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Firefighters say $922,574 tiller truck nimble, needed

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Posted: Sunday, January 4, 2004 10:00 pm

It may have cost nearly $1 million, but was it worth it?

To answer that question, the News-Sentinel decided to put the Lodi Fire Department's new tiller truck to the test, which involved a reporter and a photographer recently taking an extensive ride along.

And what could the tiller do?

• Can it make a left turn onto Sacramento Street at the newly reconstructed Elm Street?

• What about squeezing through a tight Eastside alley, or under around the base of the new Lodi arch at Lodi Avenue and School Street?

• And can it really pull out of the bay at Fire Station No. 1, turn around in the road and pull back in?

The apparatus, obtained last year, is nearly 60 feet long, 11 feet tall and a mere 8 feet wide. To say it's versatile would be an understatement.

It carries the department's longest ladder, which stretches 100 feet into the air, allowing firefighters to shoot water onto flames with the help of an on-board pump.

And the Fire Department brass and firefighters say it's worth every penny spent.

"This has been a need in the fire service," Fire Engineer Rick Gerlack said. "We luckily haven't lost anything, and hopefully this will help us in the future."

Lodi Firefighter Shane Langone looks out over the police and fire parking lot as he makes his way down the 100-foot ladder of the department's tiller truck. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

The tiller, so named because it is steered from the back, has a turning radius of 32 feet; a jack-knife indicator alarm goes off when the trailer is within a 75-degree angle of the tractor. With equipment, it weighs about 65,000 pounds, or 32.5 tons, and can carry up to seven firefighters, including the so-called tillerman.

The ability of the tiller is extremely versatile, Fire Chief Michael Pretz said.

"In addition to getting down tight alleys, we will always have the ability to supply ourselves water," he said.

With a pump on board, using the tiller can free up a fire engine. An engine has water pumping capability while a truck has the aerial capability. The tiller has both.

Further, prior to the purchasing the tiller, the city's tallest ladder was only 75 feet. On a recent call, Capt. Pete Iturraran said that ladder was raised to reach the top of an independent living facility on Kettleman Lane only to find it was some 4 feet short.

Often, because of the size of firefighting apparatus, the rigs have to pull up to a building some ways away and employ the ladder from there.

"That's when the extra feet really helps," Iturraran said.

Admittedly, there are not that many tall buildings in Lodi. General Mills and Lodi Memorial Hospital, both far from skyscrapers, may be the tallest, while adult-care homes along Kettleman Lane that sit back from the roadway may run a close second.

But Iturraran said the tiller's extra 25 feet of ladder allows firefighters to reach the top of the three-story downtown buildings when the apparatus is parked in the middle of the street. And, that can be a necessity if there are cars parked diagonally against the wide sidewalk when an emergency strikes, he said.

Lodi Firefighter Christopher Allen steers fast in the back cabin of the tiller truck as he is tested on an obstacle course behind the Grape Bowl. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

It's not only the height capability - it's the reach, Gerlack said.

He said with the ladder fully extended, a firefighter can reach two sides of the top story at Hotel Lodi while parked in the middle of School Street.

"We can reach more people," Gerlack said, referring to rescuing trapped victims if there was a fire at the historic downtown building.

Additionally, the department's 75-foot ladder can only reach one part of the hospital's roof.

Tiller by the numbers

Weight: 65,000 pounds, or 30 tons
Length: 59 feet, 9 inches
Height: 11 feet, 2 inches
Width: 8 feet, 2 inches
Ladder: 100 feet tall
Turning radius: 32 feet

The apparatus is also nimble.

Not only can it take the turn onto the new portion of Elm Street, but it can maneuver down the curvy street - even when there's a large delivery truck parked along the side.

It can also make it down any Eastside alley - even off narrow Rush Street, arguably more of a farm lane that a real road. (Gerlack said the city's engines and trucks can't even make that turn.)

To further display its flexibility, the tiller can also pull out of the bay, make a U-turn in the middle of Elm Street and pull back in.

(It was the last question successfully answered by the ride along.)

Although it has been in use for more than a year, the department still trains with an obstacle course of orange cones, fondly called "the serpentine" because the motion to get through it resembles a snake. The cones represent cars, people or other obstacles.

"They say if you can do this, you can do anything," Gerlack said.

But why buy the best?

It must have made sense at the time, said Pretz, who had not yet been hired as fire chief when the decision to buy the equipment was made. The city was opening Fire Station No. 4 and needed a new engine to replace an aging one, he explained.

"Instead of just buying a regular one, they bought the tiller with all of the ground ladders attached," Pretz said.

Lodi Firefighter Shane Langone stands at the top of the 100-foot ladder on the department's tiller truck at Fire Station No. 1. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

In December 2001, the City Council unanimously approved leasing the tiller, formally known as the Quint Aerial Fire Apparatus, for a purchase price of $819,114.96. A year later, when interest rates dipped in 2002, it was refinanced from 5.4 percent to 4.49 percent. The final lease-purchasing price was $922,574. After seven years, the city will own the equipment.

Iturraran said the city's older rigs were breaking down and repairs were costing more than a new apparatus would.

A basic engine would have cost about half the price - but it wouldn't have had the capability the tiller has, or be able to do as many jobs, he pointed out.

"We're in the what-if business," Gerlack said. "We have to be ready for anything. We have to have the tools."

There are currently 19 people certified to drive the tiller. It is now housed at Fire Station No. 1, but will move to the new station on Lower Sacramento Road when a recently approved purchase is received, Pretz said.

Until then, it will continue to be used for all emergency calls, including medical assistance.

The council in September OK'd leasing an additional two fire apparatus at an approximate annual cost of $152,000. The total purchase price is $913,000, and are expected to arrive in mid-2004.

The three pieces of apparatus are the only ones purchased since 1997, Pretz said.

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