Note to readers: This article has been updated to reflect that DeKalb's aerial ladder truck is not the only one in DeKalb County.
DeKALB – After working longer and responding to more fires than most DeKalb firefighters, Big John is ready to retire.
He won’t receive a pension or hit the beach, however. In fact, he might hit a junkyard or move on to another city.
That’s because Big John is the city of DeKalb’s aerial ladder truck. After almost 26 years, the city plans to retire the truck and to buy a used one from a department in Florida with financial assistance from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb Fire Chief Eric Hicks said.
“A vehicle that’s 26 years old, you almost think of it as a member of the department,” Hicks said. “It’s a high-profile vehicle. People know it, whether by name or as something else.”
The truck, which was custom built for the city in 1989, was named after captain John Isom, who died of cancer the year the truck was delivered.
The city’s new truck will cost $420,000, with $275,000 coming from NIU, and the remainder from city funds. Hicks said the city explored several options, including buying a new truck, which would have cost about $1 million.
The city also discussed refurbishing Big John for about $650,000, or buying a used truck, which emerged as the most cost-effective option.
Hicks flew to Weston, Florida, last year to examine the potential new member of the department. He said the Florida department used the truck for eight years and is now going to buy a new one.
NIU trustees agreed to contribute $275,000 to the purchase because they see the truck as an essential tool for fighting any fires on campus.
“With the residence towers and other high-rise buildings, you need something like that in the unlikely event of a fire,” NIU spokesman Paul Palian said. “Not only to put out a fire, but perhaps a rescue.”
Because DeKalb’s aerial ladder truck is the only means in the immediate area for firefighters to battle fires from above, Hicks said, the truck appears at all fires in the city and many of them in cities such as Sycamore, Genoa or Malta. All in all, the truck has been to more than 2,000 fires, including a recent fire that destroyed a Sycamore Wendy’s, Hicks said.
“The ladder trucks are very important,” Hicks said. “Especially [for] rescue and the spread of fire.”
The new truck will arrive before September. The department will have a moniker for it by the summer.