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Fire truck benefits from prisoners' touch

News editor

Florence fire chief Mark Slater can be excused for resembling a kid with a new toy when showing off the department’s big tanker/pumper truck, even though the department has had it for nearly 17 months.

At a glance, the truck looks new, but it represents the ingenuity and hard work of Florence firefighters, with a helping hand from inmates at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Ellsworth.

Slater obtained the truck, a former military five-ton behemoth, through the Kansas Forestry Service in July 2014. The agency facilitates loans of used federal vehicles to local fire departments.

“It comes to us at no cost,” he said. “All we have to do is maintain it.”

What the department got was truck with a flatbed, but what they needed was a tanker to carry water to fires, and a pumper for situations in which they needed an extra hose to turn on a blaze.

The department had the truck about two weeks when rancher and Florence firefighter Brad Morgan decided it was time to start the conversion.

“Brad called me one day and said, ‘Can I take it out to the farm and start working on it?’” Slater said. “I said, ‘Sure, go right ahead.’”

Morgan said it took about two weeks to take a tank and other equipment off of an older, smaller tanker and fit it to the new truck.

Slater and Terry Britton worked on the conversion as well.

“The only thing that actually just slapped right on was the tank,” Morgan said. “The rest of it we either had to cut or refit. You kind of have a plan in your own mind, but everybody has different plans, so you have to take that into consideration. There was a lot of time involved.”

The pumping system was modified with a new manifold, electric valves, and 200 feet of hose. A new 10-inch water chute on the back allows the 1,200-gallon tank to be emptied at fires into a holding pool, releasing the truck to be refilled more quickly than before.

“One man can operate this truck if need be,” Slater said.

About the same time the truck was acquired, Slater contacted Ellsworth Correctional Facility. He had heard about a program in which inmates, working in the prison shop, could do additional wiring and painting for just the cost of materials.

It took nine months before the Florence truck was “next in line,” Slater said, and he and Morgan took the truck to the Ellsworth fire department so that the chief there could take it to the prison when inmates were ready for it.

“The guy that was in charge of doing this has about three years left on his time out there,” Slater said. “He’s the one that oversees all the painting and all the wiring; he’s super-talented.”

While the foreman stayed the same, different inmates rotated in and out of the shop, Slater said. Inmates who weren’t skilled in painting or wiring helped with prep work.

“One inmate sat for two days with a toothbrush and lacquer thinner cleaning the stainless-steel gauges,” he said.

Inmates rewired the cab and built an overhead box for the radio and switches for sirens and lights. They installed new lighting, gave the truck a fresh paint job, inside and out, and modified the steel rear bumper to accommodate backup lights. They even crafted unique chrome and painted metal department insignia for each side of the truck.

“All we had to pay for was the materials: The paint, the lights; it’s about $2,200 we have in the paint, the lights, and the wiring,” Slater said.

The truck was at the prison through July and August, and Morgan recalled his impression when he and Slater picked it up the Friday before Labor Day.

“It was real sharp,” he said. “I wouldn’t have imagined it could turn out like it did. It’s pretty awesome.”

The truck is more stable and easier to drive than the one it replaced, and Slater said the truck typically would roll for grass fires and rural structure fires.

Slater estimated the department invested about $3,500 in the project, and the truck would have cost close to $15,000 if not for the loaner program. He said getting the truck prepared for service brought an increased sense of pride.

“When you build one of these and start using it, you take better care of the thing,” he said, “because you spent a lot of time, effort, and elbow grease building the thing.”

Last modified Nov. 23, 2015

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