By Peter Ong
With a population of around 1,400 and a size of 2.2 square miles, the small coastal city of Long Beach, Washington, has a Main Street and “The World’s Longest Beach.”
“What keeps us busy is [that] we have two miles of drivable beach to our west and the most developed and tourism-friendly portion of south Pacific County,” says Chief Matt Bonney, Long Beach (WA) Fire Department (LBFD). “In the summer months, our population increases to near 5,000, not including the people who drive into town from the outlying areas or daytrippers and event/festival goers, which can reach well over 10,000 people.”
Long Beach’s fire station consists of two buildings. The main one is a 2½-story building with four front bay doors and two doors in the back for apparatus to drive through. A separate detached four-bay garage is off to the left side for housing additional apparatus. “The LBFD was formally established in 1934, 12 years after the incorporation of the Town of Long Beach (later City of Long Beach),” says Bonney. “At the time, it operated with a single engine and roughly 20 members. Today we have a complement of 10 pieces of apparatus in total and currently a roster of 32 volunteers. We have maintained all-volunteer status to the present day and manage to keep response times within National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards—even with an unstaffed station. We currently are in the trial period for our first formal shift work in which we staff at least one firefighter on call 24 hours per day, adding a 12-hour shift on weekends and for big events. This trial period began on Memorial Day weekend and continued through the ‘Rod Run to the End of the World,’ which took place the weekend after Labor Day. So far it has been quite successful.”
The beach itself has 1,000 to 1,500 feet of dune grass and a smattering of beach pines created by a jetty of new sand. The dune grass burns fastest during the hot summer months but is still a danger year-round. Most of the houses have yard shrubbery and are intermingled with grassy vacant pine tree fields, creating an “urban interface” situation. There’s increasing housing development going west toward the beach and the dune grass.
The “Sludge Truck”
The 1985 Engine 11 (redesignated as Brush 88-51 by the LBFD in the early 2000s) started life as the city’s Caterpillar AG Gator sewer truck, part of the “sewer plant package.” The city paid $105,000 for the truck in 1985. The idea for the Sludge Truck was that the sewer plant separated the water from the solid waste, and the solid waste had to be transported and removed to some distant location. Enter the Sludge Truck and its 1,600-gallon tank. “The truck ran probably five to 10 days a month hauling sludge about three miles outside city limits,” says David Glasson, city administrator. “As the summer population grew, a higher-capacity truck was needed for sludge hauling, so the city purchased a used Kenworth truck for that purpose.”
The LBFD paid $1 for the intercity transfer of the sewer truck to the fire department. Bonney explains the conversion process. “Much of the original configuration is the same, as it was not a very complicated system to begin with,” he says. “It has a PTO-driven pump built in, and where the white monitor and plumbing exists is original. The sewer department used the truck for transporting the biowaste to an area and spray it into what we used to call ‘the black forest.’ The ability to pump and roll was important there. When its 1,600-gallon tank was no longer large enough for the need, a new truck was purchased and the Gator was going to be surplus. Our city mechanic at the time was a volunteer firefighter and thought the truck would be a great asset not only for capacity but also maneuverability and access in the ever-changing terrain we fight grass fires in every year. The truck was cleaned out already, so he fitted the existing 2½-inch monitor, filled [the tank] with water, and sat out with the fire department over a 4th of July. This actually occurred, I believe, three or four times before the Sludge Truck actually became available. The membership was impressed enough to say, ‘We want that,’ and Engine 11 (now 88-51) was found.
“Since that night in the early 1990s, it has received a number of additional features. First a six-foot 1½-inch hoseline was placed opposite the monitor for a second person to control. Later, a dual-type foam system was added to carry Class A and aqueous film-forming firefighting foams (AFFF). Finally, the project came to a head. The dual monitors were plumbed in, each having a joystick on its respective side in the cab and the ability to aim and change fog patterns. Once that was completed in the late 2000s, that mechanic retired.
“Both monitors are currently plumbed for foam. Each has a separate tank and bladder so it can carry two different kinds at the same time. About five years ago, we moved it to just carrying Class A wildland foam on both monitors because we never used the AFFF foam,” says Boonney.
