In the March 1981 Fire Chief, I had the honor of seeing in print the most exciting story I ever wrote, called "Firetown, U.S.A." It was about the progressive fire department of Wellsboro, a small Pennsylvania community that sits on the state's northern boundary, population under 4,000.
I've never had a greater impact on my senses than when I looked out from a balcony in the fire station and counted 12 pumpers, two mini-pumpers, a ladder truck, four ambulances, a heavy rescue, a tractor-trailer tanker and two snowmobiles in one sweep.
The pumpers were five across, two deep. The front five were all American LaFrance 900 models bought used and locally rebuilt with what I call the Wellsboro package, which gave them a distinctive look.
This organization had so many unusual and great aspects that if I listed them all, we would have editorial mayhem along with a wild-eyed editor tearing at his beard.
You see, in addition to that story, I wrote four more over the years to chronicle the updates of this department. These began with "Wellsboro: A unique fire department," July 1983. "A new hose load: The Firetown fold" came in August 1983. In May 1985 we ran "Wellsboro revisited," and in December 1989 there was "Wellsboro re-revisited."
Small town, big departmentWhy so much about this one fire department? It was unique, it was big and it was visitor friendly. I can't possibly list this organization's progress in an entire copy of the magazine, so if you want to know the whole story of what happened over the years, you can view those older articles on the Fire Chief Web site, .>
Just to list a few apparatus updates over the time span mentioned above would show that those upgrades were ongoing. The old ladder truck was replaced by a quint, and an articulated elevating platform was put in service, along with the first of the large combination command post/heavy rescue units I ever saw. Shortly after this went into operation, it seemed like every fire department got into a contest to see who could come up with the biggest of them.
Nor was this the end of the acquisitions. The two mini-pumpers were replaced with new ones. One of the American LaFrance pumpers had a Squrt-type boom retrofitted, and a light command vehicle also went into the line. So as previously written, this was a big fire department.
Why so big? One reason is that in addition to the Borough of Wellsboro, fire protection is furnished to three additional fire districts. The terrain round and about is mountainous and rugged and also consists of a great deal of wildland. A lively tourist trade is common in the whole area, so the combination of non-natives in wilderness settings can generate some interesting problems. Of course, regardless of what happens to anyone anywhere, who gets the call? It comes with the territory.
Before we get to the current side of our story, you should know that, over the years, the Wellsboro Fire Department took some of the revenue it had acquired and invested it in property. One plot they own has a fast food restaurant built on it with a long-term lease. In addition to other holdings, they bought a large warehouse complex. It was mostly idle, but space was leased for small businesses.
That, at least, partially gives you an idea of the Wellsboro Fire Department from 1981 through 1989. What cut the tie between me and this fantastic organization? Mostly my own health and a need to limit my travel.
The next chapterSome years later, during a seminar I was giving at which I lauded this celebrated organization, I had word that major changes had occurred there, and I began to wonder about this. Soon after, I got a call from my old friend and fire service associate Leo E. Duliba, a retired lieutenant of the Jamestown (N.Y.) Fire Department and author of numerous books. In his never-ending travels, he stopped in Wellsboro, had a look and rushed for a telephone.
So on May 25, 1997, friend Leo and I approached the town of grace, cameras loaded and clipboards at the ready. Our first sight, not at all typical to most fire departments but common to Wellsboro, was a used fire truck lot.
Across the street from the fire station sat four pumpers, one of which was an American LaFrance 700. It had a shroud over most of it, and we were informed that it was to be preserved for historical purposes. Nearby was a row of three American LaFrance 900 pumpers, each with a "For Sale" sign. These were part of what I used to call the front five. They were still looking good, showing the Wellsboro package of up to 12 preconnects, but now declared surplus in favor of a slightly different concept.
The fire station looked less congested than it had in previous visits. Gone were the two mini-pumpers, the tractor-trailer tanker and a number of pumpers, including what I called the second string that sat behind the front five.
Missing also was the big rescue, and sadly we learned that it was in for major repairs after a recent serious accident. Happily, it has since been repaired and gone back into service, with a new eight-person American LaFrance Eagle cab.
After adjusting our constitutions to this alteration of matters, we sat down with three chief officers to find out what changes had been made and, if possible, why.
Prior to our report, let a few paragraphs be devoted to the makeup of the Wellsboro Fire Department, so that the reader can envision the base organization. It's all volunteer with 75 active members, nine of whom are women. When a person achieves membership and training, he or she is assigned two sets of protective clothing. One set is kept at the fire station. Each member has a compartment on a fire station wall with his or her name attached for this hitch. The second set of protective clothing goes with the member to be ready at home or possibly in the personal car. He or she also gets a pager and a pass device in the event of fireground disablement.
