ASHLAND, Alabama – When the emergency call comes in, the fire trucks must be well-equipped and always ready to roll. For many communities in Alabama and Georgia, Matt Williams is the guy who helps make sure the fire rigs are prepared for the job.
His family-owned company in Ashland, Williams Fire Apparatus, has long specialized in selling, outfitting, repairing and maintaining fire trucks for large departments such as Birmingham and DeKalb County, Georgia, as well as volunteer fire departments in communities across the region.
“We make all repairs, fix all wrecks, replace all parts, and do all the planned maintenance work in the middle,” Williams said. “Today, we’re probably working on 12 different fire trucks. Some of them are here in our facility and some are on the road. We do the full gamut of service.
“If it’s got wheels on it, we service it,” he said
Being a one-stop shop has paid dividends for Williams Fire, which has been in almost constant growth mode since Williams’ father, Jeff, started the company in 1987. Over the years, Williams Fire has carried out five expansions at its Ashland site.
Williams, who bought the company from his father in 2019, is in the midst of a $1 million project that will add a new 18,000-square-foot service facility and repurpose the firm’s original 13,000-square-foot building in Clay County.
Williams Fire began construction on the new, 18,000-square-foot service facility late last year, with completion set for August 2021. Williams said the project will allow him to hire between six and 10 new employees, adding to the 32 staffers now on the company’s payroll.
“Williams Fire Apparatus is the definition of a Made in Rural Alabama enterprise,” said Lamar Dewberry, executive director of the Clay County Economic Development Council. “This business helps ensure first responders in many communities have the ability to protect their citizens, and this is accomplished right here in rural Clay County, Alabama.
“Matt’s company is a great asset to our local community as it continues to grow,” he added.
Williams said the ongoing project will streamline the company’s operations and position it for future growth.
“The new building will be a full-time repair and service facility. Then our current building will transition into fabrication only. We build lots of parts for fire trucks – everything from shelving, bracketry, things to hold chainsaws and other equipment. We do a lot of fabrication,” he said.
Williams knows the family business backwards and forwards, having been involved in the operation since he was a youngster. The family journey began when his father left Quality Manufacturing in Talladega, where he had been building fire trucks, to start his own business in Ashland.
After its start in 1987, Williams Fire built its own brand of fire trucks until around 2003, when the Gulf War made it difficult to obtain parts such as chassis and transmissions. The company’s focus shifted to servicing and selling other brands of fire trucks.
Jeff Williams retired from the fire truck business in 2019, when son Matt took over.
Today, Williams Fire sells and services five brands of fire trucks and emergency vehicles: Sutphen, SVI Trucks, Southeast Apparatus, Ferrara Fire Apparatus and PL Custom Ambulance. Its territory covers Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Besides Birmingham Fire & Rescue Service and DeKalb County Fire Rescue Department, other large customers include Gwinnett County Fire Rescue Services and Savannah Fire Rescue in Georgia, and Hoover Fire Department in Alabama. The company also counts many smaller fire departments as customers, as well as full-time volunteer departments that buy a new fire truck every 25 or 30 years.
A growing part of Williams Fire’s business is mounting equipment on fire trucks, and the new service facility will allow the company to expand that activity. Since 2016, the company has averaged 35 to 40 new apparatus installations per year, and it services hundreds more annually.
“Customers come up with their own version of what they want on an apparatus at times, and their ideas have to be cultivated into an actual vehicle,” Williams said. “There are some really smart people in this industry so working through a project with these people makes the experience very interesting and tough all at the same time.”
An interesting job Williams Fire is now working on is a tractor drawn aerial, or tiller, for DeKalb County in the Atlanta metro area.
“This rig is set to finish in the fall, and we are really excited to see this project completed. A tractor drawn aerial is one where there is a driver for the truck (tractor) and a driver for the trailer as well. Very fun project,” Williams said.
Brenda Tuck, rural development manager for the Alabama Department of Commerce, said Williams Fire’s growth plans are good news for Ashland, a city of around 2,000 residents in east central Alabama.
“We are so proud of Williams Fire Apparatus and Clay County,” Tuck said. “Being able to identify Williams Fire as one of our numerous high-impact expansion projects in rural Alabama really shines a light on the advantages present in our rural communities.”