88-51 is 11 feet wide and 11 feet 1 inch tall. The low-pressure high-flow pump has a discharge diameter of six inches, and the plumbing tapers down to 2½ inches with all nozzles being 2½ inches in diameter with a discharge of 350 gallons per minute (gpm).
The top of 88-51 has two red 2½-inch remote-controlled monitors. These are controlled by joysticks, one on each side of the driver’s seat. The left side of 88-51 has a white 2½-inch monitor. “It’s a wildland firefighting attack tender, for lack of a proper term,” says Bonney. “It carries 1,600 gallons of water. It can pump and roll with two 2½-inch [remote] monitors controlled from the cab, and its articulating capabilities make it unmatched in ability to traverse the dune area we have.”
Storage space is very limited, and its design cannot carry ladders. The small amount of hose carried is to refill the tank. It does carry a hydrant wrench and a tow chain for hauling out stuck vehicles. The remaining space can fit a turnout coat and helmet snugly.
Even though 88-51 appears yellow in the photos, it’s actually a shade of bright green. The LBFD chose the color green based on a study in the mid 1970s where the bright green paint contrasted more in the heavy fog, rain, and low-light conditions of the upper northern United States. Bonney says that many departments opted to change their apparatus colors from red to green during that time, and the LBFD followed suit.
The rig has a single seat and a steering wheel with a “suicide knob” that the driver finds very useful. “There’s an automatic transmission gear selector on the right and joysticks on each side that control the monitors. It’s equipped with standard lightbar controls, siren, public address [system], and mobile radio,” notes Bonney.
More Than Two Decades of Service
Bonney and Glasson say that ample customization went into converting the AG Gator from a sewer truck to a wildland fire truck. The LBFD also has three other wildland fire trucks, namely U.S. Army military surplus 2½-ton M35A 6x6s with $20,000 skid units in the cargo beds. “But, even they don’t hold a candle to how easy it is for 88-51 to maneuver on sand or in the dunes,” mentions Bonney. “We have gotten the deuces stuck; I don’t think it’s possible to get 88-51 stuck anywhere. It’s really a very specialized vehicle. It was intended to be a pump-and-roll, dune-crawling, soft-sand, ‘don’t-bother-me’ firefighting machine when we got it.”
Because of its slow speed of only 25 mph, 88-51 does not respond to car crashes or medical calls because it’s too slow, and it also limits how far it travels for mutual aid calls. 88-51 was the primary wildfire fire truck of the department, and Bonney notes that there are always parts for it, which means the AG Gator can theoretically last forever.
“Not everyone is qualified to pilot 88-51, so there are times that it does not roll,” says Bonney. “We have seven firefighters qualified to pilot 88-51. Most of the firefighters prefer to drive the 6×6 M35As because they behave more like a regular vehicle.” He continues, “It generally only carries one firefighter, the driver/operator who is also the ‘nozzleman.’ It’s also common that it doesn’t roll alone. Because of the limited number of operators, invariably one of the deuces will roll with it, carrying a minimum of two and maximum of five firefighters.”
88-51 can spray water up to 100 feet away if necessary, so it has some adaptability for the situation. There is no handline on the truck, and the two monitors can be controlled from the cab. 88-51 is as useful as any other truck and has its own capabilities and limitations, but this truck is purpose built to be a one-person show.
“It is still the biggest water tank on a wildland engine in the area,” states Glasson. “As for why we’re not replacing it, we have tried. We just haven’t been able to find something that does what we need as well as this. The most recent ‘deuce and a half’ comes close, carrying almost 1,000 gallons and pumping 250 gpm. It still won’t go places that 88-51 goes.
“The tank is full 365 days per year—always ready. We can empty the 1,600 gallons in about five minutes at full throttle with two nozzles spraying. The tank is filled with a 2½-inch line, usually from hydrant pressure. It takes us about five minutes to turn around and get back in the fight.”
The Sludge Truck normally does not go out on patrols (nor do any of the other LBFD apparatus) but can go out for driver training on the beach and dunes during the summer months. 88-51 averages about 20 calls per year. Both chiefs point out that the entire sandy beach actually belongs to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Department, while the dune grass falls into the city limits and LBFD’s jurisdiction.