The fire department protects the Borough of Wellsboro and three rural townships. These cover over 100 square miles, within which the population stands at around 10,000. Each year, the department responds to some 400 fire calls and in the area of 1,200 emergency medical responses. Their territory has a great variance of terrain, ranging from urban and industrial on one hand, to rural aspects on through mountain canyons. Five sirens in the borough sound the audible alarm, and of course there's the usual radio dispatch for the primary alert.
Continuing evolutionOur discussion with Wellsboro's chief officers indicated that they'd decided, after due deliberation, that their fire fleet, most of it bought secondhand, was old. Fleet maintenance costs were increasing, and it was thought that incorporating more functions on certain pumpers would better meet their challenge of local industries using newer and more hazardous chemicals. Dangers here, it was suggested, seemed to need addressing.
Fewer vehicles doing more would also eliminate the need for so many drivers which, at various hours in a small town, is just about everyone's problem.
Several of the new pumpers are equipped to dispense Class A foam as well as Class B. The officials state that the use of Class A foam on structure fires is most impressive to them. The Wellsboro Fire Department is also incorporating positive-pressure ventilation, which they favor, into their attack process.
This fire department has long been known for its 5-inch ldh, of which they have an inventory of over 10,000 feet. In long lays it previously came off of several units. To eliminate using multiple units, they built, locally, a hose wagon that carries 5,500 feet.
Off-road wilderness challenges are being served by an assembly of equipment that was new to me. They have a trailer that can be towed to a remote location, where a ramp is lowered and two all-terrain vehicles come out. One is equipped with a pump, a water tank and hoseline. The other is set up for rescue and medical emergencies. Two snowmobiles are also available for incidents in winter to which no other transportation is available.
New apparatus on-line to replace the apparatus up for sale are an S&S elliptical-style tanker with a 3,000-gallon capacity and a Spartan full crew cab. To further add to its potency, it's equipped with a 1,250gpm pump. There's also an Emergency One Protector model with a 1,250gpm pump and a 1,000-gallon tank. The tanker was built in 1994 and the pumper in 1993.
There is another pumper also built by Emergency One. In this case it's on a Ford F-800 chassis and was built in 1995. It has a 1,250gpm pump and a 1,000-gallon tank. What makes this unit so valuable in the Wellsboro lineup is that it's equipped with full-time four-wheel drive.
In the pipeline in 1997 was a used American LaFrance with a 1,750gpm pump and a 750-gallon water tank. This is a Century model built in 1981 and at the time of my visit, it was being rebuilt to the Wellsboro standard. This is now in service as a standby rescue pumper. In addition to firefighting equipment, it carries jaws, air bags, hydraulic rams, cribbing and hand tools for vehicle extrication.
Still to come is a good-sized trailer that will be converted to a command center to be brought to the site of major incidents. As you can read, this fire department is ever working something up for the good of its constituents.
Also placed in service since my visit was a 1997 Ford Super Duty 4Yen4 squad unit with a custom rescue body, used for light rescue work. Its four-door chassis has seating for six, and the vehicle is equipped for high-angle rope rescue, water rescue, hazmat response and ice rescue. In addition, it carries a full complement of firefighting hand tools and vehicle rescue equipment, such as jaws and air bags.
Money and moreWhere is the funding coming for all this enterprise? As in many volunteer fire departments, from various sources, although a lot of the purchases mentioned have come from the liquidation of real estate assets accumulated over time.
The officers involved are very enthusiastic over getting the department's entire inventory on computer and providing laptop computers for the apparatus. They pride themselves for having things like those five sirens in the community for audible notice of alarms and things like six sets of jaws at the ready.
Another Wellsboro activity is a Boy Scout Explorer post. It's open to both boys and girls and currently has 10 youths enrolled. The post's advisors hope that this exposure to the fire department will act as a recruiting device in the fullness of time.
Another aspect of the Wellsboro Fire Department is their task force, which neighboring communities in need at alarm time can request. If they do, they'll get the big rescue rig, the aerial ladder or quint, two pumpers, the tanker, the hose wagon and the squad, which is an awesome bit of assistance at anybody's fire.
If you should travel to Wellsboro, either by passing through or by appointment, the tour of the facilities is one you won't soon forget. These folks have plenty to show you and they seem to love visitors.
They now stand with four pumpers, a tanker, an elevating platform, a quint, a heavy rescue, a hose truck, a brush truck, several utility rigs and four ambulances. This is down some in numbers from what it was in 1981 when I got my first emotional rush in Wellsboro, but awesome still. The current chief officers did not object to my suggestion for a title to this update: "Firetown U.S.A.: New and improved."