Return to Glory
A classic fire engine is restored to serve as a final ride for fallen firefighters
By Paul Abelson
When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, tradition in most departments is for an engine to serve as the hearse, with six or eight uniformed pallbearers accompanying the casket. That ritual presented problems for the Detroit Fire Department. Its engines stay busy with an average of 10 calls per day. Vehicles have gotten larger, so maneuvering from funerals to cemeteries was often challenging. And there was Detroit’s often brutal weather.
All of the difficulties of using an in-service fire engine came into play during the funeral for DFD firefighter Steve Olander, who died in the line of duty in 2002. Pallbearers and casket were exposed to blustery winter weather. The modern engine had trouble moving through narrow streets in an older neighborhood. It was the first time that Sergeant Arnie Nowicki, a Trustee of the Detroit Firemen’s Benevolent Fund, was in charge of a funeral and immediately afterward he spearheaded a search for a better a way to honor the fallen. Thanks to his efforts and the contributions of many, Michigan will have a dedicated, restored 1937 Seagrave Safety Sedan to serve as a hearse for firefighters killed in the line of duty.
Rarely has a piece of fire-fighting apparatus been tied to a particular fire department the way the Seagrave Safety Sedan has been to the Detroit Fire Department. From 1935 through 1951, only 95 Safety Sedans were built. Sixty-seven went to the DFD. The engine (what a “civilian” might call a “pumper”) was designed with Detroit’s climate in mind. The enclosed body gave protection from chilling winter blizzards and torrential summer rains. Inside, firefighters shared space with ladders and hose.
Finding an alternative
The Firemen’s Benevolent Fund and Nowicki were able to locate a Safety Sedan that had served the city as Engine 13. After its fire station closed, this Safety Sedan went on the rolls as an “X-rig,” an extra to be assigned to replace any engine down for service. The then 30-year-old Engine 13 was sold in 1967.
Jimmie Dobson, owner of heavy haul trucking company Dobson Trucking in Bay City, Mich., is an avid fire truck collector and founder of the Antique Toy and Firehouse Museum. Its 80-piece collection — the largest in the world —included Engine 13, which Dobson donated to the Fund. Unfortunately, it had been stored outdoors and needed extensive work.
Mike Adams, a retired Michigan firefighter, also had a Safety Sedan, but it was severely damaged by a tornado. He donated it for parts. As luck had it, the two vehicles together provided a good platform for the project.
Making it work
While a good body could be reconstructed from the two trucks, the chassis and running gear could not. The Chrysler Foundation provided funding to acquire a Freightliner Custom Chassis, a Mercedes 4-cylinder turbo-diesel and an Allison transmission. The Safety Sedan doesn’t need much power for its ceremonial role, but it must be reliable.
Restoration and replication started at American LaFrance of Michigan. When it ceased operations, R&R Fire Truck Repair in Northville Township rescued the project under the leadership of George Southwell. Todd Van Alstine of Todd’s Custom and Rods is involved with finishing the Sedan.
All the skilled labor for the restoration was donated. Besides the major components funded by the Chrysler Foundation, Johnson Controls, a major supplier of automobile interiors, is fabricating the interior. Motor City Solutions is doing body preparation and paint; Mahle, another tier one automotive supplier, converted the electrical system from 6 volt to 12 volt with all new wiring and harnesses. Vintage Air is doing the front and rear heating and air conditioning, and Ididit Steering fabricated the steering system to look original but fit the Freightliner chassis. For all involved, this has been a labor of love . . . and respect.
This Memorial Day, Engine 13, the partly replicated and partly restored 1937 Seagrave Safety Sedan, will re-enter service with the Detroit Fire Department for one day. Then it will be decommissioned and presented back to the Detroit Firemen’s Benevolent Fund for use as a hearse for fallen firefighters. The interior will be equipped with rollers for handling caskets and “bear claws” to secure the caskets in transit. The inside bench, which sat six firefighters in full turnout gear, will accommodate up to eight pallbearers, seated facing the coffin. For department funerals with full honors, pallbearers are firefighters in full dress uniform.
Carrying through the brotherhood of First Responders, the Safety Sedan will be available as a trail car for police funerals. A paddy wagon is being sought for a similar project for fallen police officers, and to trail firefighter funerals.