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          You've always thought they were cool, and now you own one. Whether you bought it straight from the Department as an active unit, or you dragged it out of a barn, you may not even be sure what to call it -- is it a fire engine? Is it a fire truck? It might not even have anything on it -- just a plain truck with a fire body and (hopefully) a pump. How do you restore it? What should it have on it? For the fire probies among us, here a compilation of knowledge and experience to get you started, a primer for ...

Restoring / Equipping a Firebolt!
By Members of the Stovebolt Vol. Fire Dept.
  01 January 2009
   Steve Beverly's restored 1936 Chevrolet pumper.

Is it a "truck" or an "engine?"

First things first -- since fire engines and fire trucks perform significantly different functions at a fire scene, they are very different terms and should not be interchanged in use. Generically, a "truck" could be almost any vehicle used by the fire department, but the term has become specialized over the years.

Originally, "engine" referred exclusively to a "pump" -- the important tool for getting water to a fire. Today, "fire engines" are those vehicles of the fire department that pump water. The term "truck" is reserved for other types of vehicles, usually having one or more ladders.

  • Fire Engines, also commonly referred to as "pumpers," are equipped with a pump, hoses and water so personnel can aggressively fight fires. These generally are the apparatus most likely to be preserved and purchased by collectors and restorers.
  • Fire Trucks are the firefighters' tool boxes -- they carry ladders, rescue equipment and other tools to support firefighting. Some specialized trucks include:
    • Tankers -- Carry water (usually defined as 1,000 or more gallons) to engines so the engine firefighters can attack the fire. These are especially useful in rural areas where fire hydrants are not readily available. If they have a pump installed, it is generally a smaller pump designed to fill the truck's tank vice supplying water to hose teams.
    • Ladders -- Trucks carry ladder crews who fight structural fires from the tops of structures. Tower ladders, or just "towers," are a specialized form of ladder truck that carries a pneumatically or hydraulically operated extendable ladder (sometimes with a personnel basket at the end) for transporting firefighters to great heights and rescuing victims. "Snorkels" are generally towers equipped with a water monitor (high-volume water gun).
    • Squads -- Also referred to as a Rescue Company, Rescue Squad or Technical Rescue, is a type of specialty firefighting or EMS apparatus. Essentially toolboxes on wheels, they are primarily designed for technical rescue situations such as car accidents, rope rescues or building collapses.
    • Brush Units -- An off-road capable vehicle designed and equipped to fight woodland or grassland fires.
Jeff Horwedel's 1958 GMC tanker. Formerly a U.S. Forestry Service apparatus assigned to the Angeles National Forest in California, Jeff bought it at auction for $300 and restored it.

Restoring your antique apparatus

Restoring a Firebolt generally requires no specialized or different methods -- they are mostly built on the same chassis and running gear (and even the same cabs and front clips) as regular medium and heavy duty Stovebolts. Restoration of one follows the same pattern as any other big truck.

Until you get to the fire body and pump...

If you bought a truck that was in service recently (or even until you brought it home), chances are your truck will need very little except regular care and attention. If your apparatus has been out of service for awhile, be prepared to spend some time working on the vehicle's plumbing if you want to operate it for fun, musters, pumping competitions, etc. When vehicles are out of service for long periods, the seals and gaskets in the pumps and valves can dry out and disintegrate. The pump can even seize from rust, etc. So be careful when trying to engage the pump for the first time. It is advisable to have someone helping you who is experienced with fire engine pumps.

Depending upon the manufacturer, manuals and spare parts exist for a lot of older pumps. It can get expensive fast, but it is possible to resurrect a dead pump.

A lot of antique fire apparatus, especially pumpers, have lots of chrome items -- lights, sirens, gauges, valves, indicators and fittings. The expense of re-chroming all of this can be staggering, so be sure to budget for it if going the full restoration route. For example, the Mechanicsville, MD Volunteer Fire Department recently finished having a 1951 open-cab pumper professionally restored (completely frame off) at an expense of nearly $100,000 (money was provided by private donations). That is the far end of the spectrum to be sure, but illustrates that fire apparatus restoring is not for those with slim budgets.

Information sources

This 1947 ladder truck is called a "Tiller" because the rear wheels on the trailer were steerable for better maneuverability in urban settings. It served with the West Point (NY) VFD -- Although the editor is unaware of any West Point institutions worth protecting... (Go Navy!)

For guidance on your project, be sure to check for books on fire apparatus -- there are picture books available for most major manufacturers of fire apparatus. Generally, you can find images of vehicles similar to yours. Also a good source are vintage brochures and ads from the manufacturers. These can be obtained from most vintage literature dealers (check our Links) or online auctions like eBay.

