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(Above: McKeesport fire Chief Jeff Tomovscik and firefighter Jay Pravdica pose with a new fire engine added to the city's department. The city has also purchased a new ladder truck. Tube City Almanac photo.)
If you're a car buff, a 500-horsepower, 12-liter engine sounds pretty impressive. (That's about 732 cubic inches, for those of us who don't speak metric.)
But when you put it into a 52,000-pound vehicle, such as a fire truck carrying a 78-foot-long steel ladder, "it's working pretty hard," says Jeff Tomovscik, McKeesport fire chief, about one of the two new trucks recently added to the city department.
Purchased with the assistance of the federal Community Development Block Grant program, Tomovcsik says the new ladder truck and fire engine are safer, carry better equipment and are designed to fight fires more efficiently than the 1998-vintage equipment they replace.
"As well as they served the city, (the 1998 trucks) were becoming very problematic mechanically, and getting expensive to service," he says. "These trucks take a beating. We're a busy department with tight roads and a lot of hills."
In theory, better equipment also helps improve the ISO, or Insurance Services Office, fire suppression ratings for the city, which can lower insurance costs for all property owners.
The McKeesport department, whose two stations are staffed 24 hours a day by paid firefighters, answers roughly 1,400 calls per year, including 25 to 40 residential fires, Tomovcsik says.
The new vehicles are the ladder truck, based at the department's station on Market Street, Downtown, and an engine --- primarily designed to carry and pump water --- based at the station on Eden Park Boulevard in Renziehausen Park.
"We made it a priority to get as much water on the trucks as possible," Tomovscik says.
Both use Cummins diesel engines and the cabs and frames were built by Spartan Motors, an emergency equipment specialist in Charlotte, Mich. The incomplete trucks were then sent out to two specialists for completion --- the ladder truck to Rosenbauer Aerials in Fremont, Neb., and the engine to 4 Guys Fire Trucks in Somerset County, Pa.
Every new fire truck is custom-made for the department that orders it, Tomovscik says. "It's not like your Chevy pickup," he says. "I can't walk onto the lot at Riverview Chevrolet and pick out one. These trucks are literally built from the ground up for the city that's going to use them. It's a very time-consuming process."
It's also fairly expensive. The engine for the Renzie station cost $460,000, while the ladder for the Downtown station cost $670,000.
"It would be very tough to do that without the CDBG money," says A.J. Tedesco, the city's community development director. CDBG is a program administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that helps cash-strapped municipalities pay for community expenses.
The White House has proposed eliminating the program, though Congress has spared CDBG for now.
The city is receiving $131,728 this year from CDBG to make payments on the two new trucks, Tedesco says. Without the money, he says, the money would be coming out of the city's general fund, and "we'd have to cut someplace else from public safety."
Ordering a custom truck does have a few perks. For instance, McKeesport has returned to a traditional all-red paint job on its fire engines after nearly 20 years of running trucks that were white and red. The 1998 trucks, which were white over red, were built as part of a special order for the U.S. Air Force.
Since McKeesport had to select a paint color for the two new pieces of equipment anyway, firefighters borrowed a McKeesport Tigers football helmet.
"The shade of red was matched to the helmet," Tomovscik says.
Both of the 1998 trucks have been sold onto nearby volunteer fire departments --- Rainbow in White Oak, and Gallatin-Sunnyside in Forward Twp.
In addition to carrying 750 gallons of water, the engine based at Renzie carries 40 gallons of firefighting foam, which can be used on chemical, gasoline and electrical fires. "It brings an additional tool to our arsenal," Tomovscik says.
Along with the new trucks comes additional training for all McKeesport firefighters on how to use and maintain the equipment correctly, he says. Safety features include cameras that activate when the trucks are turning or backing up, additional lighting to illuminate emergency scenes at night, and airbags.
The department decided airbags were a necessity after one of the city's fire engines overturned on the Riverton side of the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge during a severe ice storm in November 2014. Several firefighters were injured.
In an interesting twist, the fire engine damaged in that wreck --- a Seagrave --- was considered a total loss and was written off by the city's insurance carrier.
According to Tomovscik, it was then purchased by a company in Michigan that rebuilds heavy equipment. The company refurbished the truck to like-new specifications and then put it up for sale.
But it didn't sell despite several online auction attempts.
McKeesport officials watched the online auctions with keen interest. "For the months, this truck is just sitting, it's not selling," Tomovscik says.
When the price dropped to a level the city felt was reasonable, Tomovscik and fire Capt. Gene Esken flew to Michigan and looked over McKeesport's old engine. The city ended up re-purchasing it, for $110,000, as a backup engine which is now kept at the Renzie firehouse.
Esken and Tomovscik then drove it back, 400 miles, from Michigan at the truck's regulated top speed of 55 miles per hour. "It was OK," says Tomovscik, adding that the trip attracted surprisingly little attention from other motorists.
"Kids were looking and pointing," he says. "Adults were like, 'Oh, whatever.'"
Originally published August 30, 2017.