The clang of a bell in the distance. The wail of a siren quickly getting louder. Gleaming chrome against impeccable red and gold paint. A fire engine tears around a corner, on its way to help someone in need. How does a particular engine become such a vital part of our community?
Chief Warren Peterson, originally from California, has been working as the East Olympia Fire District 6 (EOFD) chief for just under five years. In addition to managing District 6, Chief Peterson makes sure the organization follows state and national standards, especially concerning budgeting matters. He says he wants to make sure the taxpayers “get the most bang for their buck.”
Fire stations are funded by local levies and bonds, as well as by general property taxes. All of these are part of how the East Olympia Fire District 6 was able to purchase their new fire engine, or “apparatus.” Currently, the local levy is set at $1.31 per $1,000 of assessed value, however, a bond measure for $2,000,000 was passed in 2016 with a 74.6% majority vote (it needed at least 60% to pass). Chief Peterson says, “We needed 60%, our citizens gave us just a shade under 75%. We see that as a huge vote of support from our community.”
The process for purchasing a new fire engine isn’t as simple as choosing one from a catalogue. It’s a months-long operation that involves detailed, multi-step planning from start to finish. Once the bond approving the purchase was passed, the department researched and decided on what specific features they were looking to have on their new engine.
Stations can buy “stock trucks” from manufacturers, but the cost difference between a pre-designed truck and a custom one is negligible. Chief Peterson states, “They’re built one at a time, so even if I were to buy a stock truck, there’s a high likelihood I would have to wait for it to be built anyway, so you might as well make sure it fits your needs.”
After selecting the features they wanted to include on their truck, the EOFD assessed which company would be most cost efficient. A major maker of fire apparatuses is Pierce Manufacturing, a subsidiary of military-vehicle manufacturer Oshkosh Corporation. One special feature the EOFD wanted in a vehicle was independent front suspension, similar to a car. “Pierce has been one of the pioneers of that [suspension type] and they build their own, so they came in as the low bidder for our truck,” Peterson says.
Once the department selected the manufacturer, Peterson visited the Appleton, Wisconsin, location to iron out the details for the order, which was placed around April 2018. Partway through the process, in August 2018, a few members from the fire department (including Chief Peterson) traveled to Appleton for a mid-construction meeting. At this meeting, they ensured the engine was being made to the District’s specifications. When the project was finally finished in late October 2018, the new fire engine was ready to find its new home in Olympia.
To get the engine to Olympia, there were options. One transportation option was to have the manufacturer drive the engine out, however, it would cost the department about $6,000. For just under $2,000, a local employee could transport the vehicle.
A retired fire chief from District 6, Melvin (Mel) Low, said he would be interested in driving the new fire engine from Wisconsin to Washington. Low is also a volunteer for the department’s county-wide support services, which fill trucks’ air tanks when there is a fire.
Chief Peterson states that having a volunteer from the district drive the truck out is one of the ways the fire stations work to respect the taxpayers and save their money. “We do our best to save money in the [purchasing] process,” he states. He also says that the department works to take good care of their equipment, which makes the vehicles (and tax dollars) last longer. East Olympia Fire District 6 has a resident mechanic who keeps all of its vehicles in tip-top condition, something that is necessary with the heavy use they are subjected to.
National guidelines recommend fire engines be replaced after 20 years, which usually works out as the vehicle being used on the front lines for about 15 years and then used as a reserve truck for the remaining five. This long lifespan is another reason the fire stations have a full-time mechanic on duty.
The previous Station 64 frontline engine was purchased in 1998, but the department plans to get another five years of use once it moves into reserves. Any reserve engines that are finally ready to retire are placed into surplus and sold. While retired engines don’t have considerable monetary value, there are many ways in which they can be put to use. For instance, one of East Olympia’s old engines was transferred to Tumwater’s New Market program for high school students in the firefighter training program. Other vehicles are sold to rural volunteer-run stations or to collectors.
On April 12, 2019, the new Engine 64 was pushed into the station in a traditional “push in ceremony,” in which all on-staff firefighters (and the fire chief) work together to push the new vehicle into the garage by hand. This tradition dates back to when fire trucks were pulled by horses and had to be manually put away at the end of the day by the firefighters. Now all new fire engines are christened this way as homage to the old trucks.
The specific type of engine EOFD purchased is known as a “triple combination pumper,” which refers to the three parts of the water pumping system. The new engine can also pump water at the speed of 1,500 gallons/minute and it carries 500 gallons of water on board.
In addition to fulfilling greater Thurston County’s firefighting needs, the East Olympia Fire District 6 supports the future of the community by offering a comprehensive training program. Interested parties can begin by volunteering at the EOFD, where they learn the skills to become a career firefighter, including the necessary medical trainings. Offering training for such a selfless job encourages the cycle of community and service that is so valued in Thurston County.