While perusing vintage publications, try to find a copy of the NFPA 1901 Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. This code has been published for years by the National Fire Protection Association to outline the standard for firefighting apparatus. The listing sets minimum standards for mechanical, cosmetic, lighting and all equipment to be included with fire apparatus to be compliant in the United States.This code was originally created well prior to the '60s. It's titled NFPA-1901 (date of revision) -- in other words, the most recent version would be NFPA-1901-2008.

Each revision adds more and more equipment, mostly because the Association consists of the very manufacturers who stand to benefit if THEIR product is included in the "standard." If you want an accurate standard to apply to your vehicle, find the revision for the year prior to your vehicle's year of manufacture. But if that proves difficult, just find one for a year close to your vehicle's YOM.

 Not all Firebolts live happily ever after -- this beautiful 1954
GMC COE squad was taken out of service and sold for scrap.

You should also try the service department of your apparatus' manufacturer, if still in business. Some old companies, like W.S. Darley, for example, still exist and maintain detailed sales and service records of the equipment they've sold and serviced over the years, and you could get lucky.

Lastly, try contacting the vehicle's original in service fire department. Often, and especially if there are older members still active who remember your vehicle, you can obtain copies of histories, images and whatever else they might have that applies to your vehicle. It can be a very rewarding experience just to talk with one of the department's "tribal elders" and hear first hand accounts of your vehicle and it's community service. Unfortunately, some departments do not have members who care about their retired equipment or even their own department history, and even regard their old equipment as just so much junk -- see the image at right...

Equipping your apparatus

Again, the appropriate revision of NFPA-1901 will be your best guide to re-equipping a stripped fire apparatus. In general, there are three basic approaches to equipping a vehicle. The one you follow will be determined by what you actually want to do with the truck:

  • Cosmetic -- Those who take this route are generally looking for a vehicle to drive / haul to shows and parades. These trucks will be restored cosmetically but not necessarily to actually operate as they originally did (i.e., the pump is there for looks only). The truck merely has to "look the part" and only needs that equipment on board that would be correct and visible. Trucks that are excessively weathered to the point that restoring the pumps are not feasible can be brought up to this category. Also, very old (pre-WWII) apparatus often fall into this category by default.
  • Functional -- If you want the truck to be operational for use around a farm or for pumping at musters, etc, you may elect to make the truck functional, but not necessarily "pretty." These trucks run, drive and stop. Their pumps move water. Their tanks hold water (with a minimum of leaking!) and the valves and other plumbing work. Also falling into this category are those trucks still in original condition but have been well-maintained. They usually have a little "patina" to them, but everything still works. Most antique apparatus fall into this category or are barn finds that can be brought up to this level. Equipping for this "genre" is simple -- you only need that equipment that will allow you to do what you want to do with the truck -- whatever that is.
  • Fully Functional -- These trucks are a combination of both being cosmetically ready for parades and shows but can still move water with the best of them. They are fully outfitted as they were when in service, are ready to head to the fire, but can still hold their ground at a show, parade or muster. Trucks that have been well-maintained or recently taken out of service are easy to keep at this level. Others depend on what you start with with.
   Bill Wolf's restored and fully functional 1943 Chevrolet 1.5-ton    military fire engine with Darley pump and Oren body.

A basic tool list for most apparatus

Although you should refer to the NFPA-1901 revision appropriate for your truck, here's a basic list of equipment to give you an idea of what a typical pumper might carry.

