When someone asks if you want to drive a 1994 International Fort Garry Pumper Truck, you say yes. No matter what.
When someone asks you if you’d like to drive a fire truck, you don’t waste time thinking about it. You say yes, you ask when, and you figure out the details later. When they ask you to bring your dog, you figure that out later, too. But the answer is yes.
That’s how I find myself behind the wheel of a 1994 International 4900-series chassis, wearing a rear cab, tank, pump, and all the other gear a truck like this needs. The truck was built in Winnipeg, by (then) Fort Garry Industries, the largest builder of firefighting apparatus in the country.
I was expecting this truck to be plugged into the wall, batteries warmed and everything ready to go, but when you’re a small department, staffed by volunteers, you don’t always have the most modern and high-tech gear lined-up.
In fact, this truck spent the early part of its life in the community of Blandford, Nova Scotia. The truck beside it wears a delightfully retro-looking dealership sticker from Atholville, New Brunswick (sorry for the chuckle), which suggests it spent some time in that province before making it to another department in the county and then here to Hebbs Cross.
Instead, the truck was plugged into an air compressor to keep the brakes ready to go on a moment’s notice. The batteries relied on something more tried and true – an electrical disconnect switch in the cabin the size of my head.
With 2020 putting a stop to all the usual fundraisers, the province’s more than 200 volunteer fire departments, have had to re-think how to make ends meet
That’s actually why I’m here with Pumper 6 today.
I’m told there are more than 200 volunteer fire departments in Nova Scotia alone, in addition to the staffed departments in larger communities.
To make ends meet and help keep up to date on training and equipment, these departments rely on fundraisers. Normally that means events like breakfasts, dinners, and hall rentals, but 2020 has put a stop to all of that. They needed a new fundraiser, and that’s come through a province-wide 50-50 drawing.
That weekly draw, administered by the Amherst Fire Fighters Association, has helped make up the shortfall for 237 participating departments. Thanks to volunteer firefighter Sheldon MacLeod, who had invited me to the radio show that would become Torque Tuesday, and arranged today’s ride and drive.
Details on the weekly draw in support of Nova Scotia Firefighters can be found at this link.
Crank that disconnect, turn the key, wait for the glow plugs for what is just a moment for us today, but what must feel like agonizing hours, when a call comes in, and the big International diesel engine springs to life. The air tank is full so you pull the airbrake valve, slide the automatic shifter for the Allison automatic into 5 (there’s no D and no park) and, well, don’t exactly expect to get anywhere quickly.
Under the hood, a workhorse of an engine that has been installed in millions of trucks
Under that curved hood, which you’re more likely to see painted yellow and attached to a school bus than in red like these beauties, lives an International DT 466 inline-six diesel engine.
This workhorse was in production for more than 40 years and installed in millions of trucks, but it was never a powerhouse in stock form. Installed in this truck, the 7.6L motor made somewhere around 245 hp and the best part of 1,000 lb-ft of torque. But, with that massive steel body on the back and a tank that’s kept ready and waiting with 900 imperial gallons of water (that’s just shy of 4,100 litres), there is plenty of heft to move around.
Still, it moves well for such a load at lower speeds. Get it above 60 km/h and the acceleration tapers off quickly thanks to aerodynamic aids like a hose on the front, horns and lights, and, of course, ladders. It’s far from slippery as it cuts through the air and the speed limiter set to 95 km/h seems, well, ambitious.
If this were a sports car, people would try and tell you “oh, it’s a momentum car,” meaning that acceleration isn’t a big deal since you don’t need to brake for curves. Here, they would be wrong. You definitely need to slow down for curves and thanks to that water moving around, you might need to slow down more than you think.
I’m sure the right driver could use that weight to send the truck into a wonderfully long and horrifying drift.
I’m more worried about the steering wheel, that’s larger in diameter than the truck’s road wheels, is oriented almost entirely perpendicular to the driver, and spins around from lock to lock about as many times as Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue during one of their medal-winning routines.
Is it power-assisted? It doesn’t really matter. You’re cranking on the wheel, something vague is happening well below you, and you’re starting to understand that the lights on the roof aren’t just to move people out of your lane, but to warn them that you’re not really sure which lane it is you’re going to be occupying. This might be where the adrenaline of responding to a call helps because you’ll find more of the strength you need to crank the steering and worry about the sore shoulders later.
Of course, after steering, it’s the brakes, which I’ll call the most responsive part of the truck other than the crew operating it.
They’re air brakes, which means that there is loads of power to clamp the massive shoes to the even bigger drums (air brakes mean that the default position is clamped by large springs and the air releases them, the opposite of your car or pickup).
Push the pedal and it shrugs you off like a cab driver to whom you’re trying to explain “your shortcut”, so take a sharper stab and the pedal finally moves. When that happens you can feel the considerable weight of the truck move forward, but you probably aren’t slowing down as quickly as you’d like.
With gear and water, these trucks are close to their maximum weight and that means braking is best prepared for well in advance. And before you say anything, big truck drivers, I know you all already experience this, but think back to the first time you stepped up to the big leagues of driving. It’s a shock.
Above the pump controls is a number, 94-1050-900, and the code is designed for operators and higher-ups to get all the info as quickly as possible. The year, the pump capacity in imperial gallons per minute, and the tank size. Yes, this truck can exhaust a full load of water in under a minute if need be. It also means it can fill up and get back to the fire, or move that water into another truck, equally quickly.
If you’re wondering how crews reach those heavy ladders high on the sides of the truck, a toggle switch activates power lifts that drop them to easy-reach heights and push the ladders out from the side of the truck.
The best part? Those lights! The siren
The best part of the experience, which on a cold morning has me developing a sheen of sweat in just a few minutes on this closed course (do not attempt!), is the part that every little kid knows and loves. The lights and the siren!
Let me flip that switch and light up the world with both red lights and my smile. And my apologies to the neighbours for the whoop that came out of me that was nearly as loud as the truck’s noisemakers.
If that’s not enough, there is a powerful air horn to blast motorists into submission and to the shoulder of the road out of your way. I don’t think that having your own lights and siren is illegal because of concerns you’ll impersonate a firefighter, but because everyone would leave them on all of the time. It would simply be too loud and too bright to drive safely on any road in the country.
Minimalist interior with not many creature comforts
Inside, the truck is spartan and industrial, with loads of gauges and two unyielding vinyl seats. But someone had some fun with the order box when new because the lower door panels and the roof are adorned with a lovely pattern and firefighter logo on a deep velvet material. In the back, it’s all business with some uncomfortable looking seats and some people who are going to be facing the wrong way as the truck hurtles toward danger.
So what’s it like?
Well, it’s just like any other medium-duty commercial truck. Mechanically, very little separates this from any large U-Haul truck you might rent. Included with this one, though, is the excitement and anticipation that comes with that paint and those lights.
Behind that, though, and apparent in the faces of those who volunteer to drop everything to take this truck and help others, is the weight of its mission.
The gravity of the first responder, of days successful and days of frustration, is there in every detail of the truck from the nozzle on the nose to the battle scars on its flanks, and is in the back of your mind every second behind the wheel.
Just days after I drove this truck it was called to rescue a driver who had been trapped in their car, unseen, for hours following a crash. I can’t imagine how happy they were to see the truck’s concerned, friendly face that arrived to help.