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The aerial truck of the 1980s is a country gentleman

August 12, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
When I just say it, 32 years as a local news media guy doesn’t seem all that long.

But then, a picture will slide through my computer like the one that’s on the website and on page 1A of today’s Herald-Star, reminding me that 32 years, indeed, is a long time.

The picture is of the New Alexandria Fire Department painting a tall flagpole at the Jefferson County fairgrounds. They’re using the big boom ladder of their big aerial truck.

The truck is Sutphen job No. 1931, delivered in 1986 to the Steubenville Fire Department. It’s a 100-foot telescoping ladder with a 1,500 gallon-per-minute pumper on the truck. New, it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Steubenville couldn’t afford it. But thanks to its concentration of low-income residents in the downtown area, it was able to show need and use part of the Community Development Blcok Grant money it was receiving to buy the big truck.

It was sorely needed. The old aerial truck was out of service permanently because, frankly, it could have killed a firefighter. It was, if memory serves me right, what we knew as kids as a “hook-and-ladder” truck. It looked like it was built in the 1950s. The big bolts that held the ladder boom to the truck were susceptible to corrosion and were suspect in inspections in its final years.

The answer was to go with the Cadillac of fire engines, the huge Sutphen. It weighed too much for the North Street headquarters station to hold. The floors had to be shored up before the shiny new truck moved permanently into its home. Compared with the engine it was replacing, it was an absolute behemoth. And I kind of recall Chief Mencer got upset when I made a stab at my usual “governments are idiots” humor by writing a column about needing to shore up the floors lest the biggest rescue vehicle in the area need rescued from a basement on North Street.

Along the way, the young reporter learned a lot about the technical aspects of fire trucks, their construction, and the capabilities of different engines.

The Sutphen served faithfully for his Steubenville career. (I assume fire engines are masculine, no offense to Chief Terri English. I just cannot imagine that truck being called “Freda” or “Madge” or something. It was always kind of an “Al” or “Big John” to me. If it spoke, it would have had an Irish accent, by way of Brooklyn.) I don’t recall hearing of it being unreliable, out of service for too long, nor was it on delivery filled with the kind of bugs that a massive, custom-built machine could be. It hit the roads and fought the fires. It was a welcome sight to me anytime I pulled up to a fire scene, camera in hand. I figured it was big and strong and it would both protect me and let me sit on a bumper and ask the chief questions.

That truck was one of the things that came to mind and made me hurt Sept. 11, 2001. The sight of those big, strong fire engines flattened and burned and destroyed made me angry. And sad. And filled with sorrow for 343 firefighters. Fire trucks are supposed to be big and shiny and strong and undefeatable. They win, every time.

When the truck retired, I felt a little twinge of time passing. When I spotted it parked next to the New Alexandria station, I felt a bigger twinge.

“Hey,” I yelled to no one, easy because nobody else was in the car, “that’s MY fire truck. What’s it doing there?”

Serving its life as a country gentleman in semi-retirement, that’s what.

You guys down in New Alex, take care of MY truck, OK?


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