  • Wrenches: There are many different types of hydrant wrenches, some because the cities where the departments 'way back when' were involved in competition with each (insurance company) fire station, they had their own size outlets on 'plugs' or hydrants as known today. For hose wrenches, you should have one for a 2-1/2'' -- a curved or rounded outlet with an eye combined with a 5 sided adjustable wrench, also a rubber mallet. To prevent sparks, brass wrenches are the ticket. Most today are high strength aluminum. Some combo wrenches are used to turn OFF residential natural gas line feeds.
  • Nozzles: Hand held nozzles and pistol grip nozzles with adjustable feed / spray patterns -- Akron / Elkhart / Protek. Alone with nozzles that fit garden hoses both adjustable and non-adjustable. You should have several for garden hoses. Many hardware stores carry the newer ''cooler'' garden plastic type hardware in 3/4'' and 1-1/2.'
  • Ground wire: Your truck should also have a ground, to ground the truck to a metal rod or hydrant.
  • Reducers / Couplers: You should have fittings to match the outlet / inlet fittings on your truck, as well as reducers for coupling bigger outlets to a smaller one, be it fire hoses or firehose to garden hose.
  • Hard Sleeves / Suction Hoses: Any truck with a pump should have the hard (usually black) lines for taking suction from a water source (a pond or hydrant). You should also have a suction hose strainer for water intake (out of lakes / ponds) attached to the drafting end of the hard suction hose, used to keep debris from entering the fire pump. These come as either floating units or non-floating units. One trick the pros use with non-floating units to minimize the debris intake is to strap the suction hose to a ladder and then lay the ladder in the water, thus keeping the strainer out of the mud.
  • Extinguisher: All antique vehicles should carry a fire extinguisher. Fire apparatus are not complete without one or two for putting out small fires for which large amounts of water are not needed.
    • Portable ABC fire extinguisher
    • Portable water filled hand pumpers like the "Indian Pumper" are still readily available.
  • Turn-Out Jackets / Pants / Boots and Helmet (Bunker Gear): Goes without saying, but you can't have a fire engine without also having this gear! If just for show, old / antique turnout gear is readily available.
  • Ladders: Most apparatus will carry an assortment of ladders -- usually, an extension ladder and an attic ladder.
General Items        
  • Wheel Chocks
  • 5" Stortz to 6" NST Adapter
  • Extinguishers
  • Dozen Flares
  • Traffic Flashlights
  • Hose Straps
  • Bag of Extraction Wedges
  • Ladder Leveling Wedge
  • Hose Roller
  • 1 1/2" Nozzles
  • 1-1/2'' - 2-1/2'' & 5" Cap
  • 5" Spanner Wrench
  • 2 1/2" Female Quick Connect Couplings
  • 2 1/2" Male Quick Connect Couplings
  • Raleigh Male to NST Female
  • Raleigh Female to NST Male
  • Raleigh Female to NST Female
  • 2 1/2" to 1 1/2" Reducer
  • 2 1/2" Raleigh to 1 1/2" NST Reducer
  • 2 1/2" Double Male Adapters
  • 2 1/2" Double Female Adapters
  • Gate Valve Hose Wye - 'Y'
  • Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus -- You can still find vintage SCBA units that would be correct for your era truck, but they are usually non-functional and meant for display only. Be careful if filling older air tanks -- have them re-certified first!
  • Hydrant Bag with the following contents
    • 2 1/2" Raleigh Female to NST Male Adapter
    • Hydrant Wrench
    • Spanner Wrench
    • 5" Spanner Wrench
    • Flashlight

  • Tools   Tool Box
    • Rubber Mallet
    • 4 lb. Hammer
    • Pry Bar
    • Halligan Bar
    • 36" Sheetrock Puller
    • Flat Shovel
    • Folding Shovel
    • pike pole
    • axe
    • Fire Rake and Pulaski (for brush units)
    • Broom
    • Hose Reel Hand Crank
    • 36" Closet Hook
    • 6-8 Tall Traffic Cones
    • 8 lb. Sledge Hammer
    • Large Bolt Cutters
    • Roll of Duct Tape
    • 10 /12" Adjustable Wrench
    • Tape Measure
    • Hex Wrench Set
    • Roll of Electrical Tape
    • Hacksaw & Spare Blades
    • Slim-Jim Set
    • Diagonal Cutters
    • (2) Booster Line Spanner Wrenches
    • Roll of Red Flagging Tape
    • 10" Adjustable Wrench
    • Pliers
    • Razor Cutter
    • Needle Nose Pliers
    • Vice Grips
    • Needle Nose Vice Grips
    • 3/8", 7/16", 1/2", 5/8", 9/16", 11/16" Wrench Set
    • Wire Cutters
    • 4-Way Screw Driver

    Vehicle Cab
    • Radios -- If your vehicle does not still have one, vintage UHF radios can be found correct for your era truck -- they may not be functional, but your cab will look right! Also, a CB radio comes in handy when traveling with friends/other antique trucks
    • Binoculars
    • When going to shows or parades, don't forget your modern conveniences like your camera, cell phone, GPS, etc!


    Pumps -- The heart of a Firebolt!

    The front-mounted pump on the front of this 1965 GMC tanker is actually a W.S Darley Champion, manufactured in 1945. The owner contacted Darley and was able to obtain a copy of the entire service and sales records for this individual pump, as well as a service manual. Driven off the engine's harmonic balancer, this pump's capacity is 500 gallons per minute.

    If you're a newcomer to Firebolts, you might be wondering why some trucks have pumps mounted on the front, and others don't. The two most common pump locations on antique Firebolts are the Front-Mounted Pump (also referred to as a "Bumper Pumper") and the Mid-Ship Mounted Pump (the more common location, especially on modern and city trucks).

    Front-Mounted Pump

    A front-mount pump is typically (but not always) a smaller pump, driven off the front end of the drive shaft on a conventional (hood forward) truck chassis. Some front-mounted pumps are driven by a short shaft connected directly to the front of the engine (harmonic balancer).

    The pump has its own, self-contained transmission, and because it's not connected to the truck's transmission, offers a "pump and roll" capability -- it can pump water (usually from the truck's on-board tank) while the vehicle is moving.

