As featured in the Iowa Firefighter Newspaper June 2002 issue by Jeff Gargano
Photo by Jay Griggs
Wayde Kirvida's roots in the fire truck building business go back four generations to the days when horse-drawn wagons were still being used to fight fires in Lindstrom, MN.
Wayde's great-grandfather, Elmer Abrahamson, had a blacksmith shop, was the town's mayor and was on the local fire department. When his town needed a fire truck, Abrahamson built them one. Others saw what he had created and the business took off from there.
Abrahamson's daughter was dating Mitchell Kirvida, who was from a Russian farming family. When they married, Kirvida joined the thriving business, known as Minnesota Fire Equipment. Later, Mitch's son, Jim, joined his grandfather and father learning their traditional values.
The values Jim learned early on with his grandfather and father became the bedrock of their own father and son company, Custom Fire Apparatus, Inc. (CustomFIRE). Now his son, Wayde, represents the fourth generation of fire truck builders in the business.
CustomFIRE was incorporated in the late 1970's. Jim started building pickup mounted grass rig units in a 40' by 40' airplane hangar in Osceola, WI. The company quickly outgrew the airplane hangar. "I think with the roots of the company, we can identify with the small volunteer fire departments. Dad tells the story of how they would tape off half of a truck and paint it, then paint the other half because the hangar was so small," Wayde Kirvida said.
In 1982, the City of Osceola approached Jim Kirvida about purchasing a vacant aircraft factory across the taxiway from the airplane hangar he was using.
"The building was much larger than he needed. It was so big, that when he moved the shop in, there was still plenty of room for Jim and his friends to race cars around inside," Wayde said.
Today, the company occupies 45,000 sq. ft. and employs 35 people who custom build 30 to 36 trucks a year.
Wayde said his father developed the Full Response® cab that really gained popularity in the late 1980s.
"The natural progression was to have a cab where firefighters were enclosed in a safe environment," Wayde said. "He gained a reputation for being innovative and for addressing needs in a more efficient manner. The word "custom" wasn't used much when he started the company. Today, a lot of builders say they build custom vehicles. But we build what departments want," Wayde said.
Wayde said gaining the Waterous pump line was a huge bonus for the company in the beginning.
"CustomFIRE was the new kid on the block. When Waterous awarded us the pump line, it allowed us to serve key customers in St. Paul, the twin city suburbs, and Wisconsin," Wayde said.
The company consistently grew into offering more elaborate and complex products- pioneering the use of electronic valves and stainless steel for apparatus bodies and crew cabs.
Wayde got into the business at age 14, working summers and Christmas break, cleaning up and sweeping floors. As he got older, he started making deliveries and attending shows. He worked with the various departments in the company.
While obtaining an engineering degree from Marquette, Wayde did an internship with Waterous Company in St. Paul, working with the pump design engineer. "It was a very positive experience. Plus I was able to work with people I'd seen at trade shows since I was five-years-old," Wayde said.
After college, Wayde worked as a design engineer for six months before coming to work at CustomFIRE. He did design work for three years before going into marketing and sales in July of 2001.
"We're interested in growing recognition of the company. We're taking a grass roots approach. Quality in the product line comes first," Wayde said.
"We build unique, heavy rescue vehicles that might go to a haz-mat site, a vehicle accident, or a train wreck. We do command vehicles. We recently gained the Tele-Squrt product line. We still do a lot of re-builds, a lot of mini-pumpers and elaborate pumpers," Wayde said.
He said the trend among fire departments is combining multiple functions into one unit.
"With more limited manpower, departments are looking to combine several functions, like pumpers and tankers or pumpers and rescues," Wayde said.
More and more people commute outside of their community to work, and most towns are too small to finance a full-time department. "The younger generation, mine included, doesn't understand the value of the fire department. Until you need their help, you don't think about it. I was getting my hair cut and the lady said she never thought about where fire trucks come from," Wayde said.
Kirvida said the competition is extremely tough with at least 75 fire truck builders across the country.
"There's roughly 5,000 trucks sold each year, and three or four companies build about half of those. So the competition for the rest of the trucks is high. I envy the larger builders for the glamour. But I don't like what happens to the quality as they get larger," Wayde said.
Kirvida said every town is different in the layout of the city, the personnel on the department and more.
"We've even designed trucks based on how tall firefighters are. That's what "custom" building is all about. When you get so big that all your customers become a bar code, then you lose identity with your customers," Wayde said.
Wayde said CustomFIRE prides itself in how it computer designs each part, using a computerized laser to cut it and send it to fabrication for precision fit. Another unique aspect of the company is they bolt all of the bodies together.
"Some companies weld their bodies, similar to how a dumpster is built," Wayde said. Bolting a body is universally considered to be a superior method of assembly since bolted construction provides for mixing construction materials and selecting each metal candidate according to its best function. Bolted construction also ensures ease of future revisions and reparability.
CustomFIRE's process is gaining international recognition. The former fire chief of Johannesburg, South Africa, was in the area visiting a supplier when he stopped in to see how a local fire truck manufacturing company operated.
"He liked the way we did things. He asked CustomFIRE to develop fire truck bodies that could be shipped and put together in South Africa. By individually packing the parts, CustomFIRE was able to send nine body kits to South Africa in two 40' containers with room to spare. If the bodies were assembled in the U.S. and shipped, it would take four or five containers.
Smaller trucks are being designed to carry more equipment. "With fewer firefighters able to respond to calls, there needs to be more functions combined on one unit. We're designing trucks with a lot of capacity in a small package," Wayde said.
"There are so many builders in the marketplace. We're not the cheapest fire truck. There are a lot of lower cost builders. But I remind the customer, you really do get what you pay for. When there's an emergency, you want the best equipment and you want it Built for Life." Kirvida said.