Not many people know that Central Pierce Fire & Rescue saves lives with what used to be a beer truck.
The vehicle is used as a makeshift rescue rig, carrying equipment for the fire department’s most technical emergency calls, including rescues involving structural collapse, trenches and confined spaces.
For almost 20 years, it’s done its job — mostly. Now it’s time for the 1981 International Harvester to make way for a brand new rescue rig, saving the department — and taxpayers — thousands of dollars in maintenance costs.
“The new rig will be safer for us getting down the road (and be) easier to maintain,” Lt. Josh Farris said.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Firefighters say the beer truck is outdated and costly. When it breaks down, it can spend weeks in the maintenance shop, costing the department thousands.
“They literally go to a junkyard to find parts for it,” Farris said. “It doesn’t meet any of the current safety standards.”
The department purchased the vehicle from National Distributing Inc. for $1 in 2000. The beverage distribution company donated beer trucks for similar uses to other fire departments.
Central Pierce staff don’t know exactly what type of beer the truck used to carry. The distribution company lists dozens of beers and wines on its website.
But it was designed to carry heavy things and only needed some added compartments and a paint job. The beer truck can hold up to 25,000 pounds of gear.
Now, 18 years and 209,000 miles later, the beer truck is on its last legs. On average, the department estimates it spends $3,000 on maintenance of the vehicle annually. The most recent work cost the department $6,000.
Firefighters aren’t too upset to see it go. Their fingernails scrape the dashboard when they turn the wheel, leaving indentations. There are no seat belts or air bags. There’s a spot in the windshield that leaks when it rains.
Driving it is what firefighter Marc Peal imagines “re-entering the atmosphere in a space shuttle” must feel like.
Central Pierce Fire has been working on design of a new rig for years, but due to lack of funds never got the project off the ground.
That changed this year when the department was awarded a $681,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program.
The grant, written by Farris, will be put toward a brand new rescue rig — a real one, this time. It’ll cover the majority of the cost of the rig, with the department covering the rest of the approximate $800,000 cost.
It’s Central Pierce’s first-ever heavy rescue rig. At 40 feet long and 10 feet tall, the rig can carry 40,000 pounds of gear.
“To me, what it means is we’ll be able to respond to all those technical calls in a safer manner,” Farris said. “When we arrive with that vehicle, it’s going to have better lighting (and) access to equipment.”
“It’s going to be way more reliable,” added Central Pierce Fire Chief Mike Kondra. “There have been times where we’ve either gotten to the scene or we’re trying to get to the scene and (the beer truck) won’t start or we have mechanical problems with it.”
The old beer truck will be used for training purposes and then destroyed.
As the Pierce County area explodes with growth, the potential need for a heavy rescue rig is increasing, said Central Pierce staff. Giant cement pieces for projects in the Seattle area sometimes pass through local arterials, including state Route 512 and Canyon Road.
“If one of those things tips over, that’s 30 tons,” Farris said.
Vehicles traveling local roads are becoming heavier, and so is the equipment needed to move them. The new rig is will be the only vehicle in the district capable of doing that.
The department’s new rig is expected to be built by fall 2019. It will be held at Station 61 in Parkland — the department’s busiest station — but will be used across the county, and if necessary, across Western Washington.