What’s in your big red tool box?

CarolinaFireJournal - SANDY WILBORN
04/26/2010 -

Monty Hall used to say, “Let’s see what’s behind door number one.” Or, “I will trade what you have for what is behind door number two,” and so on.


As I move out of the way of the newer, younger generation, it comes to mind some of the things we saw in earlier apparatus and what is in those super sized tool boxes of today.

Back in the day, most fire trucks were red, and most looked the same, even with the different manufacturer’s makes and models. Now they range from mini units to the super tankers and everywhere in between. Now colors are what ever the rainbow offers — orange, blue, purple, yellow, green, black, and yes, still some red ones. Instead of painted diamond plate steel, there are sheets and sheets of stainless, shiny aluminum, diamondette, and poly for deoration, along with the newer Chevron on the rear. 



This 1960s truck shows the short compartment.

Back in the 60s, you found most trucks to have four to six small, short compartments with similar equipment packed in them. Some carried extra turnout gear. The boots were like waders, and the coats looked like something out of a western movie. Also included were a couple flashlights — heavy as a bathtub — and a new device called an educator, for one, three or six percent Class B foam. Others might store those three buckets of Class B foam, an electric box fan for ventilation, a drop cord, a plastic meter can cover, a toolbox from Western Auto or Pep Boys.

And maybe some will remember those boxes that held a newer piece of equipment called an air pack — SCBA, and they had a doff and don switch on many of them. Most of the first ones had a steel bottle rated for 1800 PSI and a few were up to 2216. Many trucks had two of these. But with the old “smoke eaters,” we were intimidated if we got them out or tried to wear them. They also had a nasty nickname for those who did wear them. That is part of the reason when you see some of the old firefighters at reunions, and department anniversary parties, or functions; they are the ones with the oxygen bottles, or hacking and coughing from some of those earlier tactics. Might even be the reason for the meeting to celebrate their history or passing. With a couple ladders, a bubble gum machine for a light, and a pump, these were our Class A Pumpers.



This 1970s truck shows a compartment with an eductor, a foam nozzle called a playpipe, and a foam pail.

Now rolls around the 70s and trucks take on a little change, adding top mount pump houses, high side compartments for more air packs, (SCBA), portable generators for running those old fan boxes, and better lights. ISO points brought on a few more items for the BIG RED TOOLBOX to carry. Traffic vests, tarps and rolls of plastic for salvage procedures. We added in stripes and reflective lamps and lens on the trucks for better exposure at night. Some trucks now carried a water tank or drop tank for water storage, and different plastic or aluminum hardware to make its use handy for the pump operator.

A large device, called a butterfly valve was added to the outsides for easier drafting and changing over for water storage operations. Around this time if the cab seated more than two or three personnel, it might have been in jump seats facing rearward, or even in open areas with little or no weather protection. Most of these started adding on lots more room on top for supply hosing and larger attack hose. We sure were proud to have these new apparatus in our stations.



This 1980 style top mount pump shows a narrow walk through panel.

During the awesome 80s trucks began to sprout all types of fresh equipment, update many of the older ones, and seem to come in all of the Easter Egg colors plus some of the most beautiful red, cranberry, and wines imaginable. Wow, just look at the doors. Might find four on the cab and eight to 10 on the body with loads of compartment space. Trucks got larger and longer and higher. Made most of us take a long look at the old firehouse for space, and ways of putting these new luxury liners in the house.

Gone is the bubble gum machine lights on top, replaced with light bars with multiple rotators or flashers that really light up our newer machines. More handy lights, both portable, and truck mounted. We even had some lights in the compartments now. You can see some of those things that you had never taken out except to inventory or clean and service.

Some added in new high KW generators, and we changed some on-board equipment to make the task of firefighting easier and more efficient. Better radios for communication, updated SCBA and spare bottles, more sizes of air mask, even spectacle kits for us visually challenged firefighters.

Better tools for gaining entry into homes and business for attack. Many left very little damage to the homeowners or business door locks. Foam eductors were being replaced with easier to use higher capability units such as around the pump, in-line eductors and some were coming out that could be installed behind the panel for quicker assembly and implementation.

A big port on top of the truck shows up and can be attached with a device for large master streams to be applied straight from the trucks. New types of hose and nozzles are hitting the scene. Large units, or a portable bag, with an array of medical use paraphernalia and equipment, for using on injured firefighters as well as victims in wrecks and other mishaps, is replacing those old first aid kits.

Training has taken a change also. Gasoline engines are beginning to be a thing of the past. Diesels are hitting the market and larger, more powerful trucks. Brakes and suspension as well as steering are a great improvement. We don’t have to get Marsaille and the Ledbetter’s to drag their feet to stop that big rig.


Quickly as birthdays come around for an older person, the 90s have hit the world with great speed. Innovation and imagination are only hindered by the purse. Funding in most areas is no longer by donations and knocking on doors. Cooking chicken and pigs for Bar-B-Que are becoming part of the past. We actually should have painted pigs and chickens on the sides of the trucks as they furnished a major portion of the funding in earlier days.

Most areas are supported by the community with taxed levies, or Fire Tax Districts, and make the fire departments try to catch up with the growth of the community. With the taxpayers footing the bill, they want their fire protection to be the best — sometimes not understanding that we have to buy, order, and wait for newer, more capable equipment. Budgeting and planning for the future is expensive and difficult. Some of the equipment we need takes months to get, not counting those big RED trucks. A truck can take a year or more to arrive and thousands of hours of planning and testing and checking to make ready for delivery, much less loading them to put in service.

