KFD’s new tiller truck is turning heads

Tom KingDowntown, Our Town Heroes

Today’s hero is named “Big Stick II” and it’s a firefighter without feet, but one with eight wheels and a pair of steering wheels. It’s turning more heads around town than corners turned – so far anyway. In the fire business, it is a “Tractor Drawn Aerial” fire engine. Long ago many called its predecessors “hook and ladder” engines.

The Knoxville Fire Department on October 29 added this big boy of a fire engine to its fleet. Some call it a “Tiller” because the rear of the truck has an independent tiller with two wheels that require a driver in the enclosed cabin to steer it. It cuts corners and turning times, downtown and in neighborhoods and at the University of Tennessee campus. That improves response times.

If you’ve not seen it, you’ll have a chance during Knoxville’s Friday, Dec. 3, Christmas parade and you will be impressed. (Or click below to see it now.)

The expert on the Tiller is Battalion Chief Greg Lampkin, a 24-year KFD veteran. He’s on the Apparatus Committee and has been the point person on this engine project. He knows everything about the Tiller – weight 58,000 pounds, length 57 feet 11 inches, and its ladder stretches to 107 feet. It cost $1.4 million.

So, why did the city need Big Stick II – also known as Ladder 1?

Lampkin explains: “Knoxville, especially downtown, is growing again. Lots of people are moving back downtown and they bring a lot of cars with them. It’s made it hard to get around and make the corner turns with cars parking everywhere. It makes it real difficult to get our ladder truck around efficiently. Same at the UT campus and on Cumberland Avenue, especially with the new median there.”

The straight frame ladder truck, which this replaces, had an unforgiving tail swing when negotiating turns. He says it would side-swipe a pole or a car and the truck. Expensive repairs followed.

“With this new Tiller truck there is zero tail swing. The cab of the truck turns and the tiller follows, making the truck have incredible maneuverability. This truck is a different animal. It’s an aerial waterway we use to soak a fire from above and use for rescues. It hooks to a pumper which is hooked to the hydrant.”

It didn’t take long for it to be used. Last Monday, Nov. 8, Dave’s Wholesale Transmissions at 1201 Maryville Pike caught fire and burned. The two-alarm fire response included the Tiller truck. Its long ladder enabled firefighters to battle the blaze from above, passing its first test with flying colors.

The truck was delivered to KFD in August by its builder, Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, Wisconsin. Pierce is the industry leader in making custom fire apparatus. Shortly after its arrival, Lampkin and a six-person team from Seattle began training KPD firefighters on every aspect of the engine.

The training – which requires 20 hours – is ongoing. KFD works on three 24-hour shifts – Red, Green and Blue. That means each shift needs three on the truck – a captain plus the tractor cab driver and the tiller driver. The initial training has prepared 18 to operate the truck, including several KFD firefighters who have been trained to teach other firefighters. Lampkin says they are training 18 more to give them 12 per shift to compensate for vacations, sick days and training requirements.

The first crew on the truck was the team of Capt. James Rickett and master firefighters Erica Behning and JP Plante, two of KPD’s female firefighters. They swap off on each shift between driving the tractor or the tiller. And interestingly, Behning and Plante were together in the Fire Academy class of 2008 and graduated together. Now they’re together again on this new rig.

“She’s a Cadillac of all the trucks we have,” Behning says. “Driving the rear end is fun, like being in a parade every day. It’s bringing so much joy to the community and to the department. It’s completely opposite of everything I’ve ever driven. And just when you think this job can’t get any better, it does.”

Lampkin says they have been driving the truck all over Knoxville as part of the training and it turns heads everywhere they go. People want pictures and videos.

“When I’m driving up front, I’ve got six mirrors to check every five to eight seconds so I’m busy and JP and I are constantly talking and we have our own intentional language too,” Behning said.

Plante, a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in fire and safety engineering technology, is fascinated by this new truck. “You get a good view of things you don’t normally see when you’re driving the tiller. We’re constantly talking with one another,” Plante says. “You’ve got to know exactly when and where she’s turning because my view forward is blocked by the truck and ladder in front of me. It’s a ton of teamwork. You’ve got to mesh and drive the truck together. And when you’re turning the tiller, that sixth sense of spatial awareness has to be perfect so you don’t hit anything.”

Plante says driving the tiller is much more fun than driving the tractor. “I will say that backing this thing up is one of the more difficult skills to learn,” she said. “But it’s still great fun and challenging. This is the first time I’ve been around a fire truck that’s a celebrity.”

Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. Suggest future stories at tking535@gmail.comor call him at 865-659-3562.


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