By Anna Jauhola
In the coming months, Lancaster firefighters will no longer struggle to don their equipment at a call in a rescue vehicle the size of a sardine can. Thanks to generous support and a Canadian volunteer, the Lancaster Fire Department has a roomy rescue squad it purchased in November.
For nearly 20 years, firefighters used a former ambulance as its rescue vehicle, which goes out on every call.
“We pretty much sat on the floor, on our knees and got dressed,” said Tyler Swenson, assistant chief. “We did that for years. The air didn’t work, the heat didn’t work – well it worked, in the summer. It was just a disaster.”
The 2007 Asphodel GMC rescue squad is a rig specifically built for firefighters not only to suit up, but also to use as a mobile command center and recovery space at any emergency. The department has already equipped the vehicle with the department’s Jaws of Life and other rescue equipment, such as saws, tools and airpacks.
The rig has room for six firefighters and their packs in the rear, plus the driver and one passenger up front.
“And there’s way more room than that,” Swenson said. “We can use it for rehabilitation, to cool down or warm up.”
The department came to its decision to purchase a new rescue squad after they assisted on a water rescue last spring. A man had driven onto the North Branch of the Two Rivers west of Hallock and fell through. Lancaster firefighters brought their old ambulance rescue rig along.
“These guys had to walk out into the flood water 100 feet and pulled the guy out of the pickup,” said Chief Casey Faken. “They carried him to shore. They were soaked.”
The rescue site was near the McGovern farm west of Hallock, so the soaked, freezing firefighters had a long, cold drive back to Lancaster with no heat in the rig.
“That was kind of the realization point where we needed a new vehicle,” Faken said. “For a lot of our structure fires, we fought to get dressed in there. Some of the guys are taller, so they just don’t fit.”
So midsummer, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fire department formed a committee and began its search for a new rescue squad. Through one of the many websites specifically dedicated to selling fire and emergency vehicles, the committee found its new rig.
The catch — the vehicle was located in the Township of Wellesley, Ontario, which is a suburb of Toronto.
Fortunately, the city of Lancaster has many friends just north of the Canadian border. Jim Krueger, who lives in Tolstoi, Manitoba, frequents Lancaster when the border isn’t closed. He volunteered and successfully delivered the new rig to the port of entry in Pembina.
“He said he’d love to go get it for us as a donation,” Swenson said. “So we bought him a plane ticket there, that department picked him up at the airport. Then it all fell off the wagon.”
While the Township of Wellesley Fire Department was easy to work with, there were a few snafus along the way.
Krueger went to get the vehicle the day before Thanksgiving, which left the wire fund transfer of $50,000 in limbo, Lancaster’s department didn’t have a license plate for the new squad and had to send insurance cards before Krueger could leave.
Thankfully, these issues were easily resolved and Krueger was soon on his way for a 20-hour drive back across Canada.
“He thought of it as a vacation,” Swenson said, laughing. “We told Jim it was no rush to get it here and to take his time.”
The rig then sat at Cole International at Pembina for 30 days, which is standard, while more issues cropped up. Swenson said they learned the rig needed a different speedometer for miles per hour instead of kilometers per hour, which cost up to $500.
“So that set us back a week and we had that done, but (Kelowna Instruments in Pembina) ended up donating that,” Swenson said.
While the rig sat in a virtual quarantine, Stone’s Mobile Radio of Grand Forks installed the rig’s new radio. Stone’s was in the area installing radios for Kittson County emergency services anyway, Swenson said.
The Lancaster Fire Department finally brought home its new rescue squad on Jan. 2. Although they were elated, one final issue hung over their heads as they pulled into town. When initially looking at the squad, the description said it was 11 feet tall.
“Our door’s 11 feet, so we had them measure it again and they said it was under 11,” Swenson said. “We thought, well, if we get here and it doesn’t fit, what are we going to do?”
As they pulled up to the fire hall door, the firefighters were all relieved to see the rig had about 4 inches of clearance.
Now the new rig has its license plates, is fully stocked with tools, rescue equipment, water and more, while it waits comfortably in its place inside the fire hall. The only thing left before it can serve the community is new decals. Firefighter Keith Schmiedeberg will have that honor.
This truck goes out on every call, Faken said, so it is integral to the department’s operation. In 2020, Lancaster Fire went out on 32 calls – half their own and half mutual aid – among structure, medical, grass and auto. They not only thank their community for continued support, but also the city council for approving the purchase and County Emergency Manager Scot Olson for his help in procuring new equipment and supplies through COVID-19 funding.
By Anna Jauhola