Cantankerous Wisdom: Farmers & Tankers

By Bill Adams

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many older members of rural fire companies. If they ever came to morning coffee with the Raisin Squad, they’d fit right in. I call them “farmers”—a nonderogatory term I use and fortunately one most don’t take offense to. After all, who wants to argue with a 250-pound 70-year-old who can leap out of a truck cab like a leopard, wears bib coveralls, has hands as big as hams, and has no problem singlehandedly carrying a 100-foot length LDH. I probably should just call him “sir” and hope I don’t get thumped. Farmers’ stories are mostly down-to-earth. They tell it like it is without caring about decorum and standards.

At one trade show, I jaw-boned with one who was proud as a peacock of his company’s new tanker that was being displayed. He was on the purchasing committee. It was a bare-bones two-door commercial job with a single rear axle, 1,800-gallon tank and a 750-gpm PTO pump. I asked him why only an 1,800-gallon tank. “That’s the biggest tank the guys are comfortable driving.” You know, you can get more water on a single axle if that’s a concern. “I didn’t say a twin screw is an issue. I said they don’t want to drive one with more than 1,800 gallons on board.” Why? “These people drive big farm equipment; some drive rigs for the co-op hauling milk and such. They know our roads and know how rigs handle. They drive them and that’s what they want. Why buy a rig they won’t drive?” Thus ended lesson one.

When asked how many rigs his department has, he replied a 15-year-old tanker like the one just purchased but with a 500-gpm pump, a 25-year-old 2,500-gallon tanker with a small portable pump, a 35-year-old pumper with a 500-gallon tank that’s never used and a pickup truck for grass fires. How come you don’t buy pumper-tankers. “Don’t need them.” Why not? “We don’t have hydrants. We need water. We don’t have retention ponds or creeks you can reach with a pumper. Most water is over a thousand feet off the nearest hardtop. Besides, during the wet seasons the fields won’t support a pumper or even a mini pumper carrying a couple thousand feet of supply hose.”

What about your ISO rating? “We don’t have one now.” Well, what about setting up mutual aid with tankers? If you can maintain a certain flow for a given amount of time, the ISO will up your rating. “Where the hell are we going to get tankers. Our closest mutual aid company is 20 miles away. The rest are further than that. Besides, at 10 in the morning, it’s hit or miss for all of us. You know as well as I do, after the first 10 or 15 minutes if it ain’t out, it ain’t going out.” What about automatic mutual assistance? I think he was kidding when he said, “We’re good but I doubt we can keep a fire burning long enough for them to get here.” 

What about using a blitz attack with a deck gun? “Well, we thought about that, but we can’t guarantee getting a rig close enough to use one on a side that might need it. We bought one of them small portable jobs (ground monitors) that’ll flow 500 gpm. That way we can use it on all sides of a building. And, we bought the bigger pump on this tanker so we can use the portable gun and a deuce-and-a-half or a couple attack lines—as long as we have the water and the people.” Why not buy both a deck gun and a portable monitor? “I don’t know where you come from but out here in the country, apples and peaches grow on trees—not money.” Lesson two ended with that.

Changing the subject, I asked about manpower—my gender neutral term. “We got a couple guys that work in the village, but they’re really getting on in years. Those driving for the co-op might still be on their runs. There are a couple fellas that work for the county highway department, but Lord knows which end of the county they might be working. And, sometimes it depends on the season. During planting and harvesting, it can get pretty slim—especially when the boys are tractoring or harvesting their back 40s. We have a couple gals who drive school buses that belong. As long as they don’t have bus loads of kids, they’ll show up. Damn good drivers too. We get more people in the winter months, but the snow and travel times can work against us.

I thought I’d give using LDH a shot. It was like opening day of duck season, and this farmer had an automatic shot gun and I was the duck. “Yeah, we looked at that, but it’s not for us.” Why not? “Let’s say we have a barn fire—and we got some that are damn near 2,000 foot off the hardtop. Each length of that 5-inch holds a hundred gallons of water. Now if—and it’s a big if—the first rig sees we got a fire from the road, and if it carries that amount of hose and lays in, that’s all well and good. When the next tanker shows up and pumps into the LDH from the road, it’ll probably use all its tank water just to fill the damn supply line. We’re better off having our second tanker follow the first one right in and give it our best shot to make a stop.” How do you figure that? “That’ll put 3,600 gallons of water and whatever manpower is on those two rigs right at the scene. If we got the people and the second tanker is right behind the first one, we can flow a pair of big lines (2½-inch) at 250 gpm each for about seven minutes. Or, the portable gun and one big line for a hair less than five. After that, we have a controlled burn. Next question?” I foolishly had one more. How come you don’t roll the 2,500 gallon tanker second out? “If you had paid attention, I told you our drivers don’t like it. Most of them won’t drive it.” Lesson three ended.

Was that story true? Not 100 percent. It’s a combination of conversations I’ve had with “farmers” over the years—including some I had sold fire equipment (including a tanker) to many many moons ago. At morning coffee, the Raisin Squad weighed in on the problems rural firefighters face. They agreed its unfortunate rural departments don’t have the resources available in suburbia. And, it seemed they make the best with what they have to work with. One of the white hairs said “And, some guys get bent out of shape because they can’t have custom cabs with all the bells and whistles, two-tone paint jobs, chrome wheel covers, million-dollar gold leaf jobs and two sets of rubber goods and a portable radio for each member.” He had a point. 

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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