Fire Apparatus

FDNY Refurbished Tower Ladders: How Two Became One

Issue 4 and Volume 25.

By Michael N. Ciampo

Years ago, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) would relinquish its decommissioned apparatus to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to sit in a city surplus parking lot.

There, all city vehicles that were either worn out, over age, wrecked in an accident, disassembled for parts, or deemed out of service would sit awaiting disposal. For years, most of the vehicles there went to scrap yards or auto salvage lots or were bought for parts by bidders at city auctions run by the Department of General Services. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many fire departments—large and small—began to rehab their apparatus. Most of these rehabs originally were done locally by smaller repair and body shops, but soon larger manufacturers got into the business of doing total rig makeovers. This allowed smaller departments to purchase rigs at lower costs to improve their fire protection capabilities and also allowed other departments to replace antiquated rigs with newer equipment or introduce specialized apparatus to their fleet.


More by Mike Ciampo


Since this added value to the used FDNY apparatus fleet, Nick Ciampo, then director of motor vehicles of the FDNY’s Repairs & Transportation Unit (now known as Fleet Services), met with city budgetary people to see if they could sell used FDNY fire apparatus to fire departments instead of just scrapping the rigs. The city agreed to the idea because it brought more money into the financially strapped city than the scrap or auction money did.

The new plan had all running apparatus put up for sale; rigs that didn’t run or that were in parts went to auction. The city took out advertisements in several of the trade magazines, originally selling Mack CF pumpers, Mack CF tower ladders, and Seagrave rear-mount and tiller aerial ladders. After the department’s American LaFrance pumpers were decommissioned, they too went up for auction as well as many of the department’s specialized pieces of apparatus (rescues, salvage, chief Chevy Suburbans).

Many volunteer departments with low funding jumped on the opportunity to purchase these rigs; many bought two apparatus to create one, while others bought multiple rigs to turn them into specialized apparatus such as a rescue or hazmat apparatus or to add a ladder company to their department. In the first year and a half, 80 units were sold; one county bought 23 pumpers with a government grant to get its department properly equipped. 

BELLTOWN VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT

In Stamford, Connecticut, there are numerous neighborhoods, villages, and historic districts, including Belltown. In 1928, a group of civic-minded residents gathered together to discuss fire protection. By the end of the meeting, a citizen volunteer fire company was formed, and nearly $300 was gathered for the purchase of a secondhand chemical engine from the Mt. Kisco Fire Department. The department was incorporated under the rules and laws of the State of Connecticut on June 9, 1928, and was now a fully commissioned fire department. Using money from donations and fundraisers, department and community members built their own firehouse.

1 An original advertisement run by the City of New York for apparatus sales in trade magazines. (Photo 1 courtesy of author; photos 2-11 courtesy of the Wyckoff and Belltown Fire Departments’ archives/collections.)

2 Belltown’s Tower Ladder 45, loaded on the flatbed and heading to rebuilding.

3 Wyckoff’s Tower Ladder 241, formerly Ladder 161 in Brooklyn, New York.

Like many volunteer departments during the war years, many Belltown members were called to duty, and the volunteer department was faced with a staffing shortage until members returned home. After the war, the town was rapidly growing and saw major change, prompting the need for the department to purchase a new engine. In 1949, a Mack L-95 1,000-gallon-per-minute (gpm) pumper with a 300-gallon booster tank was delivered in a white paint scheme; from this point on, all department apparatus would be painted white.

As the town continued to grow into the 1970s, the department saw another need and decided to purchase its first ladder truck—a used apparatus from the Stamford (CT) Fire Department. Fast forward to 1982, when the Belltown Volunteer Fire Department once again saw an opportunity to increase the department’s capabilities and acquired a decommissioned FDNY 1972 Mack CF tower ladder that had originally served as Ladder Company 138 in the Corona section of Queens. The department knew how the versatile single-axle Mack with Baker boom could maneuver through its response area and would add to its firefighting capabilities.

Once the rig was purchased, it underwent an overhaul; the department made sure it was mechanically ready for service while minor body work was performed and a new white paint job was completed. The tower ladder went in service as Truck 45, still with a clutch and manual transmission. In 1996, the rig had another refurbishment by ITE Fire Apparatus: a new engine, an automatic transmission, and a 1994 cab with some other minor body work.

