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Lebanon City Fire Department’s latest apparatus, BEST, was the star of the Pennsylvania Association of Career Fire Chiefs’ three-day meeting held here last week.

On Thursday, Jan. 26, which was Training Day in the conference schedule, about 45 fire chiefs from across the commonwealth witnessed a demonstration by Lebanon city fire company officials of its Battery Extinguish System Technology (BEST), which is used to fight electric vehicle fires. 

Lebanon City Fire Department had a chance to demonstrate its cutting-edge Battery Extinguish System Technology (BEST) device at a statewide meeting of fire chiefs that was held in Lebanon last week. (James Mentzer)

“Lebanon was the first fire company in Pennsylvania to buy the system,” said Manuel Radinger, component representative of Rosenbauer, the company that manufactures BEST, “and there are about 200 units across the entire United States with three or four located on the entire Eastern seaboard.”

As more electric cars are purchased by consumers, there will be a growing need for more BEST systems to be deployed by fire companies, according to Lebanon City Fire Department Captain Scott Daub. “We haven’t had a chance to use ours yet, but we are ready if the need arises.”

Daub said the city purchased the unit – which Radinger said retails for $30,000 – because electric car batteries are located beneath the car’s body and stretch the entire length. Its location makes extinguishing a fire in the battery unit problematic with the use of conventional equipment.

“When you have a fire in a non-electric vehicle, a fire company will use about 500 gallons of water,” said Daub. “An electric vehicle fire, however, can take at least 10,000 gallons of water to extinguish, which can be problematic if you don’t have a hydrant or tanker truck nearby.”

Case in point: Last November, a Tesla caught on fire on I-80 in Clearfield County and was completely ruined, with nothing remaining but charred material that didn’t even resemble a car. 

“Some people say, ‘Well, let it burn itself out,’” said Daub. “But that could take hours. Just imagine shutting down Cumberland Street for hours to let a car burn itself out.”

Radinger said the device has an extended arm so that the device can be maneuvered to the undercarriage from a distance. A hose attaches to the squared-shaped unit and then a simple switch of the power button on the separate control panel engages the unit to shoot water out of a nozzle located in the middle of the box-shaped device.

In addition to the demonstration, Thursday’s schedule also included legislative updates from state fire association officials, an additional educational seminar presented by UGI Utilities on natural gas, and an information-gathering session with state government officials.

The legislative portion of the day’s program highlighted a number of ongoing issues facing all fire companies, both volunteer- and career-based. Recruitment/retention, fire company consolidation, fireworks and funding highlighted the morning discussion with Jerry Ozog, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, and the information-gathering meeting attended by state Sen. Chris Gebhard (R-48) and state Rep. John Schlegel (R-101).

City of Lebanon Fire Commissioner Duane Trautman, left, participates in a discussion, moderated by Jerry Ozog, with state Rep. John Schlegel (R-101) and state Sen. Chris Gebhard (R-48) during the Thursday session of the Pennsylvania Association of Career Fire Chiefs conference, held in Lebanon last week. (James Mentzer)

The association opposes the legislation that made fireworks legal in Pennsylvania, saying fireworks “kill, maim and cause fires that put people’s lives in danger.” They also said the statute confuses people and is non-uniform since urban areas differ from their rural counterparts. Most favor local municipalities governing whether fireworks should be legal within their jurisdictions.

“I agree that local municipalities should make that decision at the local level,” said Gebhard. “Philadelphia County certainly is different than Lebanon County.”

Lebanon City Fire Department Fire Chief Duane Trautman told LebTown during a separate interview that provisions within the state’s fireworks law makes fireworks illegal in the city. 

“It used to be that someone would set off fireworks and you would go and have them stop because it was illegal to use them,” said Trautman. “Now, many people set them off all over the city and don’t understand that what they are doing is still illegal in just about every single inch of Lebanon city.”

It was noted that the state has reaped a windfall in fireworks sales tax, reported to be $14 million by one chief, as part of Act 74 of 2022. However, state fire company grants from those proceeds pale in comparison. A Harrisburg city fire chief said the $500,000 grant can be spent in mere days.

One chief told the local legislators that the consolidation/merger of fire companies is a solution to the personnel issue facing all Pennsylvania fire companies.

“Chicken barbeques, hoagie sales and bingo don’t cut it anymore,” he said. “Pennsylvania residents pay more for trash collection than they do for fire protection.”

Another chief told Gebhard and Schlegel that the lack of available fire company personnel across Pennsylvania is in “a crisis situation.”

“We need to look at a countywide fire department system,” he said. 

A fire chief poses a question to state Rep. John Schlegel (R-101), left, and state Sen. Chris Gebhard (R-48), right. (James Mentzer)

Trautman addressed the local legislative contingent concerning this issue, noting that Lebanon city’s fire load is much greater than what it used to be.

“Our load is much greater than anywhere else around us,” he said, “and we’re getting farmed out more and more to calls outside of our service area. There may come the day when city officials say, ‘enough.'”

Both Gebhard and Schlegel mostly listened during the 40-minute session, opting to use the opportunity as a learning opportunity. This was especially true of Schlegel, who noted that he’s been on the job for only about two months, having won his first term to the state legislature in the November election. 

Near the end of that session, one retired fire chief asked the legislators if they would be willing to introduce a bill to tax the sale on every glass of beer sold at bars, restaurants and pubs to fund fire companies. Before the legislators could respond, Ozog – who served as monitor for the session – quickly replied that was something the institute would further investigate.

Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello gave opening remarks and highlighted fire calls in 2021, the last year the city has current statistics. (Updated figures for 2022 will be shared during the State of the City address later this year.)

Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello gave opening remarks at Thursday’s session of the Pennsylvania Association of Career Fire Chiefs three-day conference, which was held at Warehouse 435 in Lebanon. (James Mentzer)

She said the city handled 1,400 calls, with 7 percent occurring in other municipalities. Total fire calls were 116 – with only 26, or 2 percent, being actual structure fires. Other calls included: two for excessive heat/fireworks; 223 for rescue and emergency services; 311 hazardous conditions; and 531 false alarms, among others. 

Trautman told LebTown that the city was honored to sponsor the three-day session, adding it was many years since it last served as host. He noted that Warehouse 435, located in the 400 block of Willow Street, provided the meeting space at no cost to the association.

“These three days are for us to learn, discuss legislative matters, conduct the electric vehicle demonstration and to network,” Trautman said. “We met last evening at Mick’s and we’ll be at the Downtown Lounge for another networking session after today’s meeting.”

“Lebanon is pleased to showcase the city to all the chiefs who came from around the state – including as far away as Erie County,” said Trautman.

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James Mentzer

James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; and Lancaster...