LOWER TOWNSHIP — Fire Chief Warner Muller had a choice.

He could wait for Cape May County to build the new span over Middle Thorofare it had talked about for decades or he could take the initiative and construct a new fire truck designed to pass safely over the old decaying bridge.

Enter The Diamond Beach Express. The name is emblazoned on the back of Erma Volunteer Fire Company’s newest attack engine, complete with logos of diamonds on either side.

The $300,000 specially designed and constructed fire pumper weighs in at a svelte 14 tons. That’s fully loaded with firefighting equipment, a five-member crew and 400 gallons of water.

It may sound heavy, but a fully loaded attack engine usually weighs about 25 tons. The deteriorating condition of the Middle Thorofare Bridge drawbridge, built out of steel in 1940 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, was originally rated at 17.5 tons. A few years ago it was reduced to just 15 tons due to its poor condition, partly because the narrow channel under the span has led to a constant barrage from boats.

In 2007, Ed Donohue, a former local police chief and public safety officer, stepped in and said the bridge was no longer safe for fire trucks and trash trucks. Donohue reacted after Muller told him the bridge “shakes when we go over it.” Donohue was worried about the risks to the firefighters and the motoring public.

This was a minor inconvenience for garbage collection in the township’s Diamond Beach section, which lies on the other side of the bridge, but it created bigger problems for firefighters, whose response time is critical.

For the past six years firefighters have had to drive the long way around to the George Redding Bridge and weave back south through Wildwood and Wildwood Crest to get to Diamond Beach.

The county tried to get stimulus funds from the federal government to construct a new bridge, which the commercial fishing industry has been pushing for decades, but it lost out to a bike path between Camden and Philadelphia. The county talked about clearing the bridge of all other traffic in an emergency so a fire truck could pass, but that solution never gained traction.

Muller, meanwhile, said his company has spent the last five years trying to build a lighter truck that would have the firefighting basics, including a pump to start fighting a fire while help comes the long way around.

“It was a lot of paperwork and a lot of back and forth,” Muller said.

The first attempt produced a pick-up truck size fire engine, similar to the brush trucks used to fight forest fires. That’s when they moved to a larger truck with major compromises designed to reduce weight. Most pumpers carry at least 1,000 gallons. The Diamond Beach Express carries only 400 gallons. The generator that fire trucks use to run lights was cut out. Now the truck battery runs LED lights that are still very bright. Eliminating four-wheel drive on the 2013 International E-One saved 6,000 pounds. Fire equipment was also pared down. Muller even scrimped on the amount of hose it carries.

“It’s bare bones. It has the bare essentials but it’s everything you need to get started,” Muller said.

The truck has the normal width and length of a fire engine but feels considerably lighter and more maneuverable. One key to the success is that Diamond Beach, unlike some areas in the township, has fire hydrants.

The truck’s main purpose is to get manpower and a pump to the fire. There is water there and the pump can move 1,500 gallons per minute. Muller said the pump on the first design was not big enough to fight a high-rise fire, but now it is. This gets the effort started while bigger trucks arrive via the George Redding Bridge.

Muller figures response time, especially in summer when Wildwood and Wildwood Crest are crowded, has been cut considerably.

“It depends on the season but it’s definitely faster. It shaves off 5 to 10 minutes,” Muller said.

Should Diamond Beach residents feel safer? In truth, Muller said, under a mutual aid agreement, Wildwood Crest always responded anyway.

“I think some will feel comfortable that a pumper is coming across the bridge. What they have to know is, if there’s a fire, Wildwood Crest is dispatched with us. That’s the comfort,” Muller said.

Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said a new bridge will cost about $250 million, so the old steel bridge — they are made of concrete nowadays — sitting in a harsh marine environment will have to suffice for a few more years. Foster said designing vehicles to go over a bridge that should be replaced “is not an ideal solution.”

Muller, who noted the truck was financed with bonds and will not increase fire taxes, expects the bridge will be replaced now.

“I figured we’d build a truck and then they’d get a bridge,” Muller said.

Diamond Beach residents have wanted a fire substation for years, but finding a location and the manpower to staff it have been major roadblocks. It’s a smaller step, but at least now they have The Diamond Beach Express.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711