you're standing in the fumes. I've been on thousands of calls and so have you," Brookman told Wax. "I don't get it. They're breathing diesel fumes. The public is breathing them and so are the firefighters. How in the world can you say they're not breathing diesel fumes?"

Following the council's rejection of the vertical exhaust ambulance, Bogusz asked aldermen to approve the $226,229 purchase of a horizontal exhaust ambulance. But 3rd Ward Alderman Denise Rodd's motion to do so wasn't seconded.

Wax said he will ask the council to approve an ambulance purchase at a time still to be determined. The department currently has five ambulances in service, and has been buying new ones as part of an annual replacement schedule.

Des Plaines' existing ambulance fleet currently utilizes a horizontal exhaust system, which some aldermen argue is harmful to both firefighters and the public. Photo Courtesy City of Des Plaines
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