Firefighter faulted in crash of ladder truck

Ginger D. Richardson
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 17, 2003 02:20 PM

PHOENIX _ A police investigation has determined that a firefighter was driving too fast as he attempted to make a left hand turn, causing the ladder truck to flip on its side.

Engineer Paul Mitchell, a member of Phoenix's Fire Department since 1989, will be cited by the police department for driving at a "speed that is greater than reasonable and prudent," said Sgt. Randy Force, a police department spokesman.

The $1 million truck, nicknamed "Big Unit," was destroyed in the Sept. 29 accident near the intersection of Central Avenue and Indian School Road.

Police officials said Friday that Mitchell, who has been driving for Phoenix Fire for the past 10 years, was actually going under the posted speed limit at the time of the accident. But their investigation found that 30 mph he was driving was still too fast to appropriately negotiate the turn in the 79,000 pound vehicle.

Mitchell, who fire department officials say has an "impeccable" record, will have the option of fighting the traffic citation in court, attending a driver's safety course, or paying the $120 fine that accompanies the ticket.

"Certainly the police department doesn't enjoy citing firefighters - they are our brothers and sisters in public safety," Force said. "But it is the same citation we would give any other motorist, whether they are a city employee or not."

Mitchell also faces the possibility of additional sanctions from a three-member personnel board that is convening this week.

Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan said that he didn't know what kind of reprimand the panel might recommend, but said that his recommendation would likely focus on increased training.

"I am ticked off that we lost that ladder," Khan said. "So one side of you is disappointed{ellipsis}but the other side of you recognizes that this is a good individual in the system.

"There are no blemishes on his record."

The fire department purchased the truck for roughly $920,000 in 2001. The vehicle, which had a ladder that extended 118 feet - higher than the 93 foot ladders on other trucks - carried an additional $103,000 worth of equipment, fire officials have said.

The vehicle was totaled, crushed under its own weight. The windshield and passenger-door glass were shattered, the door ripped off, chassis accordianed and ladder twisted, all beyond repair.

On Wednesday, the City Council approved giving the fire department another $965,000 to replace the truck, but Khan said Friday that that process would likely take 12 to 18 months.

In the meantime, the fire department will be evaluating its driver's training program to prevent similar incidents from occurring, said Khan, who called the accident "a gut check."

"We have to shoulder the responsibility along with Paul (Mitchell) and make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.