    This is no small feature to rural departments that fight wild fires often. Fire apparatus manufacturer literature touts "pump and roll, for fighting running grass fires!" and shows a fire fighter sitting on the front fender of the truck, with a booster line, spraying ahead of the truck.

    A front-mount pump can be an excellent introduction to antique fire engines because of their small, approachable size and absolute simple operation. Perfect for musters, too.

    Other benefits of the front-mount pump:

    • Front-mounts offer excellent ability to draft water. Just nose the truck to the edge of a pond, lake, creek, pool, whatever . . . hook up the hard suctions and dump 'em in. The drive wheels stay on solid, dry ground. Simplified plumbing means far fewer opportunities for "air leaks", which prevent pump priming and drafting. With a mid-ship, you would typically have to "parallel park" against the water, which can isolate the engineer, provides less space between the truck and water, and is logistically less desirable.
    • Virtually always, a front-mount has fewer controls, and is far simpler to operate. Again, partly this is due to the elimination of the transmission interference issue, and also because these pumps are (were) rarely "two stage" pumps. A two stage pump has two impellers rather than one, and a more complicated case offering pumping in "volume" (both impellers pumping equal amount at equal, lower pressure), or "pressure" (one impeller pumps half-as-much water at one pressure, into the second impeller, which doubles the pressure, delivering half the volume.) For the engineer, this can add many complications to determine which is the better mode in which situation.
      Not only that, but you can usually see all of the discharges on the front-mount, so there's no guessing about whether you're opening the captain's side discharge, the rear left, or rear right discharge, etc. etc.
    • Manufacturers claim better weight distribution, as well as leaving far more room for the water tank and/or equipment behind the cab.

    Mid Ship-Mounted Pump

    A Mid-ship pump is typically mounted aft of the transmission (usually at about the middle of the truck frame (hence the name) with a separate pump transmission which chooses between the pump and the rear differential. A mid-ship is engaged by pushing in the clutch, shifting the pump tranny from "Road" to "pump," shifting the truck into high gear (4th or 5th), and releasing the clutch. There's usually a locking mechanism to prevent the shifter from jumping out of gear.


    • Mid-ship mounts can be MUCH larger, since you can hang more weight between the wheels, than beyond the front axle. The drive-shaft arrangement provides the beefier power delivery required by a heavier pump pushing more water. This means greatly increased pumping capacity.
    • The larger pumps can offer better Series-Parallel (Pressure vs. Volume) capability, which allows a competent engineer to choose the best mode and lowest engine speed for a given pumping requirement.
    • The central location offers infinite plumbing options, including a deluge gun right above, and discharges anywhere you can point a finger.
    • Most would say the mid-ship pump is far better protected than the front-mount.

    These are the two most common, but they are not the only combinations. Fire engines have been built in every possible configuration. Airport crash trucks can flow tremendous amounts of water and foam while moving. But they "cheat" by having a dedicated engine driving the pump only. And a mid-ship pump can be driven off of a PTO if desired, which would offer pump and roll, but PTOs are generally not sturdy enough to drive as large a pump as a traditional mid-ship arrangement.

    Safety First!

    Mike Boteler's 1957 Chevrolet/John Bean fire engine pumping water at the Westminster (MD) SPAAMFAA Muster

    If your Firebolt is your first large antique vehicle, keep in mind that it will drive and stop differently than smaller and lighter vehicles. When loaded with hose and all the equipment listed above (and water in the tank), it will be at, or near, it's maximum gross weight. So be sure all your vehicle lights, brakes, steering and engine are in good condition. Your truck drives and stops differently than smaller / lighter trucks!

    Also, operating antique equipment at high water pressures is inherently dangerous! Make sure your hose, connectors and nozzles are up to the task before charging a line. If you are not trained to operate the equipment on your truck, please have a seasoned professional teach you how to operate your rig safely and responsibly.

    And about those lights and sirens ....

    Keep in mind that in most states it is illegal for vehicles other than in-service emergency vehicles operated by qualified personnel to have operational emergency lights (blue or red) and sirens. If your lights and siren work, be careful not to turn them on when operating your vehicle on a public road or highway. It sure is tempting to flip on the lights or hit the siren every now and then -- don't! Most state and local law enforcement agencies leave us alone because we respect the law. Don't be the one who changes the status quo!

    When you are in traffic in your rig, you are just like all the other civilian vehicles -- move to the right if an emergency vehicle comes up behind you. If you come onto an accident scene, just keep moving with traffic -- the pros will have things under control and if they need you, they will let you know. You can offer assistance (if you have water onboard, for example) but don't block traffic and don't get in the way or make a pest of yourself.

    Further info ....


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