The Milwaukee Fire Department’s Unknown Heroes

Aug 10, 2018

A fire truck making its way to a scene, sirens blazing, is a common sight in cities and towns across America. But within the Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD), there's a support staff responsible for maintaining all the equipment firefighters depend on.

For this week's Bubbler Talk — our series that allows you to ask WUWM questions about Milwaukee —questioner Jay Blanchett wanted to know about a special kind of fire truck:

Why, since I’ve lived here for 22 years now, I have never seen a tiller truck in the Milwaukee area?

While looking into Jay's question, we were able to learn about a whole, less publically known division of the fire department.

John Litchford, the deputy chief of the MFD’s Construction and Maintenance Division, invited us to the repair shop facility. So, Jay and his mom, Dee, met us in Walker’s Point to see where the magic happens.

John Litchford (right) explaining the many facets of the MFD Construction and Maintenance Division to Bubbler Talk question asker Jay Blanchett and his mom Dee.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

John explained that a tiller truck has hinges in the middle and two drivers, one on the front and one on the rear, steering in opposite directions. That allows the trucks to navigate narrow streets and make hard turns, useful in cities like San Francisco and Boston. Milwaukee, it turns out, doesn’t really need them.

“The city of Milwaukee is fortunate to have wider streets and there are only a couple of pocket areas where we would really see a benefit for having that type of vehicle,” he said.

Tiller trucks are expensive — John estimated anywhere from $700,000-800,000 apiece. For comparison, platform trucks run from $900,000-1.2 million and pumper engines (the ones that carry water) are about $540,000-600,000 each.

Coupled with skilled driving and knowledge of neighborhoods, trucks like this rear dual-axle allow firefighters to maneuver Milwaukee's streets without a tiller truck.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

And yes, they’re fun to drive. At least that’s what John’s heard from professional tiller truck drivers. For those curious of what tiller trucks look like and how they drive, watch the video below.

While MFD doesn’t currently have any tillers, it has had them in the past. John recalled there being one in the city, on the far south side, 21 years ago. Once that tiller retired, it wasn’t cost effective to replace, given Milwaukee’s wide streets and the department’s overall equipment needs.

“We have 105-foot aerial trucks, and that’s the length of the aerial itself, so we can reach the same distance as a tiller truck can reach, we can get into an area. There’s only a handful of streets and even just with some skilled driving, understanding your neighborhood, we can accomplish everything that a tiller can,” John said.

Each vehicle in the department will often have about 5,000 runs a year — more than many other departments would reach in a truck’s lifetime. That means it’s important to maintain them. Trucks are washed every day, but John added, “we don’t always have parade-ready vehicles.”

The construction and maintenance division can fix pretty much all the equipment a firefighter uses.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

The repair shop can build or maintain almost everything it needs for its 200-300-vehicle fleet and 40 buildings. “Everything firefighters break, we fix,” John said.  

With nine mechanics and 27 support staff, the repair shop fills its own air cylinders, does its own carpentry and upholstery, has its own building engineers and gear technicians, and even makes its own hangers. About the only thing they don’t make are the vehicles – at least anymore.

The department used to design and fabricate its own trucks. In fact, a man who owns a MFD truck from the 1930s told the department that he’d like to return it to its home. But the repair shop just doesn’t have the space, which John said is its biggest challenge.

He added how critical it is to increase the number of operating fire departments. “When you have a fire station, people know that’s a hub of safety. We are the people you come to when you are hurt or in need of help. And having that fire station there and seeing firefighters out there, seeing fire trucks, everyone should breathe calmness in knowing that help is there."

And in Milwaukee, John and his crew will make sure that help can get there.

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