aerial truck
The author behind the wheel. Click image to enlarge

Originally published on Sep. 22, 2005

Review and photos by Lesley Wimbush

Like a lot of car lovers, one of my all time fantasy vehicles is powerful, red, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars… and begins with the letter “F”.

Well, recently a longtime driving dream was fulfilled for this car lover. No, I wasn’t handed the keys to one of Enzo Ferrari’s exotic prancing ponies. Equally as thrilling, I was able to experience something that every car fan, young and old, dreams of driving: a fire truck.

Toronto Fire Services held their First Annual Ride and Drive Event at Downsview Park recently, and I was lucky enough to be included, along with several other auto journalists.

After a tour of the facilities and description of the computer-aided dispatch system, we were introduced to the day’s star attractions – a brand new $1.1 million dollar Aerial Ladder truck and a $600,000 Pumper engine.

The pumper is the most commonly seen fire truck. It’s the one that carries water, and by means of a powerful internal pump, can increase hose pressure to expel roughly 6,000 litres of water a minute at varying distances and heights. Although it’s the smaller of the two trucks – at 30 feet long and weighing 39,000 lb. – it’s hardly a lightweight. The six-cylinder, inline diesel engine puts out 370 horsepower… and 1200 lb-ft of torque! That’s comparable to a locomotive.

The aerial truck is much larger, and has hydraulic ladders and platforms that elevate firefighters to rooftops and windows. This big fellow tips the scales at 65,000 lb. and is 40 feet long. Powered by a 14-litre diesel engine, it has 440 horsepower and 1400 lb-ft of torque. It has almost as much horsepower, close to three times the torque of Ferrari’s flagship Enzo supercar – and a similar price tag.

Pumper navigating cones
Pumper navigating cones. Click image to enlarge

Both trucks are equipped with five-speed Allison automatic transmissions, drum brakes and Jacob engine braking systems.
Firefighter trainees must go through intensive driver training. For nine months, they learn defensive driving and fire truck exemption rules, study an air brake course and earn a DZ license. It takes a lot of skill and experience to safely pilot vehicles this large through congested traffic, down narrow alleys, or around obstacles. The sheer bulk of the vehicle and large overhangs cause several blind-spots, so firefighters become adept at knowing the dimensions and handling. You’d think that nothing, even a Ferrari Enzo would rival these big trucks when it comes to traffic-stopping. Yet, one of the frustrations that firefighters deal with daily are those drivers who simply don’t get out of the way.

To give us a small taste of what it must be like to maneuver such giant beasts around parked cars on city streets, we were invited to try our hand on a slalom course around cones. After an introduction to the vast array of switchgear by driving instructors Joby Garcia and Steve Croft, the start button was fired and dream became reality – I was actually driving a fire truck!

Surprisingly, driving the pumper wasn’t as difficult as I’d anticipated and most of the cones escaped unscathed. Even backwards, I managed to complete the course, (albeit very slowly) without toppling any.

The aerial ladder truck was a completely different story. As you can imagine, negotiating a slalom course in a vehicle that measures 40 feet from nose to tail is a bit challenging. As well as a large rear overhang, there’s the fact that it rides on three sets of wheels, the first set of which is actually behind the driver. The nose of the cab is a giant blind-spot, and the driver relies heavily on the side mirrors to tell him when objects are cleared. Even at the slow pace we were travelling, one cone was knocked over and caught up in the undercarriage of the vehicle, much to the amusement of the watching firefighters.

Things really get difficult when running the same course backwards. The closest thing I can come up with to draw a parallel comparison would be to take the entire team of Budweiser Clydesdales, hitch them up behind the wagon and attempt to drive it backwards in a smooth and accurate serpentine. Blindfolded.

Anything occurring along the flanks of the vehicle could only be seen through the enormous side mirrors that were vibrating violently in protest to the slow pace, yet presenting a clear enough picture of the long line of smashed cones left in my wake. This was definitely not easy!

Kudos to those firefighters who consider it all in a day’s work to back this huge vehicle out of a tight alley lined with cars.

These two beautiful trucks are brand spanking new purchases for Toronto Fire Services and had yet to be integrated into their program at the time of the Test Drive day. Many thanks to the Toronto Fire Service’s event organizer Sean Pearce and instructors Joby Garcia and Steve Croft for their kindness and patience.

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