A new life for Baldwin rigs

Old fire trucks continue to ride on in Arizona


Longtime Baldwin firefighter John Cools said he felt a sense of pride watching the Fiesta Bowl Parade on Dec. 29. About 45 minutes into the parade, held two days before one of college football’s top bowl games, the recently retired Baldwin Fire Department mechanic spotted the 1966 Mack firetruck that he used to work on at the department.

The truck, a classic rig loved by firefighters everywhere, had been driven around the streets of Baldwin for decades and still bears the Fire Department’s name on the side. It’s one of two retired Baldwin rigs that have been featured in the Fiesta Bowl Parade, driven by the Phoenix-based Hall of Flame fire museum, for close to 20 years. The other is a 1955 American La France.

Both the Mack and La France had roofless cabs, allowing firefighters to be in the open on their way to respond to 911 calls. Cools said the feeling of riding in one of them was incomparable to that of being inside a truck.

“It was like you were riding a horse into battle,” he said, as he recalled a trek the department took to the Hamptons in 1995 to help battle a days-long wildfire. “You could stand up, look around you and see what was happening. I remember looking back and seeing the line of trucks behind us, and looking ahead at the fire we were about to face.”

Seeing the truck still driven today, he said, makes his 30-year career as a mechanic feel worthwhile. “There is a very, very large amount of pride and a sense of fulfillment in your duties,” he said.

The Hall of Flame has dozens of decommissioned fire trucks from around the world — most from the United States, but some from other countries — and rides five every year during the Fiesta Bowl Parade. A Baldwin truck has been featured each year since 2000. “Baldwin has a really impressive department,” Peter Molloy, executive director of the Hall of Flame, said. The Mack is “just about our best-looking truck,” he said.

Opened in 1961, the hall is now the largest firefighting museum in the country. Along with the many trucks, firefighting memorabilia, such as old tools and uniforms, is also on display there. It was not its notoriety, though, that allowed it to obtain two Baldwin rigs. Instead, Baldwin native Ron Deutsch facilitated the donations. Deutsch had served in the Baldwin Fire Department before moving to Phoenix in 1977, and to this day has fond memories of his time there. “The camaraderie among the men was some of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere,” he said. “Everyone watched out for everyone else.”

That camaraderie stood the test of time and thousands of miles when Deutsch called his former colleague Jerry Brown to ask about the 1955 La France he remembered riding in during his time in Baldwin. The hall was looking for classic rigs to exhibit and was particularly interested in a La France.

But the truck was not with Baldwin, because it had been sold to the town of Lynnfield, Mass. Brown said he negotiated with the town to donate it back to the department so it could be brought to the hall. Baldwin firefighters worked on the truck to prepare it for the trip to Phoenix, and Deutsch flew back home to accompany his former colleagues on the trip.

“It was nothing but good times,” Brown said of the trek. “There were three of us who were friends since grade school, so we made it into this great reunion.” But that did not mean the trip was a smooth one, he said. “There were times when we thought, ‘What have we done?’” Brown recalled. “It was a very old truck that didn’t go very fast. If my children had decided to do this, I would have told them they were crazy.”

As the crew members made their way from Baldwin to Phoenix, they stopped at firehouses across the country as part of a fundraising drive to raise money for the families of three firefighters who had been killed in the line of duty in Keokuk, Iowa. The initiative raised $18,500 for their families.

“It was a win-win-win,” Brown said. Later that year, the La France was driven in the Fiesta Bowl Parade and was featured until last year — it did not ride in December, Molloy said, because there was a problem with the brakes.

The Mack was donated in 2010 — but this time, Baldwin firefighters only drove it to Edison, N.J., where it was put on a flatbed truck and transported to Phoenix. Deutsch said the Baldwin rigs are always a popular sight at parades and other events in Arizona. “People love to see New York rigs,” he said.

One of the reasons the Baldwin trucks have remained operational for so long, Deutsch said, is because volunteers tend to take better care of their fleets. “That’s just the way it is,” he said.

Molloy said he looks forward to driving the rigs in future parades, and hopes Baldwin will continue to donate its classic trucks to the hall.