FORT VALLEY -- Peach County firefighters have a reputation for building their own fire stations, likely saving the county thousands of dollars in construction costs. But what may not be as well known is that the firefighters also take used vehicles and transform them into fire trucks.
“We get donations from the U.S. government, from the military. We take military vehicles and change them over and make tankers out of ‘em,” Peach County Fire Chief Jeff Doles said. “We also have received trucks from the cities and from the county and re-purpose them and paint ‘em up and build them into other vehicles.
“We buy used pickups and make brush trucks out of ‘em. My guys do a great job with it,” he said.
A coffee and doughnut truck donated by Blue Bird Corp. was transformed into a mobile command center. A military vehicle once used to haul troops is now a 1,000-gallon tanker truck, while a military diesel tanker truck was also converted to haul 2,500 gallons of water to fire scenes. The military vehicles came to the fire department at a reduced cost through a Georgia Forestry Commission surplus vehicle program.
Never miss a local story.
‘QUITE A FEW WELL-TALENTED PEOPLE’
Of the county’s six fire stations, firefighters have built four of them, Doles said.
Firefighters have converted seven used pickup trucks into trucks used to fight brush fires, having rotated three of the older models out of service with four now in use, Doles said. Firefighters also have built about seven tanker trucks, with an eighth now being worked on.
“Just over our hiring process over the years, we’ve just accumulated some great talent,” Doles said. “A lot of our firefighters -- our volunteers and our paid staff -- all people have different talents.
“We have paint and body people, we have welders, we have mechanics, we have fabricators, we have electricians, plumbers. ... We’ve got quite a few well-talented people that chip in,” he said.
One of those firefighters is Assistant Fire Chief Tim Bechtel, who’s been a driving force in the vehicle transformations.
Having worked at an auto body shop before joining the Peach County Fire Department about 20 years ago, Bechtel is always on the lookout for a good deal, a donation, a used or salvaged part and ways to save the department money while equipping firefighters.
When the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department wrecked and totaled a fire truck 10 years ago, Bechtel said he asked if he could have the water tank.
He hauled the tank to a Peach County fire station where it stayed unused until recently.
The salvaged part was merged with a 2.5-ton military transport truck formerly used to haul troops. Firefighters took the truck down to its frame, rebuilding and transforming it to haul 1,000 gallons of water to fight fires. Firefighters recently also transformed a military diesel tanker for the same purpose.
Tanker trucks are extremely important to the blended fire service of full-time and part-time firefighters because most unincorporated areas of Peach County do not have fire hydrants, Bechtel said.
Firefighters are now converting a 5,000-gallon military diesel tanker to haul water. The conversion of this truck won’t be extensive as the last because it’s in pristine shape, Bechtel said. The truck has only 400 miles on it, doesn’t appear to have hauled fuel and records only 1.3 hours on the pump, he said.
“It’s going to be really simple for us to finish this truck,” Bechtel said. “All we got to do is clean it, sand it and paint it, and we’ll be ready to go.”
THE ‘DOUGHNUT WAGON’
In its former life, the donated Blue Bird Corp. Wanderlodge was used by the company to serve coffee and doughnuts. Blue Bird ceased production of the large recreational vehicles in 2009.
Bechtel gutted the inside and fitted it for use by public safety officials to gather at a disaster site. The front half of the bus is designed for 911 operators to set up mobile communications, while the back is for the command staff to meet and regroup.
The command staff is equipped with a microwave, refrigerator, televisions and cushioned seats that have storage space underneath. One television is down, though, after it was struck by lightning.
Firefighters also peeled off the sun-baked vinyl brown doughnuts and steaming coffee cups affixed to the outside of the truck but left intact the light blue paint with rolling white clouds. Bechtel said he hopes one day to have images painted of public safety personnel among the clouds as a 9/11 tribute. However, that costs money, Bechtel said, adding he’s hopeful a donor might come along to fund the project.
But while the vehicle may have a different purpose, folks still remember its original use.
“They still call it the doughnut wagon,” Bechtel said.
Converting used pickup trucks to brush trucks includes dismounting the body of the truck, re-painting it with fire engine red and white colors, welding and fabrication, wiring and putting in a tank, which is purchased, Bechtel said.
To buy a used brush truck costs $70,000 to $80,000, he said. To buy and convert a used pickup truck costs about $30,000 to $40,000, he said.
Firefighter Jonathan Burgasser, who’s been with the Peach County fire service for 10 years, including a two-year stint as a volunteer until he went full-time, pitches in wherever he can and does “whatever they tell me.”
He’s learning how to paint the trucks, has done some sheet metal work and helped take equipment off the trucks and build them back up.
“I love doing it,” Burgasser said. “My shift is normally I’m 24-on and 48-off, and normally even on my off days, I’m here helping out. ... I’ve got a real love for this department, for this community, so it feels great to be able to help out whenever (I) can.”
Firefighters also converted a donated golf cart into a parade cart that carries clowns as well as public safety and fire education into the schools.
For Doles, building fire stations and transforming vehicles for fire use is being a good steward.
“All of us live here in Peach County. All of us pay taxes. We try to make our portion of the budget stretch as far as possible,” Doles said. “The more that we can save, the cheaper we can do it, the more we’re able to do for the taxpayers -- to give them the biggest bang for the buck.”
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.