“It served our town exceptionally well,”
Jerry Carino, Asbury Park Press
A couple of years back, when a boat ran up on the rocks off Hess Pier in Atlantic Highlands, the borough’s fire department dispatched its ladder truck to the scene.
The old 1985 Grumman Aerial Cat, with its 102-foot reach, came through.
“We swung the bucket out across the water to pick people up who were stranded on the boat,” said firefighter Ed Cetron, who assisted in the rescue.
The yellow ladder truck served the community well for 35 years — a stunningly long run for such a vehicle. It was retired at the close of 2020, ending an era for Atlantic Highlands’ first responders and longtime townsfolk alike, and sold at auction to a Cape May collector.
“It served our town exceptionally well,” borough councilman Roy Dellosso said. “How many towns get 35 years out of anything?”
The average lifespan of a ladder truck is 15 years.
“It was a beloved ladder, people took good care of it, and back in 1985 stuff was built to last,” said Cetron, a three-time former president of Atlantic Highlands Fire Department, Inc. “In the last year it was tough keeping it up. We couldn’t find parts for it; they had to be custom-made. It finally got to the point where you couldn’t get it out of the firehouse.”
‘That’s your lifeline’
Fire trucks can become part of the character of small towns. Atlantic Highlands’ all-volunteer department sports one ladder and three engines. The 1985 Grumman was the oldest in the fleet. According to a history posted on the department’s website, it replaced a 1966 American LaFrance after “almost two years of political fighting” between the council and the mayor.
Cetron said the Grumman underwent a major overhaul in 1997 and another set of upgrades in 2007. In 2011, the truck suffered damage during a roof fire along several stores on First Avenue. About a decade ago, Cetron said, the ladder rescued a stranded resident at 10 Ocean Blvd., an 11-story apartment tower along the water.
“We have some tall buildings, not a huge number but enough,” Cetron said. “Being able to get people out of them fast, being able to get firefighters in at the top levels, being able to get water from a tower ladder as opposed to just having to drive it from hand lines, is very important.”
Firefighters develop a certain bond with the ladder trucks, he said.
“Anyone who ever rode in it, if you climbed the ladder and had to jump from the bucket onto a roof, now that’s your lifeline,” Cetron said. “I hate heights personally, and to get up onto a roof, you know that if that roof start to fail, she’s there.”
The ladder truck also performs ceremonial duties, from parades to honor guards at funerals.
“One of the most important things we do from a ceremonial standpoint, we have a very large American flag that can be deployed,” Cetron said. “We’ve done that for many years. The new unit will take its place doing that.”
Finding a replacement
Buying a ladder truck is far more complex than, say, buying a car. New ones cost at least $1.2 million. Funding that right now “just wasn’t in the cards,” Cetron said, “so the decision we made was to start looking at alternatives.”
There is a market for used fire trucks, and after scouring it, the department purchased a 1995 Pierce Lance 100-foot ladder truck from the Berkeley Heights Fire Department in Union County for $10,000.
“She’s already 25 years old, but we got lucky because Berkeley Heights takes absolutely fantastic care about keeping its equipment up,” Cetron said. “It’s in very good shape.”
Still, expecting it to last as long as the old Grumman is asking a lot.
“We don’t want people to think it’s all good, it’s solved, we don’t need a ladder anymore,” Certron said. “This is temporary. It’s not a Band-Aid, but it’s not permanent.”
In a departure from the Grumman and the department’s three engines, this ladder truck is red.
“There are some people who are demanding we spend a lot of money to paint it yellow,” Cetron said. “Money is tight everywhere. I understand the traditionalists and the history here, but given that this is temporary, it doesn’t make sense. And the fire doesn’t really care what color the ladder is.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: 35 years of saving lives: Atlantic Highlands retires big yellow fire truck
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