Air Truck Provides Life-Saving Support for Firefighters

Published on March 03, 2016 01:43 PM in Driver Tech
Air Truck Provides Life-Saving Support for Firefighters

One of the most useful vehicles owned by fire departments nationwide doesn’t pump a gallon of water. Instead, the truck provides clean, breathable air to firefighters, an important commodity to someone charging into a searing building billowing with smoke.

“Firefighting is inherently dangerous and having a reliable supply of clean air allows us to perform in extremely hostile conditions,” said Capt. Ken Kuykendall of the Folsom Fire Department in California’s Central Valley.

Filling and storing the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatuses (S.C.B.A.) firefighters strap to their backs is the primary function of the 76,000-pound behemoth known simply as the “air truck.”

The air truck also serves as a base of operations for rescuing someone trapped in a confined space and stores a variety of tools powered by the vehicle’s massive air compressor. The specialty vehicle has been an integral piece of machinery for one California town.

“We send it out at least once a week and neighboring departments request to use it on a monthly basis,” said Bill Woodward, a firefighter/medic for Folsom Fire Department in Northern California.

The rig sits atop a commercial chassis built by International Trucks in 2009. Specialized equipment was installed by Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton of Wisconsin, which customizes vehicles for fire departments across the country.

The soul of the truck–a 40,000-watt Lima MAC generator–powers the air compressor, remote filling station and an extendable tower with six lights for nighttime operations.

“We can turn night into day,” said Capt. Chad Wilson, who coordinated with Pierce Manufacturing on the specifics of the truck’s design for the Folsom Fire Department.

The truck's 6,000 psi air compressor fills up to four cylinders simultaneously at the firehouse or at an emergency scene. The refill process takes place at the back of a truck in a contraption reminiscent of the “Ghostbusters.”

A hinged door made of half-inch thick steel tilts open to reveal a space for the cylinders. The reinforced compartments provide safety to firefighters and bystanders in case a tank suddenly bursts during charging.

A tank can be filled in a matter of minutes, Woodward said, and firefighters are careful not to rush the process. Compressed air expands once inside the tank, so firefighters perform the process cautiously.

“Rushing to fill up a tank can easily lead to disaster,” Woodward said.

Providing further safeguards is a system of sensors and gauges to monitor the air filling the tanks for carbon monoxide or oil.

“If it senses oil or carbon monoxide going into the tank, it automatically shuts off,” Woodward said.

Both sides of the truck offer anchor points for ropes when firefighters need to rescue someone. Such a feature is more useful than a traditional winch, Woodward said, because of the reduced risk of injuring a trapped person.

The truck includes a 150-foot hose capable of delivering compressed air to tools firefighters need during confined space rescues.

Fast facts about the air truck:

  • Vehicle type: 2009 International Truck (chassis); specialized add-ons crafted by Piece Manufacturing
  • Vehicle weight: 76,000 pounds
  • Specialized equipment: 4,000 watt air compressor and 40,000 watt generator.

Article by Jordan Guinn, a writer for Sensible Driver. Contact Jordan at