Monster Machines: West Tisbury’s Breaker 732

Despite its imposing size, Breaker 732 destroys trees in its path gently.

West Tisbury Fire Chief Manny Estrella. — Photo by Rich Saltzberg

West Tisbury shares more than 5,343 acres of State Forest with Edgartown. In addition to all the woodlands, shrublands, and barrens within that acreage, the town contains many other sizable tracts of preserved land, or simply undeveloped land, thick with natural obstacles and cut through with few roads. For firefighters and emergency personnel, these wild parcels present serious access problems. To reach plane crash sites, to combat brush fires or rescue those who may be caught in them, the West Tisbury Fire Department cannot afford to hemorrhage time by buzzing swaths through brush and timber with chainsaws. For over half a century the department has utilized brush trucks or brush breakers, vehicles fitted with such menacing frontends, they look boosted from Lord Humungus’s driveway. Part plow and part armor, the protuberant steel caging in the trucks’ fronts protects both the occupants of the cab and the truck itself. That steel also enables brush breakers to motor over thickets and topple pines and oaks of up to 19 inches in diameter.

“This type of wild land fire apparatus is unique to areas of the country with fuel loads like those found in West Tisbury,” said Kenneth R. Willette, Division Manager of Public Fire Protection at the National Fire Protection Association via an e-mail to the Times. “They allow firefighters to make a safe and effective fire attack on a fast-moving fire that can be a distance from access roads. West Tisbury FD’s decision to include two of them in their fleet illustrates their commitment to defending the community against this risk.”

Two of the three brush breakers in service on Martha’s Vineyard are owned by the West Tisbury Fire Department, one garaged in each of the town’s stations. The other breaker in service is at the Chilmark Fire Department. Yet another breaker on-Island is a retired veteran of the West Tisbury Fire Department, old 732, a 1959 Ford currently sunning itself behind the Dumptique on the property of Richard T. Olsen & Son in West Tisbury.

Like its Ford predecessor, the current Breaker 732, a Sterling-chassis behemoth, enjoys a Marmon-Herrington all-wheel-drive system. A benchmark of heavy-duty vehicle mechanics, Marmon-Herrington used to manufacture tanks, armored cars, and heavy trucks and now builds heavy axles for military vehicles and big trucks as well as making the type of all-wheel-drive conversion kit on Breaker 732. That kit, along with a steel-plated underside, and specially configured brakes and tire rods, lets the breaker steam over stumps, limbs, brush, rocks, and vine knots that would snarl many of the best 4×4 vehicles passing over the same terrain.

When encountering a tree in its path that it cannot wheel around, breaker 732 doesn’t build up speed and ram it, as one might assume. It plows into trees quite slowly, at speeds of around two or three miles per hour or less, essentially nudging them over. According to Lieutenant Jesse Oliver, one of the crewmembers of breaker 732, besides minimizing wear and tear on the vehicle, low speed contact with trees helps to drop them away from the breaker instead of hewing them down mid-trunk and sending the bulk of the tree backwards where it may land on firefighters positioned in the open rear of the truck.

Breaker 732 is fitted with a 20,000-pound capacity Ramsey winch to address emergency hauling and towing situations. It also boasts a custom skid-mounted rear pump, according to Jeffrey Mazza, President and CEO of Bulldog Fire and Emergency Apparatus. The custom pump, like the whole vehicle, was put together by Bulldog in Hopkinton. Whereas most fire engine pumps are internal and difficult to extract, the skid-mounted pump allows firefighters the ability to exchange the pump with a replacement unit in the field should it succumb to clogs, leaks or other failures.

The high sides of breaker 732 give firefighters extra protection from branches and heat. From behind them they can draw on the 650 gallon tank to douse flames with water or Class A foam. It is on one of those high sides that the initials of a fallen member of the West Tisbury Fire Department are emblazoned in tribute. In the winter of 2010, lieutenant Daniel Prowten perished in a house fire on Indian Hill in West Tisbury. He had been a key member of the 732 breaker crew.

“He was the best brush firefighter we ever had,” said Lt. Oliver.

Chief Manuel Estrella III, a longtime crew member of breaker 732, served with Mr. Prowten for decades.  “We joined at about the same time — about 45 years ago,” said the Chief. “We miss him a lot.”

In addition to being an indispensable piece of emergency apparatus for the rugged terrain in parts of West Tisbury, breaker 732 is also a vehicle of honor for a firefighter who was one of its most esteemed crewmembers.