Ocean City, Fort Walton Beach unveil fire engine, ladder truck replacing decades-old trucks

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

A new fire engine and ladder truck are rolling out in south Okaloosa County to replace two nearly decades-old trucks.

The Ocean City-Wright Fire Control District and Fort Walton Beach Fire Department each received new trucks this month after a year's worth of manufacturing.

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Firefighters celebrated the arrival of the new trucks with separate wash-down and push-in ceremonies. The ceremonies are a long-standing tradition in the fire service, said Fort Walton Beach Fire Chief Ken Perkins, who has been in the field for about 35 years.

“It’s one of those things that we’ve just held on to. It’s been around for probably hundreds of years. We’re just deep in tradition,” Perkins said. “Everything has a story behind it and some tradition behind it. This is just one of those things."

An age-old tradition

Engine 1 arrived at the Ocean City-Wright Fire District’s Station 1 on Racetrack Road on May 10.

As a part of the ceremony, firefighters extended a hose from the eight-year-old retiring engine to spray down the new truck. Young children and other residents then helped dry the engine before pushing it into the station bay.

“The old engine has served us well. We use the water from it to wash it down. It kind of passes the torch,” Ocean City-Wright Fire Chief Mark Bundrick said. “It’s a good reason to get the community together and celebrate something great for the community.”

Fort Walton Beach firefighters did the same when Truck 6 arrived at Station 6 on Hollywood Boulevard on May 17. The truck is replacing a 10-year-old ladder truck.

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The ceremony is meant to resemble how firefighters would take care of their horses that pulled steam-powered pumpers many years ago after returning from a call. After unhitching the horses and washing down the steamers, Perkins said they would manually push them back into the firehouse.

“They didn’t have the drive-thru bays like we do today,” he said. “So we’ve kept that tradition around, and so when the first truck comes in, before it goes on duty, it gets a traditional wash down out front and manually pushed into the station.”

The retiring trucks will go into a reserve status to be used in case of disasters when additional firefighters are needed, or when the new trucks are out of service for routine maintenance. Each frontline truck is used for about 10 years before it is retired.

Ocean City-Wright Fire Control District firefighter Jesse Kapustik helps Rebekah Mixon hose down the department's new firetruck during a ceremony Tuesday evening at the station on Racetrack Road.

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The trucks then can be used as reserves for about five to 10 years. Ocean City-Wright and Fort Walton Beach have been trying to get back on a 10-year rotation since the 2008 recession.

Updating the fleets

New equipment and trucks can cost thousands of dollars each year, and Perkins said the Fort Walton Beach Fire Department was hit particularly hard by the recession.

The years “2009, 2010 and 2011 were very tough years for the Fire Department," he said.

Ocean City-Wright's new engine cost about $450,000 and the Fort Walton Beach spent close to $1 million on its new ladder truck, which was outfitted with additional equipment.

Ocean City-Wright Fire Control District Engineer Hannah Robertson and Firefighter/Paramedic Donovan Robertson wipe down the department's new fire engine during a ceremony Tuesday evening at the Racetrack Road station.

Perkins said there was a point after the 2008 recession when firefighters had to borrow trucks from neighboring departments. It’s taken several years, but both fire departments are about back on track for a 10-year rotation between engines.

“We were actually having to put some of our firefighters in passenger vehicles instead of the rescue truck, which was always broken,” Perkins said. “So with this purchase, that puts two reserve apparatuses and one reserve rescue, plus good frontline stuff, so we’re about back to where we need to be.”

The COVID-19 pandemic dragged out the time it took to build both new engines because of shortages of parts. Any trucks now are expected to take nearly double the amount of time.

However, Ocean City-Wright used funds saved during the COVID-19 pandemic to its advantage. Bundrick said there was less fuel and equipment being used due to the cancellation of many trainings, which helped cut costs.

“We just had a windfall of money,” he said. “So to find some positive out of a bad situation, we used that money to start moving toward getting our apparatus in shape.”

Fort Walton Beach firefighters, city officials and residents help "push in" a new firetruck Tuesday at the department's Station 6.

New features enhance safety

Although a lot of features tend to be the same, each fire engine is custom built to fit the needs of individual fire departments, meaning firefighters can choose specific upgrades.

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Both new trucks have benefited from new technology and construction materials.

“It’s kind of like buying a car now and one that you had for 10 years,” Bundrick said. “A lot has changed.”

Ocean City-Wright's new firetruck has a more durable engine than the older model and is equipped with an anti-tip device that enhances firefighter safety and increases maneuverability.

Firefighters, residents and community leaders gathered at the Ocean City-Wright Fire Control District's Racetrack Road station Tuesday evening to welcome new fire engine.

The Fort Walton Beach Fire Department modified the ladder on its new truck to make it about 32 feet longer than the older model at a total length of 107 feet.

Perkins said that feature will help firefighters better reach buildings and adds a few more stories to the floors they can access. At some locations in Fort Walton Beach, the reach from the street can be about 25 to 50 feet before the ladder makes it to the building.

“We’ve seen a lot more multi-story buildings built in the city over the last few years, so we’re thinking forward and trying to make sure that we’re prepared for that future growth,” Perkins said. “There are also a lot of upgrades when it comes to technology and safety features.” 

Firefighters will be able to extend the ladder on the new truck much faster than before and maneuver around small streets and parked cars with more ease.

A number of community leaders and residents came out to both ceremonies to celebrate the arrival of the new trucks, which are now fully in service. Both fire chiefs thanked the community and City Council and Fire District officials who approved the purchases for their support.

“Some of the safety features, the speed at which it can be set up, is tremendous improvement over what we had before,” Perkins said of the new ladder truck. “It’s set up wonderfully and it’s going to serve the community well.”