Gleaming bingo payoff Firefight: It took 29 years and endless benefits, but volunteers finally raised enough money for a high-tech firetruck and a building to house it.

October 25, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote and Ellie Baublitz | Brenda J. Buote and Ellie Baublitz,SUN STAFF

Westminster may be small-town America, but the Carroll County seat lays claim to something few other communities can: a firetruck with so many high-tech gadgets and gizmos, it is changing the way fires are fought and rescues are made.

It took 29 years, but the city's Fire Engine and Hose Company No. 1 and a persistent band of volunteers raised more than $1.5 million for the truck, called Tower 3, and a new station that can house the 48-foot-long vehicle.

Both made their debut yesterday during an emotional opening ceremony featuring a 40-piece marching band.

Volunteers held concerts, sold raffle tickets and canvassed neighborhoods for donations. The cash-strapped fire company catered dinners, sponsored community breakfasts and rented out its social hall for private gatherings.

"We had to sell a lot of pancakes and play a lot of bingo," said Fire Chief Jeffrey R. Alexander. "Westminster isn't Baltimore, but we too have to keep up with changing times. So we designed and bought a truck that will take us into the next century."

Tower 3 allows firefighters to battle blazes from the safety of an aluminum platform attached to the end of its 105-foot aerial ladder -- an improvement over the old method, which required them to dangle from a ladder by safety belt and cable.

The new system was designed to perform graceful feats. The basket tilts; the ladder rotates and lowers to ground level.

Such technology would have come in handy almost two years ago, Alexander said, when firefighters were called out to battle a five-alarm blaze at Western Maryland College.

The fire started in the basement of the school's 58-year-old Gill Gymnasium and spread throughout the building, sending a spectacular fireball through the roof. The gym was a total loss.

'Made our job easier'

"Would Tower 3 have changed the outcome? I don't know, but it would have made our job easier and safer," Alexander said. "Firefighting is no different than anything else. As technology changes, everything changes."

Buying a firetruck is similar to buying a custom-made home -- for the price of a small estate. The owner must decide which options to include, then patiently wait while it's built.

Tower 3 was three years in the making. The price tag: $682,000.

The truck has a rearview camera to help the driver back the vehicle, and the communications system features headsets for each firefighter. The ladder truck even has a new motto emblazoned above the windshield: "Takin' the Heat in the County Seat."

But Tower 3 does more than help battle blazes, Alexander said: The truck is vital to successful rescues.

The county's Advanced Technical Rescue Team recently rescued a man who had plunged 35 feet into a silo. Firefighters who perched on Tower 3's platform bucket pulled the man to safety.

"Everything worked great. The use of the bucket made a big difference. It was a very smooth operation," Alexander said.

In the past, rescue workers had to dangle off the end of a ladder, one at a time.

Replaces '69 model

Tower 3's predecessor, the 1969 American LaFrance aerial ladder truck, was considered top of the line in its day, though Alexander said that "going uphill, you felt like you had to get out and push it."

The fire company had bought the truck for $70,000 -- also after many a pancake breakfast.

Firefighters had to climb its 100-foot ladder rung by rung while weighted down with a hose and more than 20 pounds of protective equipment -- coat, pants, oxygen tank and mask.

With Tower 3, such obstacles have gone the way of typewriters and Atari video cartridges.

Firefighters now have the luxury of riding to the rescue. Tower 3's basket can hold up to 1,300 pounds -- five times the weight the old ladder could support. It has a built-in hose capable of spraying 1,500 gallons of water a minute, and the platform can tilt 90 degrees, an amenity that could be handy in difficult rescues.

Only two other stations in the Baltimore area -- Texas in Baltimore County and Sandy Spring in Montgomery County -- have similar platform ladders. Anne Arundel has several 110-foot ladder trucks, but none has a platform.

The features and technology require hours of training on Tower 3, which arrived in January -- 20 to 25 hours before firefighters can drive the truck and operate the ladder.

The 33-ton system operates on a 30-kilowatt generator powerful enough to "run a small building or the electrical system in your house," said Alexander.

It seems the only thing the truck can't do is pump its own water.

After months of deliberation, the fire officials who designed Tower 3 decided to forgo an on-board water tank in favor of storage space for emergency equipment.

Fire company members could be seen wiping away tears at noon yesterday as their old station at 66 E. Main St. was formally closed.

Then, joined by hundreds of people, including comrades from neighboring companies in the county's all-volunteer firefighting

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