Over the years, the rig went to numerous fires and runs for the FDNY and Belltown but, over time, the need for another major upgrade was becoming more apparent. The membership didn’t want to see their flagship ride off into the sunset and lose their ability to get the smaller rig into position in their response district, let alone purchase a newer, expensive, larger, double-axle tower ladder that may also require them to renovate their firehouse. The apparatus committee was now on a new venture to gather information and look into all of their options of rehabbing or purchasing another apparatus for their department’s and community’s fire protection needs.

WYCKOFF VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT

In the State of New Jersey in northwest Bergen County, the Wyckoff Volunteer Fire Department was organized in 1907; its original apparatus was a hand-drawn chemical wagon. The department’s first ladder truck was a 1923 American LaFrance tiller, followed by a 1937 American LaFrance Quad, which had numerous portable ladders, salvage tarps, and tools stored on it. In 1965, the department purchased its second aerial ladder, a midship, open-cab 85-foot Seagrave that had a gas motor, standard transmission, and hydraulic braking system.

4 Wyckoff’s Mack CF cab during its original refurbishment process.

5 The worn and well-traveled Mack CF sitting in the dealer’s yard awaiting its demise.

6 The stainless-steel rear body had some minor flaws, but it could be easily fixed and remounted.

Unfortunately, the ladder needed some major mechanical repairs during a time of a tight town budget and fiscal restraint in the 1980s. A local repair shop, which had a slightly used Mack tractor on hand, had been contacted about doing the work, and that’s when a plan to repower the apparatus was born. The rig was repowered with a Mack diesel engine with a Jake Brake, used transmission, axles, and air brakes installed while a roof was found to create the enclosed cab. The rig returned to service and was now known as the “SeaMack” and inspired the members to create a new T-shirt design, letting everyone know: “The Ladder Is Back, Powered by Mack.”

The aerial operated for some time afterward and at some major fires but, because of its age, was in need of replacement. The department apparatus committee sat down with township administrators and figured out costs, needs, and funding. Their plan was also to purchase a used tower ladder from New York City and begin their own rehab process of it.

As luck would have it, Baker Aerialscope had purchased a few used tower ladders from the city auction and began its own refurbishment of these rigs. These units were stripped down to the frame with major overhauls taking place that included rebuilding the boom sections; hydraulic pumps and lines; outrigger and jack repairs and upgrades; and engine, transmission, and drivetrain work. Some of this work was sent out—for example, the complete rebuild of the rig’s body was performed by an outside contractor.

All of this was occurring at the same time as Wyckoff began its search to purchase a rebuilt tower ladder. The department bought a 1981 Mack, which previously served as Ladder Company 161 in Coney Island, Brooklyn. This rig had a checkered past: As it was operating at a fire on the boardwalk, the boards snapped and the rig went through. Wyckoff has a photo of that incident in its collection, which is proudly displayed in the firehouse. The rig arrived in 1991 after it was stripped down to the frame; a total rehab was performed of the boom and new stainless steel body, which had an enclosed ladder compartment installed (FDNY tower ladders’ ladder troughs were originally open on all single-axle rigs) and side half doors added to the cab to enhance firefighter safety. The engine and transmission were also completely rebuilt, and the rig went into service after all the members received formal driver training and operational drills.

The rig was painted white over red with a white reflective stripe running along the lower section of the compartments and outriggers. The boom was repainted white, although most city rigs had gray booms until the mid-1980s. Cosmetically, it was as nice as it was for operations for the department, but the department had only planned on using it for a specific number of years before it purchased a new 95-foot Seagrave Aerialscope.

When the department received the new tower ladder, the old rig was used as loaner apparatus by the dealer and would be seen around the county and across the state. It ventured far from the northern section of New Jersey to the southern portion and found a few homes where it operated at multiple fires. After that, the rig then traveled north to the Bridgeport (CT) Fire Department and was assigned as Ladder 7, where it operated on tight city streets and performed its functions flawlessly under overhead wires and in between the alleys of the city’s triple-decker homes. The members had a lot of pride in this rig because one of their former members, Firefighter Dana Hannon, who perished with the FDNY on 9-11-01, was also a former volunteer firefighter in Wyckoff, and both departments had bonded after the tragic events. Unfortunately, while serving the city, the rig had some mechanical issues and was placed out of service and ended up at the Mack dealer in Hagerstown, Maryland.

