By Eilis Maynard, Region I, External Affairs
On Friday, May 24, federal, state and local officials gathered at the St. Johnsbury fire station to celebrate the new aerial tower truck. Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch presented a giant check to town officials, and actually took a ride in the bucket of the new rig!
St. Johnsbury Vermont is a small town located in northern Vermont, not too far from the Canadian border. Although it is the home of 7,000 residents, in many ways it resembles many of our large industrial cities. Being a railroad and factory town, St. Johnsbury has large brick and wooden factories, downtown commercial buildings, and residential properties. Many are built close together and due to the depressed economy in this area have fallen into disrepair.
This is a challenge for the St. Johnsbury fire department of 10 fulltime firefighters, supplemented by 20 call firefighters who operate out of an old, cramped fire station in the heart of the downtown district. St. Johnsbury has had its share of serious, and in several cases, fatal fires in its downtown district.
A key component of St. Johnsbury’s fire protection is their aerial tower truck. Previously, they operated a 1976 tower truck that was purchased used from another fire department in 1998. For many years, the 37–year-old tower truck has been constantly plagued by mechanical problems. It did not meet current firefighting and safety standards, and last year it failed its annual service testing and had to be taken out of service. This left St. Johnsbury without an aerial tower truck, and left the community and its firefighters in a precarious and dangerous position.
St. Johnsbury’s greatest fears became a reality on Dec. 23, 2012, when a fast-moving fire broke out midafternoon in a large brick building in the heart of downtown. As firefighters frantically searched for occupants, the fire located on the second floor “flashed over”, trapping several firefighters on the third floor. Without a tower ladder truck available to reach them, they were forced to jump for their lives.
Fortunately, they were able to jump to a second floor porch and received only minor injuries, but it was a situation that was too close for comfort and was nearly a pre-Christmas tragedy.
FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program has been providing direct federal grants to cities and towns across the United States for firefighting equipment, firefighter training, and fire trucks since 2001. Troy Ruggles, St. Johnsbury fire chief and Brad Reed, fire captain, prepared a comprehensive grant application.
Senators Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, and Congressman Peter Welch worked together to support the application. Their hard work paid off when St. Johnsbury was awarded a $475,000 federal grant to purchase a new 100 foot aerial tower truck.
In fact, the St. Johnsbury application was one of only 100 firefighting vehicle grants approved for the award out of 4,000 applications nationwide. St. Johnsbury’s new tower truck was placed into active service on Friday, May 10. Less than 48 hours later, in the early morning hours of Sunday May 12, the new truck responded to and played a pivotal role in controlling a serious residential fire on Spring Street in downtown St. Johnsbury.
According to Ruggles, there was no way that St. Johnsbury could have afforded to purchase this key piece of firefighting equipment without the federal grant support. A true example of how the FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program helps our local communities to better protect their citizens and their firefighters.