Since snow is rare in Long Beach, 88-51 never had to respond in snowy weather and thus doesn’t require winter tire chains. The area has some muddy wetlands, but the Sludge Truck avoids driving in them because the vegetation there doesn’t burn well. During nighttime operations, the driver slows down considerably, since the beach has lots of buried logs and hidden holes covered by the dune grass in addition to the very rare occasion of someone sleeping or camping out in the dune grass.
Maintaining and Owning 88-51
In the more than 20 years of firefighting service, 88-51 has been involved in few accidents. “When it was in the service of the city hauling sludge, it got into a scuffle with a Chevy Suburban,” Glasson points out. “The Suburban was coming around a corner at an unsafe speed and didn’t stay in its lane. The left front of the Suburban met the front left front tire of the AG Gator and pretty much totaled the front of the Suburban. The AG Gator had minor damage—a bent inlet pipe—and was in operation later that day.”
Bonney provides another incident. “2008-ish. We were attending a NIMS ICS-300 course hosted in our city. A few of us decided to drive two of our [wildland] trucks to the class—88-51, and I drove 52 (M35). The firefighter driving 88-51 will remain nameless. After the class was over for the day, we decided to drive [on] the beach during what was a pretty windy and rainy squall. 51 was in the lead; I followed in 52. At the time, we were unaware that the lid of the cab of 88-51 was hinged and apparently not bolted in place. Just the right direction and gust of wind caught the lid and I got to watch it go up and then back down, upside down, smashing the lightbar on top of the tank. Fortunately the lid and driver were fine, and now 88-51 has a flashy LED lightbar and new bolts in the lid. We kept the smashed lightbar for about five years as a teaching aid.”
With a truck more than two decades old, what is it like to maintain? “We just had the front axle rebuilt this year,” says Bonney. “The department did have to do an engine swap many years ago, and a few hydraulic issues have cropped up,” adds Glasson. “Pollution is average for its age and, for as often as it is needed, probably not much of an issue. We did have a small leak from corrosion at a weld, but a local welder climbed in the tank [and] sealed the leak. It has never been stuck and never failed to pull out anything that was stuck. Operational expenses are pretty much just annual oil changes, small repairs, or improvements. The last time we purchased tires, they were $700 each and needed to be ordered in advance so they could be made. But over the past roughly 20 years the fire department has had this, our total cost for repairs is probably less than $15,000.”
Can a fire department convert and create a unique wildland firefighting vehicle like this today? “Depends on how much your mechanic likes your department,” says Bonney, noting that it was the volunteer fire department’s retired mechanic who took the sewer truck and did all the conversion work. “It sure can be done, but any department should assess its own needs to make that decision. Not every AG Gator is created equal. We got lucky, both in the city already owning it and the mechanic being creative and willing to do the work and luckier still that the mechanic who replaced him is even more skilled and loves fire trucks.
“Keep in mind, any department that is looking at this and wanting to do the same—it’s not an overnight sensation. We looked at getting a second one and even went out and drove a few around. Some had fixed frames, some were manual transmissions. We ended up deciding that it wasn’t worth it and bought a third 2½ ton [U.S. Army surplus M35A] truck instead.”
Glasson adds his opinions about owning this unique wildland firefighting vehicle. “The pros: It is large and has great visibility. It almost always brings enough water to the fight by itself. It is slow and methodical. The large surface area of the tires gives excellent flotation across the sandy soils and slippery surfaces.
“The cons: It is slow and methodical. It is really a specialized vehicle that isn’t appropriate for everyone to operate.”
“We use it as a marker for command posts during surf rescue incidents, public education opportunities at festivals, watering the parade grounds, and parades,” reflects Bonney. “We show it off for the kids to take pictures like any other apparatus. And of course, as a ‘big green fire-eating machine.’ At its base, yes, we certainly could have planned for it to be more versatile across the board, but how effective would it be? Probably not as compared to our other equipment. But I think if we were to go back in time, knowing then what we know today, we would still make it into what it is and be just as happy with its performance. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon except to save your beach house.”
PETER ONG is a freelance writer who writes short stories, articles, poetry, and reviews.