It’s 9:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, and Building 8 at the Tucson Fire Department’s south-side service center is alive with activity.
A crew of retired firefighters, including three TFD captains, two battalion chiefs and an arson investigator, are sanding ladder rungs and painting cab covers in an effort to breathe new life into some of the city’s earliest fire engines.
The group, known as the ALF/Fox Restoration Team, working under the umbrella of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation, has resurrected several Tucson fire trucks since taking shape in 2006.
Its greatest hits include a completely restored 1928 Ahrens-Fox, a 1923 American LaFrance pumper and a 1923 American LaFrance ladder truck, all of which will be on display downtown Sunday, Jan. 16, as part of Dillinger Days, the annual event held in and around Hotel Congress celebrating the 1934 capture of notorious gangster John Dillinger in Tucson.
For team member Ted Geare, one of the group’s founders and the unofficial spokesman, the mission is clear.
“Each of us has a different skill set,” Geare said. “But we all have the same passion and interest in giving back and helping to restore Tucson Fire Department history.”
That passion recently received a new lease on life with the acquisition of a 1930 American LaFrance quad, which was once part of the Tucson Fire fleet and, like the other three restored trucks, was on-site during the 1934 Hotel Congress fire that ultimately led to Dillinger’s arrest.
For more than a decade, the truck had been sitting in front of what was once Fire Station No. 2 on North Fourth Avenue, currently the private residence of Tim Warfield and Sally Rusk.
The couple had been gifted the truck by a local automobile collector to complement the fact that they were living in a former firehouse.
“He and his wife came and knocked on the door and said we think the truck needs to be with its station,” Rusk said. “It was very generous, overwhelming.”
The Greater Tucson Fire Foundation had tried in the past to acquire the truck from Warfield and Rusk, with little success.
Besides the historical connection it had to their home, Rusk said the people loved it.
“There are years of pictures with it,” Rusk said. “Neighborhood kids, friends, family.”
When the Fire Foundation tried again late last year, offering another fire truck, a 1962 Crown, out of Berkeley, California, in its place, Rusk and Warfield decided that it was time.
“They do amazing work,” Rusk said. “It is such a lovely organization committed to Tucson history.”
Geare said the truck is in better shape than some of its predecessors.
Each truck that the group gets is reworked from top to bottom, but some, like the 1923 ladder truck, which had been sitting in a field outside of Flagstaff for years, were in much rougher condition.
The 1930 quad “has the original engine, the transmission,” Geare said. “The body is in remarkably good shape.”
There is still much work to be done. The truck did not come with ladders, so those will have to be fabricated — fabrication is a big part of the job since not every part of a fire truck from the 1930s is readily available for purchase.
From there, it is just a matter of getting the work done.
That’s where people like Jeff Corey come in.
Corey, a retired arson investigator for Tucson Fire, has been working with the restoration group since 2010.
“It is kind of like working at the fire station again,” he said. “Whether it is sweeping floors or loading hose or crawling under fire trucks.”
Corey said working in a group makes it easier to solve any challenges that might come with restoring a vintage fire truck, especially when it comes to the fabrication process.
“If you can’t figure out how to do something, between the eight or 10 of us, we usually can come up with a plan,” he said.
John Roads is the only member of the team who did not work for Tucson Fire.
The wildland firefighter, who runs his own contract fire department for the U.S. Forest Service, first came onboard 15 years ago after stopping through a few times to take photos for the Old Pueblo Vintage Fire Brigade, a local group of antique fire engine enthusiasts.
“I love Ahrens-Fox,” Roads said. “I was built in the same city, Cincinnati. My grandfather, great-grandfather and great uncle worked for Lunkenheimer Valve. Half the valves on these old fire trucks are Lunkenheimers.”
Roads said he looks forward to coming to work on the trucks each week. The group meets every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to noon year-round.
“This is not a job,” he said. “It is a privilege to come down and work on these.”