TRANSFORMATION PROJECT

While sitting in the dealer’s yard in Hagerstown, Wyckoff’s former tower ladder began to be sold for parts. The bucket was removed by an inspired Maryland firefighter who made a bar out of it and put it in his “firefighter man cave.” The original Coney Island graphics are proudly displayed on the doors, and it turned out to be quite the masterpiece. Some members who rode this rig were a little upset to see that the rig was meeting its final demise and would end up as scrap after an illustrious career. Luckily, at a training seminar, FDNY Captain Bob Morris was talking about tower ladders to me and he mentioned that they were in the process of trying to rebuild Belltown’s rig again. The information was passed on that Wyckoff’s old tower ladder was sitting in a Mack dealership yard, hopefully awaiting another assignment. The Belltown Fire Department was excited to learn of this information and that Wyckoff’s rig was newer with a stainless-steel body that would fit their single-axle truck. Phone calls were made between departments and the dealer, and soon the rebuild process would be in full motion.

7 Belltown’s tower stripped down to the frame during the rebuilding process.

Belltown’s original tower was once again taken to ITE Fire Apparatus, where the boom and bucket were removed and repaired, the frame rails were taken off one rig and put on the other, and the axles and torque box were also interchanged. The cab was totally removed and the rig was stripped down to its frame rails. The engine, transmission, and hydraulics were also rebuilt, while the stainless-steel body and crew cab half-doors were repaired, remounted, painted white, and put back onto Tower Ladder 45. New emergency lighting and scene lighting were also added to the rig to enhance its overall safety features. Belltown now had what it had hoped for: the rebirth of its single-axle Mack Aerialscope.

The rig was transported on a flatbed trailer back to Connecticut and was placed back in service after training was completed and lettering and graphics were applied. The rig still boasts in large red letters the word “Belltown” on its white boom, and the original Mack 75 logo plastic plate that was placed on all these manufactured units is still prominently displayed. Instead of having a red reflective stripe, there is now a large light gray reflective stripe that runs midway up on the side of the cab and then diagonally down on the first compartment door to the lower portion of the other body’s compartment doors. On the tool trough on the upper body, under the boom, the signage “Belltown Volunteers” is proudly displayed. The front cab doors sport the department’s Maltese Cross in the middle with “Belltown Fire Department” above it and “Stamford, Connecticut” below it. Just below the crew cab windows, “Tower Ladder 45” is affixed on both sides of the rig. The rig stands out painted in the company’s white paint scheme and is considered the workhorse of the department.

8 Work progresses on the rebuilding and stripping of the units.

9 Belltown’s tower ladder approaching the final stages of rebuilding.

10 Tower Ladder 45 transported back to Belltown prior to the graphics being applied.

11 Belltown’s Tower Ladder 45 with graphics applied and ready for service.

Now that Wyckoff’s rig was almost completely dismantled, the cab portion was sitting on a pallet in the dealer’s rear yard awaiting disposal or for parts. At that time, another miracle was about to occur for Mack CF fans: Another inspired firefighter took a rotary saw and cut the front portion of the cab off the rig. He took this section down to his basement, where he mounted it on the wall. He put shelves where the windows are.

For many of us Mack enthusiasts and members who didn’t want to see either tower ladder end up in a scrap yard, this was the ultimate gift. Two departments with two used FDNY rigs were able to help each other out to keep the Mack CF on the road, responding to and operating at fires and emergencies for years to come.

Author’s note: Thanks to the Belltown and Wyckoff Fire Departments; Chief Robert Morris, Stamford Fire Department and captain (ret.) FDNY Rescue 1; FDNY Director of Motor Vehicles (ret.) and Ex-Chief Wyckoff Fire Department Nick Ciampo; Nick Didelot, Belltown; and ITE Fire Apparatus LCC for their assistance with this article.


MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.