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A Brief History of the Repair Shop

The Repair Shop, a valuable asset of any fire department, has been a mainstay in many cities for more than a century. Often, the duties of “the Shop” have been replaced by a city garage, or in some cases contracted out to private companies. Whereas the Shop worked only on the apparatus of the fire department, a municipal garage may work on buses, garbage trucks, snow plows, and police cars, in addition to fire department vehicles. During the early to mid-twentieth century, it was quite common for larger fire departments to even have their own tow truck, in order to ensure the prompt retrieval of disabled fire apparatus.

For many fire departments, the purpose of a repair shop was for the repair of damaged apparatus. As many departments discovered, being able to repair their own apparatus also meant that they could customize pieces as they saw fit. For instance, many pieces that were once horse-drawn were modified to be powered by gasoline engines. This could include changing wooden wheels to metal ones, adding headlights or a steering wheel, or even combining the parts from several vehicles into one. As fire fighting technologies improved and advancements were made, electric sirens were added, pneumatic tires replaced solid rubber, and radios were installed.

A secondary benefit of the department running their own repair shop was the fact of saving money. Compared to a commercial repair shop, the fire department did not have to charge itself more than the cost of the parts and labor required to complete a job. That is, no profit needed to be built in to the cost of a repair. As a fire department-only shop, priority could be given to the pieces most needed, rather than first come-first served. It also allowed the department to save older pieces of equipment in a sort of fire department junk yard, allowing mechanics to scavenge equipment from older pieces to keep newer ones in operation. This could be as simple as a headlight replacement or as elaborate as using a horse-drawn body on a new motorized chassis (this was the case with Baltimore City’s Engine 23, which you can read about here.)