George Chivvis, founder of G.A. Chivvis Corp., stands next to...

George Chivvis, founder of G.A. Chivvis Corp., stands next to the Southampton Fire Department's brush truck, which his shop in Copiague is retrofitting with new equipment. (June 12, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

They look like they're ready for Armageddon, and in a way they are. They are brush trucks, and firefighters rely on them to get into deep-woods wildfires.

And two companies that make the trucks are on Long Island, at a time when manufacturing of all kinds is declining.

Brush trucks give firefighters the ability to drive off-road -- through brush and even over trees -- to get at stubborn, fast-spreading blazes like the one in April that burned 1,100 acres in the forests of Ridge and Manorville and took more than 100 fire departments three days to bring under control.

There are several brush-truck makers outside New York, but most of the ones used in the spring fires were made by two companies based here.

G.A. Chivvis Corp., founded seven years ago in an industrial area of Copiague, builds large brush trucks. It has annual revenues of about $1 million, said founder George A. Chivvis, a veteran Lindenhurst volunteer firefighter. The company employs 11, counting workers at a related business sharing its quarters.

Firematic Supply Co. of Shirley has been building smaller, four-wheel-drive brush trucks since 2001. Founded in the 1950s in Yaphank, Firematic operates out of two facilities in an industrial park and services emergency vehicles and sells an array of firefighting and rescue tools and related gear. The privately held firm declined to disclose sales revenues. Thompson Corp.'s Information Access Co. estimated the company's gross income at $13.4 million last year.

Firematic has some 80 employees, about 30 of them in Shirley and its other New York location, in Putnam County.


Little manufacturing left

These two companies carry the mantle of manufacturing in a region that has hemorrhaged such jobs. Economist Pearl Kamer of the Long Island Association, the Island's largest business group, said the Island lost another 900 manufacturing jobs in the year ended in May, leaving 72,500 -- just 5.8 percent of the LI workforce.

"At the height of the Cold War when Grumman was fully employed and it had the [Lunar Excursion Module] under way," she said, "manufacturing was 25 percent of the economy."

The brush trucks do their job with four- and six-wheel drive, high ground clearances, powerful engines and, in some cases, three-eighth-inch thick steel undercarriage plates that give them their nickname -- "stump jumpers." Some models protect firefighters from snapping tree limbs with cages made of heavy steel pipe.

Suffolk County Fire Commissioner Joe Williams said brush trucks are indispensable in fighting deep-woods fires.

"The only way to put these fires out is to get in there, but we can't take a normal vehicle," Williams said. "These brush trucks will go into the woods and fight these fires head-on. They're a very big asset to us."

Suffolk departments have a total of 83 brush trucks, all of which were deployed for the Ridge/Manorville fires, along with 10 sent from Nassau County, Williams said.

It's not clear when the first brush trucks went into service on Long Island, but many were available for the 1995 Sunrise Fire, which consumed 6,000 acres on both sides of Sunrise Highway in the Westhampton area. At the time, Williams said, most were produced by a family-owned business based in Westhampton, which has since gone out of business.

Military chassis

Chivvis' brush trucks are usually built on surplus military chassis and are particularly capable off-road, Williams said: "They can knock down trees, and they do that quite often." They sell for $250,000 to $300,000. Chivvis said he has built 18, most of which are in service at 13 Suffolk fire departments; one is in New Jersey.

The Firematic truck is called the BRAT -- for Brush Rapid Attack Truck. Built in four basic variations, it is usually based on a Ford pickup truck chassis. Smaller BRATs are handy in confined spaces such as parking garages with low ceilings, said Robert Leonard, a spokesman for the New York Firemen's Association and a captain in the Syosset department. The vehicles range from $90,000 to $450,000, with most costing about $200,000.

Firematic product manager David Horton said the company has built an estimated 100 BRATS, including about 50 for Long Island fire departments.

Founded on LI

Both Chivvis and Firematic were founded here.

Chivvis' great-grandfather started a welding and machining business, Freeport Welding, about 1920, and, ever since, a series of family companies has been in the metal-bending business.

Chivvis founded G.A. Chivvis Corp. to exclusively serve the firefighting market, including brush-truck production. It has customized or produced about 25 vehicles since then, mostly brush trucks.

Almost all of the firm's customers are on Long Island, and Chivvis says he likes living here. "My family is here, I was born here, and I never see myself leaving here," he said, despite $1,500 to $2,000 a month in electric bills, $1,000 a month in gas bills in winter and $40,000 a year in property taxes.

Firematic chief executive Michael Hanratty, a former NYPD cop who bought the company from its founder in 1969, says that while costs here are a challenge, a major part of its business is a franchise to sell Pierce Manufacturing Inc. fire apparatus in lower New York State and Connecticut.

"We really couldn't move," he said. Although the brush-truck manufacturing could be relocated, "that would split up the family and split our resources."

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