Alaska Chief Racks Up Miles While Acquiring Fire Truck

July 12, 2008
Thorne Bay Chief Ronald Currit and his 18-year-old son Joseph flew to Perth Amboy, N.J. and drove back a pumper truck.

For one week in April, Fire Chief Ronald Currit went above and beyond his duties as head of Thorne Bay, Alaska's volunteer fire department.

The chief and his 18-year-old son Joseph flew to Perth Amboy, N.J. and drove back a pumper truck. They drove nearly 4,000 miles in the truck before boarding two ferries to make it back to their small town of 400 people.

In all, the trip took one week to complete.

Currit -- who was appointed chief of the department last October with no previous experience -- said it all started when their 1970 American LaFrance tanker truck froze up earlier this year.

The 10-member department also has a 1986 Ford pumper truck that is active. While Thorne Bay is a small town, its coverage area stretches over 30 square-miles. Because of this, there are two stations positioned on each side of the town.

Currit said not having a second truck made things very difficult and he began searching for parts for the broken down truck on the Internet.

"It's real hard to get parts or anything because you just can't drive out to get it," he said. "We're kind of out in the wilderness."

Finding a new fire truck

During his search, Currit found a Web site for a contest held by Quality 1st Basement Systems, a basement waterproofing company located in Perth Amboy, he submitted his story and two days later, he received an e-mail that read: "If you can get it home you can have it."

Bob Cherry, the company's general manager, said that for close to a year, the 1977 Hahn pumper truck was used in parades and to promote the company. It was wrapped in the company's logo and even bore a tribute to 9/11 firefighters.

"At first everyone wanted to do it," Cherry said about driving the truck and taking part in parades. But soon the novelty wore off and after they missed a parade or two, they decided to sell it.

Despite its age, the pumper truck only had 4,000 hours and 20,000 miles on it.

After being approached by companies that wanted to use it for the same purpose, Cherry said owner Tom Roman -- former firefighter -- said, 'This thing has hardly any use on it; we should find someone who really needs it."

With that, a Web site was built and a contest was created; challenging small fire departments to submit their story with a chance to win the truck.

Cherry said the company fielded about 10 or so submissions, mostly from nearby departments that needed backup trucks. Then they saw the submission from Throne Bay.

"It was a real, 'We need a fire truck or we won't have one,' story," he said.

The submission from Alaska, though, came out of left field, Cherry said. "We thought, 'Is this real? How did they find it? How will they bring it back?"

Moving the truck

"I knew I'd have to drive it back," Currit said.

He went to the city council and the city administrator asking for help to fund the trip. "Everyone was positive and willing to help us out," he said. "They said, 'How soon can we do this?"

Currit said all of his firefighters jumped at the chance to join him on the journey, but that unfortunately the city's budget only allowed it to fund his portion of the trip. He paid the way for Joseph to join him.

The 57-year-old fire chief said that for 30 years he drove refrigerated trailers cross-country for a company based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. "It was a trip down memory lane," he said.

Currit said it was a great experience for himself and his son -- who had never ventured out of the west coast before the trip.

One rude awakening for Joseph -- as well as the elder Currit -- occurred in Iowa, where the temperature dropped down bellow 10 degrees.

"Right now it's in the 90 degrees (in Thorne Bay)," he said. "In the winter it'll get down between 10 and 15 degrees, but it never drops bellow that."

Another such moment occurred in cold weather. While just about everything on the truck worked fine, there was one thing the chief didn't take into account.

"We didn't need the windshield wipers until we hit a blizzard in Oregon," he said. "When we turned them on they fell apart."

Currit stood outside the truck, covered in snow, putting the windshield wipers back together at 3 a.m.

Aside for the frigid moments, there were plenty of highlights.

In Idaho he talked to the scale master for almost an hour, who was amazed by the sight of the truck.

In Wyoming, two retired state troopers followed the truck into a rest stop and wanted to take pictures with it.

During the entirety of the trip, the truck averaged a speed of 55 miles an hour, "Which is a little slow on the freeway," Currit said. But he added that despite that, people just kept "waving and smiling at the pretty truck."

Back in town

"The fire crew was very impressed," he said. Because of the distance between the two stations, however, the other half of the crew didn't see it for about a week.

A few weeks ago, the pumper truck saw its first action by way of a 10-acre brush fire. Before that it had only been used for training.

Currently, the truck still has Quality 1st Basement Systems' logo on it, but soon Currit plans to get it painted. He's also still looking for parts for the old American LaFrance that broke down and hopes to eventually have three active trucks.

It was time well spent for the man whose family moved to the small town in 1959 when he was eight years old. Since then he has moved and came back three times with the last move back occuring five years ago.

"I have a feeling of pride that I am able to do things for the town I grew up in," he said. "To be able to take this trip and get something they desperately need ... It's very special"

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