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New fire engines are old school

LAWRENCEVILLE - Nearly a decade after ordering a new style of fire engines, the Gwinnett County Fire Department is going back to the traditional engine style.

The first of nine new custom pumper trucks came in last week and will soon protect the Mall of Georgia area. With a black top and reflective striping on the rear, the engines provide a new twist to the old-school apparatus.

Capt. Dwayne Higgins said the county made the decision to go with engines built specifically for firefighting purposes after nearly 10 years of buying ones that had chassis that were manufactured for general commercial use and then fashioned for fire use.

The commercial trucks are cheaper, Higgins said, but the traditional style is more durable and more maneuverable.

"We like to have something that's more reliable, tried and true," said Higgins, who maintains the county's fleet of fire vehicles that amassed 1.9 million miles last year.

A couple of years ago, a firefighter accidentally caused a commercial-chassis engine to roll over when he was driving.

Pictures of the incident show that the top of the cab was flattened, and Higgins said the driver was wedged in and nearly had to be extricated. The driver wasn't injured, but Higgins said that was only from pure luck. Pictures of a custom engine that had rolled over show the cab was still intact.

"There's just no comparison," Higgins said.

Because of the lower-quality material in the cheaper engines, the county was a having a problem with doors cracking, which Higgins said should not be an issue on the new pumpers.

The custom engines also have a flat nose, which makes visibility better for the driver when driving through intersections. The trucks also have a smaller turning radius and are more maneuverable because the front and back axles are closer together.

The style of the cab makes it easier for firefighters in heavy gear to get in and out, Higgins said. The engines also revert back to the traditional model of having the pump in the middle of the engine instead of the rear.

Of course, Higgins still believes the commercial-style engines are safe. In fact, the 15 vehicles in the county's fleet will remain on the streets, although one will be moved to reserve status.

The county also still has 13 of the fire service designed pumpers that were ordered from 1990 to 1995 - six used daily at fire stations and seven in reserves. Five custom pumpers will go to salvage when the new ones arrive.

While Higgins pointed out the differences on a commercial truck, firefighter Phillip Allison wandered over to the new engine and began checking it out.

"There's no comparison really. It's both ends of the perspective," Allison said. He knew about the incident with the rolled-over engine and said the biggest difference in the styles is safety.

"We can't help anybody if we're hurt," he said.

While the pumpers were ordered last year, commissioners recently approved orders for three ladder trucks, five ambulances and another pumper. Higgins said the purchases were for replacements and for equipment for new stations to be opened in the next year in Norcross, Duluth and Sugar Hill.