We have to obtain more, and more equipment due to personal safety and the knowledge of variables that hurt or kill us with instant or down the road results. Turn out gear has evolved into protective levels beyond anything from the past. Air packs (SCBA) is now far superior to earlier and has positive pressure, for safety. Many trucks carry from six to 10 now, that can supply air for up to an hour each, and those cabs have four doors with seats in it for storage of the SCBA to help prepare for the firefighting task to be performed while in route to the scene.

Booster reels are drifting out and jump lines, or trash lines on the front of the trucks extended bumper is a handy, heavily used tool. The days of the lever puller has past and it takes a highly trained, masterful operator to run these newer sophisticated pumps with a dozen or more outlets and three or four intakes, including the rear and front intakes. These trucks are being updated with much better brakes, steering, and stouter suspension. Some have ladder racks that extend above the truck and carry suction hose and pike poles and much more.

Now we look in cabinets behind those roll up doors, as the old slammers were not as handy or safe. What would we need a camera for that can scope though walls or in bushes to find objects? Thermal imaging cameras (TIC) have really helped with our task. Find downed victims, hidden fire spots without damage, and have been used in training probies by letting them see the fire and smoke overhead in super heated room. There is at least one cabinet filled with portable radios, chargers, camera batteries, pagers, flashlights on charge and we are able to record this information with on-board cameras as it can be used for later training or just to see what actually happened without variance. Strobe lights flicker and light the paths and make you look like you are doing some type of psychedelic dance.



Pictured is an extended front bumper with a Federal Q and a jump or trash line in the well.

With the onset of the 21st century, here we are in the 2000s. Now that little fire engine we remember has to do a multitude of jobs and carry enough equipment to do all of them. Medical calls, wrecks, brush fires, house and industry all pose different problems for the firefighter and require a multitude of specialized equipment.

We lower the water tank amounts sometimes just to gain extra compartment space such as full height full depth compartments. Trucks are one to two feet taller and five to 10 feet longer — and they are full.

A new light has hit the scene to give more attention to the apparatus on the scene, and in route. LEDs are appearing in every imaginable place, — emergency vehicles, stop lights. A more advanced foam system has proven itself as a great tool to use and is called Compressed Air Foam Systems (CAFS). It utilizes the pump shaft or an alternate drive to operate an air compressor to inject air into the line along with water and foam to change the whole consistency to a three dimensional discharge from the lines. Most companies offer this recent product and it enhances the use of water along with the safety of the firefighter. This is one way we can justify the lowering of water carried. It also can be used in other ways for rescue, salvage, overhaul, as well as attack.

Hey, what is a lock doing on this door? This one is for medical supplies or drugs for use in medical calls, and to keep them safe in storage. Our members now have to be trained in medical techniques and how to use them to begin the process of life saving, or making the emergency at hand a greater success rate.

Goodness, this door has a refrigerator behind it. Might look into the cab and find a coffee maker, a microwave and heart monitors, and an AED, for life sustaining use. Most all trucks now offer a “clean power” plug in the cab or a special compartment. It can also be a “data terminal” and is used for powering the computer and specialized equipment. A computer can store loads of important knowledge such as drawings of the building, different floors, water points, power supplies, occupancy, and lots more to assist in the day-to-day task of a firefighter.

Not behind a door, but on the dash, is a GPS for quicker routing, and also for an alternate route in case there are special traffic problems. Up behind the rear mirror is a camera to record our travel and after arriving on the scene of the events as a they happen. Blowers and special fans for ventilation, and other tactics are also on board. I cannot name all the different tools in the cabinet for forcible entry, finding hidden fires, opening walls, and most any other fire ground activity you can imagine.


This 2000 model shows special lighting, includes a tele-raise light, post lights and reflections.

Power hydraulic systems for the Jaws of Life, for cutters, spreaders, pinch tools and all for extrication of passengers in vehicles. Blocking and shoring hardware for making a vehicle, a ditch, or other obstacle stationary and or safe to perform the job at hand. Winches can be found on all four sides to do heavy rescue, or to use on lifting. Specialty nozzles, devices for repairing damaged hoses on scene, and loads of metal cutting saws and chain saws along with blowers to clean up, brooms, mops, vacuums and such to help the home owner get back in service as quickly and safely as possible. are on board.

This super “tool box” is filled with lots of goodies and sometime can take a year’s budget just to load it with equipment. These $400,000 plus vehicles can need a healthy $125,000 in equipment to fill the cabinets, and there will always be something you could use or need on a scene that is on another truck or owned by another department. Or it could be some new item to be placed on next year’s budget wish list.

It is now 2010. What is next? We did not even look at ladders, equipment trucks, truck company vehicles, brush trucks, medical wagons, and those tankers and super tankers. If you win the lottery and need something to do with some of the money, donate to your favorite fire department. Ask them for the wish list. They are already working on the NEEDS list. It is a never ending battle. As communities grow the issues grow for the special needs of every fire department. Good luck to those who will carry this on into the future.

Sandy Wilborn was with Forbush VFD for over 20 years and with the Fire Brigade at his regular occupation for 12 years. He works with manufacturers of fire trucks, foam systems, foam solutions and application devices. He is an IFSAC Nationwide certification firefighter, and is in constant contact with some of the best minds in the fire service. He can be reached at [email protected].
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