Firefighter, Skokie (IL) Fire Department

Ask any fire service administrator what the role of his fire department is in the community, and you may hear an array of answers. Collapse and confined space rescue are the rave at this time. Hazardous materials has a strong foothold in our job. Emergency medical services encompass much of our time. All of these began as what many may have described as “fads” in the fire service.

Each time a new concept evolves in the fire service, it needs to be funded in some way. With the inability to procure sufficient funds for day-to-day operations, fire departments must appropriate funding from operating budgets to support the initiation, training, and support of new and special response teams. In many instances, existing programs suffer, and many good ideas fall by the wayside.

Fire prevention programs most often suffer in this type of economic climate. In many respects, fire prevention is the least visible of fire department services unless an aggressive program has been instituted. In some departments, fire prevention programs take place only during Fire Prevention Week.


In June 1994, Lieutenant Jerry Mulsoff sat in the Skokie (IL) Fire Department Fire Prevention Bureau office searching for a way to enhance fire prevention activities. While looking through some fire education materials distributed by a local fast food chain, a cartoon-type fire engine caught his attention. Immediately it occurred to him that a kid-size steamer-rig would be just the device to help teach children about fire safety.

Since no funds had been budgeted for this project, Mulsoff looked for other ways to make the rig a reality. Since many of our firefighters are involved in trade jobs on their days off, Mulsoff asked them if they believed it would be feasible to undertake the rig project. When the members learned that the project was for “the kids,” many volunteered. Their assistance came in the forms of donated materials and hours of work while off-duty and during unassigned fire station time.


The first item needed was some type of motorized vehicle. A small car would be too large, but–as it was later proven–a golf cart would be just right. After making many calls to obtain a golf cart, we located one behind the local park district`s supply building. We obtained permission to use it, and it was delivered to Station 17 in the bucket of a front-end loader. The cart wasn`t a pretty sight.

As firefighters at Station 17 began assessing the new acquisition, they determined that the batteries were no good, the brakes were no good, the body was worthless, and the tires were unusable. The motor, however, worked. Not a bad start for not having much to work with! Within the next two weeks, the brakes were fixed, and new tires and batteries were acquired.


At this point, the remains of the cart were transferred to Station 18. Here, a design concept was developed. With a power saw, the frame was altered to allow the base of the body to be fabricated. A motor hood was designed and formed from sheet metal. A metal oven vent filter became the front grill. A new front seat cushion was created and set on top of the new battery box on top of the frame.

Next came the steamer portion of the cart. Sheet metal fenders were fabricated and attached to the body. Spoke hubcaps added to the four wheels simulated the wagon wheels of the steamer era. A back step was constructed from scrap diamond plate; side steps were cut from short utility vehicle running boards. A firefighter took home the chassis and the basic body units and painted them in his garage.

With this phase completed, we proceeded to construct the boiler part of the steamer from a 55-gallon steel drum secured to the body with quick-release latches on three sides. The steamer`s chimney was fabricated sheet metal secured to the drum with sheet metal screws. This method of construction makes it easy to effect any alterations that may be needed. Next, an 8- 2 12-inch hole was cut in the lower rear portion of the boiler drum; an artificial fireplace log stack was placed in this area. The unit was then wired to the batteries for power. A steel mesh grate was then affixed in front of the logs. When switched on, the logs illuminated and made it appear as if the boiler had been stoked.

A short ladder rack was installed on the left side of the cart, and a small section of hard suction on the right side. Lightweight imitation hand lanterns and two smooth-bore nozzles were added to each side of the boiler. Two small chemical extinguishers were placed on the rear step. The front area, dashboard, floorboards, and area behind the front seat were all covered with oak tongue-and-groove flooring. Three gauges were added on the dashboard. A sporty go-cart steering wheel was installed, and a bell was fastened to the top of the fire wall. Two headlights were added, as were a red and a green warning light, reflecting area tradition. A car burglar alarm, which would serve as a siren, was installed under the motor hatch. Antique pressure gauges and a 212-inch female to 112-inch male wye were added on each side of the cart. Also added were small taillights to illuminate the rear of the cart, a protective trim to cover all exposed sheet metal to prevent injuries to the many children who will come in contact with the cart, and Mack bulldog decals along the front. The cart was ready for test driving.

We resolved the issue of transporting the cart by building a trailer, also with an oak floor, similar in design to that used by area landscapers. A rear ramp gate facilitated loading and unloading the rig.

Before being placed in service, Sparky, as the rig was named, was officially dedicated by Mayor Jacqueline Gorell.

In the year the Sparky-mobile has been available, it has responded to hundreds of functions, including parades. It continually attracts children and adults alike and has added the dimension of fun to the important functions of learning and teaching fire safety.

It has been estimated that the dedication, generosity, and talents that went into creating Sparky saved the department about $1,500. The Fire Prevention Bureau budget now contains provisions for maintaining Sparky.

The old golf cart. Its motorized “remains”

painted red in a firefighter`s garage–

formed the core of the Sparky-mobile. (Photos by author.)

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