Ask a Firefighter: Firetrucks of local departments reflect special needs of their communities

Ask a Firefighter: Firetrucks of local departments reflect special needs of their communities

The Westerly Sun

Why do different fire stations have different firetrucks?

Visitors to our local fire stations are often curious why different fire stations have different types of trucks. All fire service vehicles are generally referred to as firetrucks, but firetrucks today look very different from station to station.

In addition to fighting fires, your local firefighters also respond to medical emergencies, water rescues, hazardous material spills, and motor vehicle accidents, so the trucks in each department are equipped with a variety of tools. As firefighting technology has evolved, and fire district needs are identified, firetrucks are literally taking on new shapes and sizes.  

The primary purpose of the firetruck is transporting firefighters to the scene with the water, hose, ladders, tools, and equipment that they need. However, the tools that firefighters need vary greatly based upon the size of the department and the areas the department is protecting, whether rural, urban, suburban, commercial or industrial.

The trucks can be classified into six broad categories: ladder trucks, pumper trucks, heavy rescue trucks, light rescue trucks, brush trucks, and utility trucks.

Ladder trucks generally have four-section ladders mounted on top and capable of reaching high windows and roofs to  perform rescue and firefighting operations. Locally, the Exeter, Dunn’s Corners, Hope Valley, Westerly, Pawcatuck, and Watch Hill Fire Departments have ladder trucks to accommodate the buildings in their areas. These vehicles are always available to provide mutual aid to communities that do not have a ladder truck.

Pumper trucks convey water from a hydrant or pond through a large pump and into the hoses that deliver the water to the fire. Some firetrucks have a fixed deluge gun, also known as a master stream, mounted on top of the truck to direct a heavy stream of water wherever the operator points it. Today’s pumpers also have pre-connected hose lines that are attached to the engine’s onboard water supply and allow firefighters to quickly stretch the hose to the fire as soon as they arrive on scene.  When the water in the pumper’s tank is gone, it is connected to a more permanent sources such as a fire hydrant or water tender. Natural sources such as rivers or reservoirs can also be used. All of the local fire departments in the Rhode Island Southern Firefighter’s League have at least two pumpers.

Tanker trucks carry large amounts of water to the scene in areas where hydrants are not available. The Ashaway, Exeter, Dunn’s Corners, Carolina, Charlestown, and Hope Valley departments have tankers. These fire departments have limited access to hydrants and natural water resources such as ponds and streams can be insufficient or difficult to exploit. The primary purpose of a tanker is to transport large amounts of water and portable water tanks to an emergency scene. These trucks are always available to respond to mutual aid requests from communities that do not have a tanker truck.

Heavy rescue trucks, sometimes referred to as a rescue squad or special hazards truck, are essentially giant toolboxes on wheels. They are primarily designed for difficult rescue situations such as major vehicle extrications after car accidents, confined space rescues, rope rescues, swift water rescues, or building collapses. Westerly, Dunn’s Corners, and Hope Valley have heavy rescue vehicles. They are available to provide mutual as needed.

Light rescue trucks, sometimes referred to as squads, are another type of specialty apparatus. They are smaller versions of heavy rescue vehicles with much less equipment. They are primarily designed for less difficult rescue situations such as minor car accidents and vehicle extrications, water and ice rescues, and minor technical rescues. Carolina, Misquamicut, Watch Hill, and Charlestown have light rescue vehicles.

Brush trucks are suited specifically for fighting grass, brush, and wildland fires in difficult-to-access areas. These trucks are usually equipped with a small water tank and a small pump mounted on a four-wheel-drive pickup.

Utility trucks and all-terrain vehicles are also used by many local departments to mitigate specific community risks. A utility truck is a generic term for a multipurpose vehicle that may be used to carry personnel, equipment, tools, supplies, and traffic control equipment. ATVs are used for beach and forest emergencies such as fighting fires, searching for missing persons, and transporting medical patients in remote areas. Watch Hill, Misquamicut, Dunn’s Corners, Pawcatuck, Charlestown, and Ashaway all have ATVs.

In an effort to minimize distress resulting from emergencies, firefighters need an assortment of tools and apparatus. Visit your local fire department to learn more about how the equipment and apparatus at your station are a good fit for the needs of your community.

Jane Perkins is a fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please email her at


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