When severe flooding hit Lycoming and surrounding counties after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, the North Central Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross was prepared to spring into action and assist first responders, as well as deliver food, clothing and other relief items to people displaced by the disaster.
They just had to hope their emergency response vehicle, or ERV, would survive the trips into and out of flooded areas.
"We knew it could make it there, but we weren't entirely sure if we'd be able to get out," board chairman Al Smith said with a chuckle. Having gone into service in 1976, the previous van was in constant need of expensive maintenance and upgrades and was becoming less and less reliable.
Volunteer committee chairwoman Julia Borek, left, and board chairman Al Smith stand next to the new disaster response vehicle.
It was a fitting example of the need for a new vehicle, which finally came to fruition after almost 10 years of planning. At an open house at the chapter's headquarters on East Third Street Monday morning, the new vehicle officially was revealed.
"We had the design for it about seven or eight years ago," Smith said, but the problem was finding the money to make it happen. The committee dedicated to the new vehicle - made up of Red Cross members, local fire chiefs and others - met several times per year to discuss fundraising possibilities, but it proved to be difficult and sponsors were scarce.
Then, in June 2012, an unexpected gift was presented to the Red Cross by The Park Home: $100,000 toward the cost of the project.
"Without the Park Home, this would not have been possible," said Tom Szulanczyk, chapter executive.
That donation got the ball rolling on finalizing the design and finding other sponsors to help with the rest of the cost.
Bob McCormick Ford in Lock Haven sold the chassis on which it would be built to the Red Cross for a substantial discount, said Smith, and Transport Design in Montoursville helped with the body work and the custom red-and-white paint job.
Some of the help came in the form of donations, as well.
"The cabinets on the inside were a gift from C&S Custom Cabinets," said Julia Borek, volunteer committee chairwoman. "They just gave them to us."
The total cost of the vehicle would have been close to $175,000, but with donations and some of the hands-on work done by volunteers, it came in substantially lower, at about $130,000.
Chapters of the American Red Cross always have an emergency response vehicle, which is used for many purposes: volunteers transport food, clothing and other items in the immediate aftermath of disasters that displace people from their homes, and they offer support to firefighers and first responders by providing food and coffee.
The one unveiled Monday offers more comprehensive services. It has a large kitchen area, including plenty of cabinet and counter space, a full-size stove with four burners, and two refrigeration units that can function as freezers with the flip of a switch. That, said Smith, allows the Red Cross to transport either supplies to prepare food on site or premade frozen meals for more than 150 people.
The vehicle also includes a seating area where displaced persons can sit with a volunteer for interviews and paperwork regarding the help they will receive in the first few days after a disaster. The seating can convert to an area for carrying supplies, with brackets and tie-down straps on the wall that can secure multiple boxes and packages safely.
"It's a great asset to the community, very well-constructed," said Steve Leauber, disaster program manager for the chapter. "It varies significantly from other emergency response vehicles."
The vehicle also has a generator that will either heat or cool the vehicle without the engine running, and a welcome feature that not every emergency response vehicle has: a restroom.
It's something that was designed with not only affected individuals in mind, but first responders as well.
"If you're a firefighter and you're at a house fire for five or six hours, what's one thing you really wish you had available?" said Smith. He noted that the position of the restroom at the back of the vehicle and its large space - ideal for someone in bulky clothing, like a firefighting suit - was specifically designed to accommodate those individuals.
The vehicle also has steps that unfold to ground level with the push of a button, to make getting into the back where the seating area is located easier on elderly and disabled persons.
"Thirty years of experience went into designing this vehicle," said Smith.
So far, the new vehicle has gone to four or five disaster response calls since it was officially put into use on October 1. He added that it will be categorized as an emergency vehicle by Lycoming County in the near future.
The Red Cross serves a large area, made up of Clinton, Lycoming and Tioga counties, and the new vehicle will be invaluable when responding to disasters.
"It will be used throughout the chapter," said Szulanczyk. "It's a unique vehicle."