Irving, Texas, has two of the top 100 most congested thoroughfares in the state in its boundaries, and the city has paid about $1 million to repair or replace damaged Irving Fire Department vehicles. After an accident in 2015 that saw an Irving aerial ladder spin out on an icy road and roll 360 degrees, injuring two firefighters, the chief came up with a plan to reduce accident incidents at emergency scenes. His answer: old pumpers reconfigured as blocker trucks.
Victor Conley, Irving’s chief, says the incident that triggered his action was a call for an intoxicated driver crash on a highway. “We had an engine and medic unit on the highway for a long period of time and used the ladder truck as a blocker vehicle,” Conley says. “An 18 wheeler traveling at 70 miles an hour hit the rear of the ladder, spinning it 180 degrees and rolling it over, throwing two firefighters down the road. Then a police car blocked that scene, and he was hit by a drunk driver. I knew we had to come up with a better way to handle those situations—both for our firefighters and for the community.”
The Irving Fire Department has 372 paid firefighters operating out of 12 stations, with an engine in each station. The department also staffs five aerial ladders, 10 mobile intensive care unit (MICU) ambulances, and covers 64 square miles between the city of Dallas and Dallas Fort Worth Airport.
Conley says that the Irving Fire Department had two older pumpers ready to be sent to auction, where he expects they would have fetched about $5,000 each. “I talked the city council into retaining the pumpers, and we turned them into blocker trucks,” he points out. “We stripped the equipment off of them, left the water in the tanks for weight, and put arrow boards on each side and at the rear of each vehicle.”
He adds that when Irving Fire Department puts new pumpers in service, its apparatus replacement plan is to put the oldest rigs in its fleet into a reserve role. At that time, the current reserve pumpers, usually around 15 to 20 years old, typically are sent to auction. But not anymore.
Conley notes that the only cost to the department is about $2,000 per apparatus for fabrication and parts to construct the arrow boards. “We had a local company fabricate the arrow boxes for us, which bolt onto the sides and back of the pumper. The control panel for the amber LED light arrow sticks can be programmed to flash in the desired direction of travel.
“The warning lights and light bars are still functional on the pumpers, and the graphics are still there, so they appear as typical fire trucks,” Conley says. “And, they are still insured through the city, so if one of these old rigs gets hit, it doesn’t take a first line apparatus out of service, and we still can get an insurance settlement on the old one.”
Conley says the blocker trucks respond with any major event on a highway and are set up as blockers just outside of the hot zone. Currently, each of the two blocker pumpers is housed with one of the department’s two tractor drawn aerials (TDAs), and a firefighter from the TDA crew drives the blocker to the scene.
The Irving Fire Department put its first blocker pumper in service in October 2017, followed by the second the following month. The department plans to add three more blocker trucks, which would mean one blocker vehicle for each of the department’s aerials. “There’s virtually no cost to the city,” Conley says, “and using the blocker trucks protects the community’s investment in its fire department apparatus.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.