From left, Waterboro Fire Department Lt. Mike Fraser, firefighter Kerri Stearns and Lt. John Cloonan take a seat inside a converted school bus that now serves as a rehab unit.

From left, Waterboro Fire Department Lt. Mike Fraser, firefighter Kerri Stearns and Lt. John Cloonan take a seat inside a converted school bus that now serves as a rehab unit.

WATERBORO — The fire was raging, and it was minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit. It was so cold on that February day, firefighters’ airpack bottles were freezing to their frames. There was no place to thaw them out, and no place for firefighters to rest, warm up or have their vital signs checked for the nine hours they spent fighting the blaze.

And just as important, particularly when a fire takes hours to extinguish, there was no place to “go.”

There is now.

Waterboro Fire Department Rehab 1 was placed into service on Thursday. The unit is a converted 2002 International school bus that was given to the fire department last spring by the RSU 57 school district, said Lt. John Cloonan. The fire department spent months getting it ready for service.

Doing so, fire department members say, was a true community effort. A dozen or more of them worked on the conversion. An equal number of businesses local to Waterboro and a bit farther afield contributed everything from free labor to discounts or gifts ranging from sirens and graphics to the lavatory, generator and more.

Cloonan, Lt. Mike Fraser and firefighter Kerri Stearns were on hand to provide a tour Friday afternoon.

And what’s the alternative to Rehab 1?

Well, Cloonan said, there really isn’t one. While the Waterboro and Alfred fire departments had the use of tents and tarps to provide on-scene areas for firefighter rehabilitation, they had nothing that could bring firefighters in out of the elements, whether it be extreme cold or extreme heat.

“If a firefighter was really cold, we’d use the ambulance, but that put it out of service,” said Cloonan.

A firefighter in bunker gear who had just left a burning house would contaminate the sterility of the ambulance, which meant if someone needed to be transported to the hospital, a second ambulance would have to be pressed into service.

The bus, which retains the heaters that were in it when it ferried children to school, provides a place for firefighters to get in and out of the winter’s cold, and will sport air conditioners in the summer, Cloonan said.

Firefighters took out most of the seats and installed some horizontally along the length of the bus, bench style. There are a couple of tables for coffee pots across the aisle, and hangers and shelving where firefighters can place their helmets and bunker gear when they’re taking a break, or where EMTs take a firefighter’s vital signs and keep watch for potential health emergencies.

There’s also a station set up where airpacks can be thawed.

“The problem was, when you run out of air, you have to switch the bottles out,” said Stearns. “At 28 degrees below zero, everything freezes. You can’t get the bottle out of the framework.”

Now, she said, the frozen packs can be handed through the bus window to folks who can use a couple of hand-held hairdryers to thaw them and then pass them back to firefighters.

One of the major jobs was painting the bus – grinding off the yellow paint and all of the decals, and repainting it red, black and white. The bus itself needed some new parts, like a radiator and a maintenance overhaul.

In the interior, visitors will notice a wall built by volunteers. That’s because there’s a chemical lavatory on the other side, accessible only from the exterior of the bus – a bonus for both female and male firefighters who are on a fire scene sometimes for hours, with no place to answer a call of nature.

The coffee pots, coffee and snacks, along with the supplies that go with them, are courtesy of Waterboro Fire Department Gives Back – volunteers who host regular bean suppers at the fire station. The group is affectionately called the Bean Queens by pretty much everyone. One of the Bean Queens, Rosemary McCoy, said members show up at fires to dispense coffee and other sustenance, and will continue to do so.

The bus came from the school district with one proviso – that it be available for all of the towns in the district, which includes not only Waterboro but Alfred, Limerick, Lyman, Newfield and Shapleigh. And, said Fraser, it will also be available to other departments in the county.

Cloonan said at times, as the group worked on the conversion, there were some glitches.

“We’ve pulled our hair out at times, figuring things out, he said. “And we’ve had a ton of fun.”

Besides the trio, fire department members who worked on the project included Chief Matthew Bors; Deputy Chief Lisa Bennett; Capt. Scott Bernier; Lts. Mike Holbrook, Scott Birkemose and Matthew Garland; and firefighters Jon Gale, Mike Hersom, Cody Jewett, Dustin Rhodes, Kate McQuillen, Dave Gonthier, Frank Demers and Eric Jackson.

Contributing goods and services were Napa Auto Parts, A1 Environmental, Hartford Towing, S.A. McLean, Lee’s Family RV, Normand Electric, Southern Maine Communications, RSD Graphics, Sanford Radiator, Cloonan and the Bean Queens.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]

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