by Mark Dalton
There have been many builders of fire apparatus throughout the United States. Among the big, well-known companies are American LaFrance, Mack, Pierce, and E-One. On the list of smaller companies is Imperial Fire Apparatus.
In 1962 Ralph Aspling founded Pemberton Fabricators in Pemberton, New Jersey. In the beginning, the company made copper parts for the recording and communication industry. (Among their customers was electronics giant RCA.) Then, in May 1967, Inductotherm acquired the company. Henry M. Rowan, CEO of Inductotherm, asked Aspling if he could make a trailer with various firefighting equipment for a friend. This would be the start of a new venture for Aspling.
While picking up parts at Hale Fire Pump—a company that has been producing fire pumps for more than 100 years and is known today as Hale Products—Aspling met Jim Partridge of Hahn Motors, which manufactured custom and commercial firefighting apparatus from 1916 through the 1980s. The two men became close friends, and in 1969 Partridge was hired to be the sales manager of the fire apparatus division. Partridge named the new division Imperial Fire Apparatus.
In 1970, Spec. No. 1/500 rolled off the assembly line and was designated a mini-pumper. Manufactured for the Linfield Volunteer Fire Co. in Pennsylvania, the truck was built on a 4×4 Dodge W-500 chassis with a 177hp gasoline engine, a 500gpm pump, and a 500-gallon water tank. In just a matter of months, Imperial received orders for fire engines, several heavy rescue trucks, and ladder trucks. After production of these apparatus, Imperial soon realized that the profit margin for its custom fire trucks was limited. Imperial executives decided to produce only chassis and supply manufacturers such as Fire Trucks Inc., Pierce Mfg., and Pierreville Fire Trucks.
In 1985 Imperial incorporated the first tilt-and-telescope steering column used in fire apparatus. Imperial also developed the first enclosed, four-door, 10-man tilt cab for use in large metropolitan departments. The 10-man cab was not designed for comfort by any means, but was instead developed for firefighter safety.
The Imperial name later changed to PemFab, which was then acquired by the Fire Cab Co. In July 2000, it ceased production of all fire trucks. PemFab was considered to be an area-specific fire truck. Most of the trucks it produced served in the northern part of the U.S., including New Jersey, Maine, and Pennsylvania. Only a few made it as far south as Florida, showing up in Lauderhill, Kissimmee, and, in the case of this story’s featured fire truck, Forest City.
On Jan. 26, 1972, Fire Chief William “Bill” Kinley of the Forest City, Bear Lake Fire Control District began taking bids from various apparatus manufacturers for a new fire engine. Imperial Fire Apparatus won the bid, and on Oct. 27, 1972, the Florida company took delivery of Engine 5, an Imperial D-12 engine, at a cost of $45,000. The truck came equipped with a 318hp, turbocharged Detroit diesel engine; a synchromesh 5-speed manual transmission; a Waterous CMBX, 1,250gpm midship pump; and a 750-gallon water tank. Engine 5 also carried several ground ladders, two sections of hard suction hose, three mounted self-contained breathing apparatus, and various hand tools, such as two cab-mounted axes and two pike poles.
In 1974, the Seminole County Dept. of Public Safety in Sanford, Florida, was formed to serve the unincorporated areas of the county. Many local volunteer departments, including Forest City, were consolidated into the newly formed department. During this consolidation, Seminole County acquired various fire apparatus, including the 1972 Imperial D-12. By 2000, Seminole County had 13 fire stations and continued to grow with the addition of the City of Altamonte Fire Dept. in 2002 and Winter Springs in 2008. The last department to consolidate was Casselberry Fire Dept. in 2015. The Seminole County Fire Dept. is now one of the largest fire departments in central Florida, running more than 30,000 calls annually from 19 fire stations and using more than 30 pieces of frontline fire apparatus and 20 Advanced Life Support ambulances. Interim Fire Chief Mark W. Oakes currently oversees the department’s 384 employees.
“The fire service has many time-honored traditions, and this fire engine is part of Seminole County Fire Dept.’s history,” Chief Oakes said of the D-12. “The Imperial was in service when SCFD was formed in 1974 and has become part of our tradition.”
In 1985, Engine 5 was repainted lime yellow and white and was re-designated Engine 131. The Imperial D-12 served Seminole County for the next 16 years. In 1990, Engine 131 was placed in “reserve status” and used as a spare when the newer frontline engines were placed out of service for routine preventative maintenance, which is common practice throughout fire service today. Engine 131 sat unnoticed for many years at Station 13 before the decision was made to refurbish it.
“When it was refurbished and re-painted its original red color, it was renamed Engine 5 to honor its original assignment to the Forest City Volunteers,” said Battalion Chief Bryon Chaney who oversees the truck’s needs and is rather protective of it.
“There’s only a handful of firefighters that I let drive Engine 5,” he said. “Most of our younger guys have never experienced a manual transmission truck, and it requires a special touch that they are just not taught anymore.”
Today Engine 5 is housed at the new Station 13, which serves Forest City, and is a proud symbol of Seminole County’s young history in the fire service. Engine 5 is used at local parades, ceremonies, and other special events held throughout the county. Chief Chaney plans to add hose and other era-specific equipment to the truck and would like to display it at local car shows and other events. As a firefighter with the Deltona Fire Dept. in Florida, I have it on good authority from Chief Bill Snyder that Chief Chaney and Engine 5 have an open invitation to be our guests at our annual open house held in October.