Workers keep flame lit; Oakdale company builds firefighting trucks

Over a 60-year period, Van Pelt Fire Apparatus, founded in Oakdale in 1925, had become the largest builder of firetruck gear west of the Rocky Mountains, before closing its doors in 1987.

Finding themselves jobless, a handful of former Van Pelt employees merged their 80-plus years of experience to form Hi-Tech Emergency Vehicle Service Inc. They have since built more than 400 units at their 25,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, in addition to servicing trucks for warranty work and recertifications. Hi-Tech’s reputation has grown nationwide, and the company is highly respected for quality custom-built firetrucks.

Sheets of aluminum, and stainless and galvanized steel lie stacked on shelves inside the warehouse where the units are designed and built, and later, lifted by crane onto purchased cabs and chassis.

Brian Ruthman, design consultant, asks each customer, “What do you want?”

Modern modular construction includes a gauge panel filled with state- of-the-art electronic controls, plumbing for a pump and valves, a water system with foam, a specially designed hose bed, the deck gun, lever or push-pull controls, storage compartments, roll-up or beveled-edge doors, and 500, 750 or 1,000 gallons of water. Two-man or four-man cab? Off road or on road? Type 1 or Type 3? Pumper, aerial, rescue, tanker or tiller? The list of options is lengthy. The amount of components ultimately determines the truck’s size, which all serve to meet the department's specific needs.

The company’s 45 full-time employees are cross-trained in half a dozen jobs. One of Hi-Tech’s original founders, Ben Ruthman, father of Brian, explains, “So they can see any discrepancies during the construction process.”

It also eliminates most warranty issues down the road.

Each truck takes about 1,800 hours to build before being sent to the test pit to qualify for pump certification.

The National Fire Protection Association constantly changesstandards and safety regulations, such as wall thickness, tilting angles, speeds on curves, gross vehicle weight and more. New trucks have computerized sensors that show stability on inclines, and whether seat belts are secured.

Manuel Amaral of Merced is Hi-Tech’s expert door fabricator. The trademark doors provide a tight seal. “It takes as much time to make the doors as it does to make the rest of the truck,” Ben says.

A smaller building houses the climate- controlled paint booth and mixing station, where trucks are painted in a variety of colors: blue, yellow, white or one of twenty shades of red.

After a comprehensive tour of the facility, Ben walks to the back parking lot to show off his latest project: a 1933 pumper truck he plans to restore. “A guy from Placer County started working on it, but couldn’t finish,” Ben says.

He picked up a 1948 flathead motor for $100. In

As one of the few fire apparatus companies left in California, this crew with its humble beginnings is still going strong. Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at