When you think of parades across America, what vehicles stand out in your mind? Fire apparatus have captivated Americans for years with their large proportions, shiny exteriors, and all the equipment and personnel onboard. Some fire departments have taken this even further by displaying specialized vehicles that can act as command posts, haz-mat units, rescue vehicles, water and ice rescue … the list goes on. For some fire departments, eye-catching apparatus can help educate their citizens on fire safety.

We are probably all familiar with radio-controlled fire trucks, along with other designs that are commercially available. When used properly, these pieces can draw the attention of your audience and help impart fire and life safety awareness. You don’t have to be an expert to operate these units.

An important aspect of the education effort is interaction between the operator and the audience. A basic talking fire truck model, which starts in the $6,000 price range, can be customized to transmit your live audio message to the audience, or you can use prerecorded songs and skits to allow the operator a little “hands off” time. Ideally, the operator should be a short distance from the vehicle and should not draw attention to himself. If the customization is more than your budget can handle, you can add Dalmatian characters to do the talking.

By getting your fire truck to wink, spin around, or even squirt some water, you have a guaranteed crowd pleaser, but don’t make the mistake of having too much fun with the vehicle, since the main message is safety.

Moving up in size, you can find many uses for a fire department golf cart. Carts can also be customized with matching paint and emblems to make them “belong” in your fleet. They can act as EMS vehicles in congested spaces, as well as be involved in public education duties. Golf carts can start at $4,000 from the manufacturer. Additional time and resources are needed for customizing them. Golf carts can be a fun part of the parade, leading the way for the bigger apparatus to follow. You can also show them off at special events in your community.

If the conditions are right, a golf cart-type vehicle can be radically modified to fit the needs of the fire department. The “Tilly” project (“Breathing Life into ‘Tilly,’ ” Fire Prevention Bureau, Fire Engineering, February 2003) is such a project. A vehicle was modified with a trailer and bench seats along the side for kids to ride on. Another modified golf cart was built by the Skokie (IL) Fire Department (“Old Golf Cart Becomes Fire Prevention Tool,” Fire Prevention Bureau, Fire Engineering, August 1998). The appearance of the Skokie vehicle is that of an old steam fire engine.

Top of the line, in terms of size, would have to go to the Virginia Beach Fire Department’s Monster Fire Truck. Its tires alone are five feet tall and weigh 1,000 pounds each! This vehicle, which runs on compressed natural gas and turns heads wherever it goes, was a community project that was no small undertaking (“Virginia Beach’s Monster Fire Truck, Fire Engineering, June 1996).


The Tri-State Fire Protection District in Darien, Illinois, started in the fun fire vehicle business with a crazy thought about not reinventing the wheel and yet thinking outside the box. We were ready to take on the challenge.

Photo by David Zalesiak

We visit around 2,000 children annually in schools and see another 1,000 or so at our Open House. Year after year, we would do “the same old pub-ed routines.” We decided we needed to be different. Members began brainstorming and eventually came up with the idea of a “hot rod.” When we ran the idea past the lieutenant, he thought it was another one of our crazy ideas, but when we told him there was a grant available for educating children through the Illinois First Grant Fund, he approved. We applied for the grant and got it, much to our surprise. We received a check for $35,000 a few months later.

The development of the project took a crazy turn when we found the estimated cost would be closer to $50,000, well over our grant amount. Not wanting to give anything up, we solicited businesses for donations. People were genuinely interested and wanted to be part of our project. We obtained partial or full donations from every vendor we approached.

Photo by David Zalesiak

There was still one big hitch: Who could we find to customize this car within our budget and produce a product of which we could be proud? After seeing a Chrysler PT Cruiser with a flame design at an automotive business, we thought we’d found the answer to our problem. When Tom Stowe, the owner of the PT Cruiser and the business, heard our story, he was immediately onboard in our quest to make the idea become a reality.

Fortunately, our administration had given us the freedom to proceed with very liberal boundaries, and many individuals and businesses came together to make the project a reality. As a partial donation, a local car dealer sold us the vehicle well below cost. Among other items, our local Best Buy store deeply discounted a television, a DVD player, and a VCR that were installed in the car to play videos at events. There was even a PlayStation 2 game system to attract kids to the car, where they would then hear the fire safety message.

Photo by David Zalesiak

When the PT Cruiser was in quarters, it immediately became the talk of the town (photos 1-3). Since it has been in service, it has gone to schools, businesses, and Chamber of Commerce events. It has won awards in car shows and even appeared on the ice at a Chicago Wolves game. In 2006, we are hoping to enter the car in the World of Wheels car show at McCormick Place in Chicago.

We are very proud of our accomplishment. It is exciting to see other fire departments take some of our ideas and use them for their own projects. We are even more excited about how well received the car has been within the community. This project was a lot of hard work, but as we use it day to day, it’s obvious the work was well worth it.

Using a vehicle to help deliver the message of fire safety is a good one. By taking some of the ideas presented in this article, you should be able to go “full speed ahead” to reach your goals.

We would like to thank the following participants that helped make this idea a reality: Stowe Automotive (Lockport, Illinois), Best Buy of Countryside, Mancary Chrysler, AmericanSportscar.Com, Discount Tire, and Illinois Senator Kirt Dillard.

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