The Accessible Fire Truck

Oct. 1, 2003
Dennis L. Rubin describes a “labor of love” that brought smiles to the faces of a group of special children.
In early 1996, I had the wonderful opportunity to be appointed to the position of fire chief (the local fire God, as some would call it). Among the various and sundry duties of the position was the chance to develop a public education/public information program. The City of Dothan, AL, had several program components, but all needed to be revitalized and there was much room for improvement.

The fire department owned a children's safety house and a 1942 Ford pumper in the line of public education tools. Both were in need of much repair. The work to restore both props was a labor of love and it was truly a pleasure to be a part of the restoration process team.

The children's safety house was completely overhauled inside and out by many capable firefighters. They brought tools from home and coupled with their many great ideas, the semi-portable teaching laboratory was ready to host children throughout the "Wiregrass" (south Alabama) region. The only expense was about a $5,000 investment to rebuild the axles and wheels; neither was designed to a roadworthy standard.

The real treat and challenge turned out to be the complete refurbishing of the 1942 Ford pumper. This "war baby" model had been neglected for decades. The engine had to be overhauled, the tires were dry rotted, the rims had rusted completely through and the paint job looked horrible. With an infusion of about $10,000 and a tremendous effort by the city's vehicle repair shop, the "Butthead" pumper was reworked and reborn.

The finished product touted four coats of fire-engine red paint, brand-new tires, and wheels and axles, among other critical repairs. Once completed, the hosebed area was converted into two long aluminum park benches for about a dozen children to ride upon the shiniest truck in the fleet. Each space set aside for a child was equipped with a new seatbelt, which added another practical teaching dimension to our "Harm Prevention" training. Children were allowed to climb aboard, find their seat, buckle up and hold on tight for a siren-filled, red-lights-flashing ride into fire prevention history. Actually, kids of all ages seem to want to ride on our fire truck.

But what about the disabled children? Shortly after "Parade 1" debuted during our National Peanut Festival, a second request was received for the chief's favorite truck to appear for the kids. This time, the event was the annual Special Olympics opening ceremony. Even though this was a police community event, the police department wanted our presence to help with the children and to show off this beautiful truck. This program was a great fit for the fire department. We had the resources to help with medical support (typically we see a half-dozen "bumps-and-bruises" cases during the regional games) and the fire truck is loved by all types of kids.

On that cool October morning, a significant customer service/public education opportunity was presented to me. Among the dozens of Special Olympians was a young lady who was wheelchair bound. Based on her enthusiasm and sheer determination, she was not going to miss her chance to ride on the fire truck. With the help of four firefighters and four police officers, we were able to get her over the grab rail bar. The total body lift at such a height was difficult for everyone (including our guest). The idea of the "Accessible Fire Truck" was conceived and planned from that point until completion a few years later.

Move the clock up a few years and all of the needed pieces and parts came together to let us place our Accessible Fire Truck, known as "Parade 2," into service.

Our 1958 American LaFrance was screaming for some tender loving care. Interestingly, this amazing hunk of Elmira steel had been repowered with a 6V71 Detroit Diesel engine and matched to a HT70 Allison automatic transmission in the mid-1970s. Soon after the mechanical refurbishment work, the apparatus was assigned to our regional airport fire station. On a positive note, this operation is a very-low-run structural fire response agency. On the negative side, the truck received a new (and somewhat embarrassing) white paint job. When we started on the Accessible Fire Truck journey in earnest, the raw material was of excellent quality.

Our local mobility shop was contacted to help us obtain a wheelchair lift device and help plan how it would be attached. The style of lift used on a school bus was selected. After several meetings, the design phase was completed and the modification of the hose compartment and tailboard got under way. The original 500-gallon top-mounted booster tank had to be cut down to about half of its original size. By taking this action, as much of the operational value would be protected (strictly from an antique preservation perspective). The hosebed easily accommodated three bench seats to hold 16 children secured by individual seatbelts.

The lower portion of the hosebed made for an ideal surface to place two wheelchairs with tie-down devices. One of the city mechanics, Kenny Pasante, completed all of the needed fabrications to the vehicle. Kenny happens to be a master vehicle mechanic who can weld with the best of them. It took a while for the vehicle to get through with all of the modifications, because the mechanic worked on all priority vehicles first.

Once the modifications were completed, the next stop was go to a commercial paint shop. It took the paint shop owner two days to research the color known as "American LaFrance Red" (could this old warrior be painted with another?). After a week in the paint shop and a new set of chrome wheel covers, "Parade 2" was ready to make her maiden journey. Boy, what a fine looking machine!

It just so happened that the summer therapeutics program had just completed its cooking program for some of our adventurous special kids. The deal was cut. I was going to get a wonderful lunch meal and the kids were going to get a fire truck ride! After a large bowl of my firehouse favorite cuisine, spaghetti, it was now "show time" for the "new" 1958 shiny red truck.

The kids were excited about being with our mayor, Chester Sowell, and getting to ride on his new truck. After lunch, our special students were in a single-file line awaiting their turn to ride the lift to climb aboard "Old Red" and take a few laps around their school campus. The mayor hopped in the officer's seat and was a quick learner with the lights and both sirens (electronic and mechanical). Kenny, the ace mechanic, and I loaded the kids using the lift device and it was off for a spin. Kenny was given the high honor to be her first wheelman. I was joyfully delegated to the back step to supervise our guests.

The lift performed better than advertised. Not only did it raise the wheelchair-bound kids up to the hosebed seating level, it became part of the fire truck ride experience for both able and disabled kids. What a tremendous, heart-warming success story. For very little cost, we were able to fill a significant community need using mostly creative thinking. I guess that this is the only handicap equipped fire truck in America?

Perhaps Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini said it best when he toured the Accessible Fire Truck during a recent visit to Dothan. He said, "What an ingenious idea, to be able to include all children in the pub ed experience of a fire truck ride!"

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the city manager and director of public safety in Dothan, AL. He loves old fire trucks and children, especially the disabled ones.

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