How to dress up your fire truck for the holidays

Robert Avsec

'Tis the season for fire departments across the country to deck out their rigs for the holidays. And like homeowners, some departments go for the subtle and some go for the extreme.

Each year, the firefighters with Eastside (Wash.) Fire and Rescue and IAFF Local 2878 team up with HopeLink of Sno-Valley, a non-profit organization, for the holidays to spread holiday cheer and help the less fortunate members of the communities they serve.

The flagship for this effort is an Eastside fire engine decked out with lights, music, a sleigh carrying Santa and Rudolph the Reindeer atop the engine that leads the way through several communities collecting unwrapped toys, food and clothing.

Since the late 1990s, members have volunteered their time to transform one of Eastside's reserve engines from an operational fire unit into a unit representing the joy of the season and the spirit of helping others. Work on the transformation kicks off in mid-November.

Light it up
The original Rudolph engine began with attaching a 6-foot wooden Rudolph the Reindeer, that was created by one of the firefighters, to the front of the engine. A portable music player was wired into the engine's PA system so that holiday music could be broadcast while the engine made its rounds.

Finally, several strings of rope lights were used to illuminate the outline of the engine. The lights were powered from the engine's on-board inverter, which normally was used to power the engine's on-scene lights.

The advent of LED lights for holiday decorations allowed the Eastside "elves" to keep making improvements to the Rudolph engine. Today, the elves use more than 50 strands of LED lights to increase the unit's visibility; the inverter was replaced by a 3,500-watt portable generator.

After several years of the original Rudolph cut-out being mounted to the front of the apparatus, Rudolph moved up town. The volunteers removed the hose, ladders, suction hoses and all other topside equipment, including the apparatus-mounted deck gun. Next a plywood decking was installed covering the hose bed and the area between the hose bed and the crew cab.

"The process used to take a couple of weeks, but after a couple of years — and writing down a lot of this stuff, we now can get the transformation done in just a couple of days," said Eastside Fire and Rescue Lt. Dean deAlteriis. He is also the vice-president of IAFF Local 2878.

Giving spirit
The original Rudolph cut out received a make over with the addition of a full-color vinyl overlay and was paired with a full-sized wooden sleigh and both were installed on the wooden decking.

From ground level, the highest tips of Rudolph's antlers reach 13 feet, 5 inches, a height that still allows the engine to be parked in any Eastside fire station. Two large wreaths finish off the decorations — one over each pump panel — and are also powered by the on-board generator.

Seated and belted is the order of the day for Santa and his helper elf any time the Rudolph engine is in motion. Santa's sleigh is fully equipped with seat belts for both of their riding positions — Santa and his elf have also signed the National Seat Belt Pledge.

Collection bins for the non-perishable food items, clothing and toys are also mounted on the plywood decking that covers the hose bed.

Early start
"In the early years of the Rudolph engine Christmas tours, we would have everything ready with the engine to begin the first week of December," deAlteriis said. "Then a couple of years ago, we got involved with First Due Movers, a local moving company owned by three of our members, Fred Meyer [a local grocery story] and Eastside Firefighters Benevolent Fund and started the Fill-The-Truck Food and Clothing Drive.

"We just felt it was a good chance to help more people if we got things going right after Thanksgiving," said deAlteriis. "So we started going out with the Rudolph engine right after Thanksgiving three years ago.”

For the food drive, First Due Movers donates the use of one of its 24-foot moving trucks, which is then placed in the Issaquah Fred Meyer Shopping Center where people can drop off their non-perishable food items and new or gently-worn clothing.

All food donations go to the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank and the Mt. Si Food Bank; clothing goes to HopeLink of Sno-Valley, an organization that serves homeless and low-income families, children, seniors and people with disabilities. The 2013 Food and Clothing Drive yielded approximately 25,000 pounds of food and $3,000 dollars, which went to the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank and the Mount Si Food Bank.

Beginning the first week of December each year, the Rudolph engine begins making its way through the seven cities and fire districts that are served by Eastside Fire and Rescue. This year's schedule will include 15 separate appearances.

At each appearance, those attending are encouraged to bring non-perishable foods items, unwrapped new toys, and new or gently worn clothing, which they can drop off with the Rudolph engine and its crew. During the holiday season, all Eastside Fire and Rescue stations also serve as donation drop-off locations.

Eastside Fire and Rescue was formed by the consolidation of King County (Wash.) Fire Districts 10 and 38, and the cities of Issaquah and North Bend in 1999 The city of Sammamish joined the consolidation in January 2000. The district serves the communities of Carnation, Issaquah, May Valley, North Bend, Preston, Tiger Mountain, Sammamish, and Wilderness Rim.

International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2878 represents the professional firefighters, officers and support staff.

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