Just in time for the start of wildfire season, Lewis Ford of Hays last week delivered an F-550 truck chassis to Hays Fire and Rescue Sales and Service, where electricians, plumbers, fabricators and painters are transforming it into a fire and rescue truck for Ellis County.

“We’re about three-quarters done,” said Kelly Meyers, president of Hays Fire on Old U.S. Highway 40. “We build everything from the chassis back, so the whole body is fabricated out here, and mounted and wired.”

Monday morning, in the company’s 15,000-square-foot metal building at 1151 Moe Rd., Meyers explained how the process works.

“The material comes into the shop in sheets and long tubes, and these are our jigs,” he said. “That bed there will turn into a bed like that. We cut it and shape it and bend it.” And paint it.

Standing to the back of Ellis County’s 2019 red F-550, Meyers pulled a silver latch to open a compartment on the truck.

“We make all of this, from the window on back, we add all the lights, electrical, paint,” he said. “These are compartments and that’s a generator, this runs electricity. So, say somebody crashes in the middle of the night, and the fire fighters need lighting, they’ll pull this out and plug in lights and set up a scene. This one they’ll have all their reels for their hydraulic tools, for their jaws, their spreaders, their rams.”

The county’s new fire truck with custom bed will roll into its new home at Ellis County Fire Department Company 6 in Ellis sometime in mid- to late February, Meyers said.

A brush-rescue truck, it not only has equipment to fight wildfires and structural fires, but also rescue tools so the 16 Company 6 firefighters can respond to accidents, he said. The Ellis County Commissioners in August approved the $113,049 purchase as part of a 25-year capital replacement plan for the fire district.

The truck replaces a 41-year-old 1978 International that’s been out of service due to mechanical problems. Without the International, the county currently has rescue units only in Hays and Victoria, instead of its usual three, responding to 911 rescue emergencies, said Darin Myers, director of Ellis County Fire and Emergency Management.

“Rescue trucks carry about $30,000 in specialized equipment, including hydraulic cutters and spreaders that can cut vehicles apart, spread metal and bend metal,” Myers said. They also have air bags that inflate like a big square pillow to rescue anyone trapped under anything from a small vehicle to a semi to a tree, he said.

The Ellis station covers the western third of the county, from Yocemento Avenue west, and has three other trucks; a water tender, fire engine and brush truck.

“In 2018, the most common calls we had were for vehicle accidents,” Myers said. The largest percentage, more than 19 percent, are vehicle calls, including someone trapped in a vehicle. More than 16 percent are to put out grass fires, Myers said.

The new Ellis truck, with a V-10 gas motor, is not as big as the old one it replaces.

“This one’s a little smaller, a little more economic, than what they were running for rescue,” Meyers said. “Their last rescue was an older truck, a lot bigger truck, and bigger water capacity.”

In this case, smaller is better, said Myers.

“Before we had the vehicle rescue trucks, all the vehicle rescue tools were on our fire engines, which are designed for fighting house fires,” he said. “This will lessen the load on our $300,000 fire engines, to prolong their life and get 25 years out of them. We’ll be using the less expensive truck more often and saving wear and tear on the more expensive truck.”

The smaller, four-wheel drive F-550, is more versatile and agile. Now there will be room on the bigger fire trucks for fire equipment, Myers said, such as 18-inch by 18-inch ventilation fans to ventilate hazardous gases and smoke from houses and other structures.

Besides Company 6 in Ellis, the Ellis County Fire Department has stations in Hays, Schoenchen, Catharine, Munjor and Victoria, covering 900 square miles of Ellis County. The department’s 85 part-time firefighters are paid per call to respond to wildfires, vehicle fires and farm fires, as well as assist with emergency medical calls, wrecks, rescue calls, chemical spills and other emergencies.

On the average call in 2018, 12 firefighters responded, Myers said. From the time they were dispatched, they were on the scene within 9.5 minutes anywhere in the county. Usually two firefighters ride on the back and three up front. Those in front, except the driver, move to the back during a brush fire, he said.

In 2018, 7,275 acres burned in Ellis County, including northeast of Hays in early March near Toulon Avenue and Homestead Road. That fire was 8 miles long and more than 2 miles wide.

The new brush rescue truck can carry 500 gallons of water. How long that will last depends, Myers said.

“On a vehicle fire, you use a different size and type of nozzle, which empties the tank faster,” he said. “That would take roughly 5 minutes. With grass fire it’s a smaller line and you usually set your nozzle lower, so it would last about 25 minutes.”

The new truck right now is keeping company at Hays Fire and Rescue alongside Ford, Chevy, International and Freightliner trucks of various sizes and colors from Sheridan, McPherson, Pawnee, Finney and Sherman counties. Hays Fire and Rescue is one of eight such companies in the state. Kansas has more fire and rescue truck suppliers than anywhere else in the country, Meyers said.

In general, the trend is toward taller, longer fire and rescue trucks.

“We’re going to bigger trucks, more water capability, bigger pumps,” Meyers said. “The personnel is getting less and less for the volunteers. People don’t want to give up time anymore, they’re too busy. So we’re designing our trucks to be a one- and two-man operation truck.”

The typical brush truck runs from 300 to 500 gallons of water, while the bigger ones are 1,000 to 1,500 or 2,000 gallons.

Ellis County’s new truck pumps 250 gallons a minute at 150 pounds per square inch, which is normal for a little brush truck, Meyers said. The bigger trucks are 130 gallons a minute at 600 psi. The high-pressure pump streams less water but more pressure, so firefighters can stay back from the fire, and also have more pressure to knock it down.

“The more water, the more gross vehicle weight,” Meyers said. “A little truck will carry up to 19,500 gross vehicle weight, carrying 30 to 40 gallons of fuel. With the bigger trucks we’re going up to 33,000 gvw, carrying 50 to 100 gallons of fuel.”

Fire trucks in any rural department see a lot of abuse in the field, he said. Most firetrucks have a 20-year lifespan as a first-out primary truck, after that, the state requires they operate as a secondary truck, he said.

“Most rural departments, it depends on how they use them, don’t last that long. It depends on what abuse they go through,” Meyers said.

Unlike cars and light-duty trucks, where drivetrains wear out, fire and rescue trucks just go out and do their job. One of the firetrucks at Hays Fire and Rescue has only 10,000 miles on it. While the old motor and transmission are fine, Hays Fire and Rescue is repainting the cab, adding a lift kit, a new bed and new water pumps.

“It’s just a lot of rough terrain. Its the beating of the bouncing and the heat they go through,” Meyers said. “The interior gets shot and full of smoke. They get scratched, they get dented.”

February to May is the busiest time of the year for wildfires, Myers said.