September 22, 2007 in Business

It’s a five-alarm celebration

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jed Conklin photo

Firetrucks on the Firefighting Technology Tour are displayed at General Fire on Thursday in Spokane.
(Full-size photo)

A Spokane company that just celebrated its 50th birthday is outfitting fire departments with cutting-edge trucks and equipment to battle fires, chemical spills and even meth contamination.

General Fire Equipment Co., which operates out of six buildings that cover a city block at 4000 East Trent, carries everything from protective gear and air-packs for firefighters to smoke alarms, first-aid kits and fire extinguishers for restaurants and the general public.

Last year the 50-employee business, started by Harry Siria and owned by his son Darrell Siria, sold 40 firetrucks and had about $20 million in revenue.

The business is part manufacturing, design and distributing. Some small trucks are assembled on site and big rigs are custom-designed at the General Fire office and manufactured by Rosenbauer International, a leading manufacture of fire trucks that’s based in Linz, Austria, but has operations in this country.

Joe Speranzi, vice president of General Fire Apparatus Inc., a General Fire subsidiary that handles all the trucks and equipment provided to fire departments, said sales have increased by 5 to 10 percent annually since he started with the company 36 years ago. The company serves customers in Washington, northern Idaho, northern Oregon and western Montana.

“We do quite a bit (of business) in our backyard in Spokane and surrounding communities,” Speranzi said.

Business has surged since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he explained, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency started providing grants for police and fire departments to bolster their emergency response capabilities.

After Sept. 11 brought safety and rescue issues to light, “things really started to take off for a lot of the fire companies around the country,” Speranzi said.

Departments that were previously hard-pressed to spend $50,000 on equipment in 10 years, suddenly had access to grants of $60,000 or more to update aging trucks and gear, he said. The all-volunteer fire district serving the small community of Fairfield received a $50,000 grant for new equipment, money that would have taken years for the community to raise, he said.

“It’s really hard for those departments. They would have to have a lot of bake sales.”

Over the decades, things at General Fire have changed, yet stayed the same.

Darrell Siria who purchased the business from his father in 1984, and owns it with his wife Patty, said outfitting fire departments is a niche that’s served by companies that can be as small as a few people.

“It’s a very select market,” Siria said. “It’s not like you’re dealing with thousands and thousands of customers.”

The business was started by Harry Siria in 1957. At the time, Siria was a fire inspector in Yakima, and started servicing fire extinguishers through a grocery store there. He later moved to Spokane and expanded the business.

Forty years ago, Siria relied on his brother’s company, Washington Auto Carriage in Spokane Valley, to create fire truck bodies, which he outfitted with ladders and pumps.

Today, General Fire manufactures small fire trucks on the premises by building onto cabs and chassis made by major auto makers. The company also makes powerful fans that blow smoke out of burning buildings and are marketed under a subsidiary name, Unifire.

Big rigs, including pump and ladder trucks, are designed based on the needs of each fire department. For example, one department might want compartments with roll-up doors or a foam system for battling chemical fires.

Specs are shipped off to Rosenbauer, which manufactures the trucks. It can take up to a year for the finished trucks to be completed.

“No two trucks are the same,” said Speranzi— unless a department orders a fleet.


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