The Little Engine That (Still) Could

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

This is a story about an electric cooperative that cared, a volunteer fire department that shared, and a little fire engine that could. Whether its siren says “I think I can” is open for debate, but there’s no doubt that this 1972 Ford pumper truck, with less than 30,000 actual miles, can still screech and hustle and put out fires quite well, thank you very much.

But over its 34 years saving life and limb, home place and workplace, it was gradually used less, dropping in recent years to a backup status, used occasionally as a third truck on calls responded to by the Windsor Volunteer Fire Department (VFD). And even though the little engine still could, it became expendable when the Windsor VFD made plans to get a shiny new truck in 2006. But what to do with a truck that, as Chief Lee Marshall says, “has no appraised value”?

Why, find a place where a willing old truck can still be useful, of course. And specifically, the Windsor firefighters wanted to donate the truck to a fire department in a Gulf Coast community devastated by this summer’s hurricanes, where it could make a difference and would be used and appreciated. And who better to turn to in such a search than a business that is all about community involvement, a business that believes in caring for your neighbors across town AND across the country, a business that has a presence in over 900 communities from Maine to Hawaii.

In other words, an electric cooperative. And in this case, a community-minded electric cooperative named — what else? —Community Electric Cooperative. As it happens, Community Electric Cooperative is located in Windsor just a stone’s throw away from the volunteer fire department, in the Commonwealth’s southeastern corner, where it serves about 10,000 member-consumers in Isle of Wight, Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties and the city of Suffolk.

So the Windsor VFD folks got in touch with Community’s CEO Jim Reynolds, who activated the cooperative network, using contacts down South to find a town and a volunteer fire department in need of a fire engine. “I contacted Robert Occhi, the manager of Coast (electric cooperative), and he told us that West Hancock Fire and Rescue, in Pearlington, Mississippi, had been almost completely wiped out by Katrina,” recalls Community’s Reynolds, who then connected Windsor’s Chief Marshall with Kim Jones, chief of the West Hancock fire department in Pearlington.

If you look on a map, Pearlington is about as far southwest in Mississippi as you can go, without ending up in the Gulf, or in Louisiana. As one cooperative staffer in Mississippi notes, with tongue in cheek, “When you talk about the guy at the end of the line, you’re talking about the folks who live in Pearlington.”

But Katrina found the end of the line, and delivered a punishing blow to the town, which has an abundance of low-lying areas. In fact, West Hancock’s fire department lost two of its three fire engines during the hurricane, with one destroyed in 12 feet of floodwater, and another when it was picked up by a tornado spawned by Katrina. The only remaining fire engine survived only because firefighters, as a precaution, drove it out of the area before the storm. So, as Community’s Jim Reynolds says, “It was a perfect match between the Windsor fire department’s desire to find a sister department down South that would appreciate this truck, and Pearlington’s desperate need for a good, usable fire engine.”

The 1972 Windsor VFD’s pumper truck, with an original sticker price of about $30,000, would cost about $400,000 to replace and fully equip today. And thanks in part to a cash contribution from Community Electric Cooperative, the little engine was made to look as good as new when it headed off in early November for Pearlington. Chief Marshall, retired Chief Willie B. Copeland, and firefighters John Wayne Kello and Burgess Wills delivered the engine to the grateful Mississippians, less than two weeks after they initially decided to find a needy home for the truck. Windsor VFD President Everette Scott points out that the truck was sent South fully equipped, needing only water added to its tank in order to fight fires.

“A big part of what electric cooperatives do is support the communities they serve. We’re glad that we were able to help Windsor’s volunteer firefighters help their brethren down in Mississippi,” points out Community Electric Cooperative CEO Reynolds. “It’s what cooperatives are all about, with neighbor helping neighbor.”

And it’s also about a little engine that still could, in a region that needs all the blessings it can get.


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