It was the UNC homecoming game in 1996. Mack Brown was the football coach, and the Tar Heels were 2-0.
Before the team would take the field to defeat Georgia Tech, fans and Chapel Hill residents were treated with a surprise that would change the community for many years to come.
It was at this game, Sept. 21, 1996, that the first Carolina blue fire truck was introduced to the community.
Pat Evans, former Chapel Hill Town council member, spearheaded the initiative to buy the new fire truck for the Chapel Hill Fire Department. She said after touring the fire department, she learned the growing community needed a new fire truck. There was a particular need for trucks that could service the taller buildings being built in Chapel Hill, she said.
Unfortunately, the town could not afford to purchase a new fire truck on its own. Town officials knew the obvious answer to obtaining a new fire truck was to ask the University and UNC Hospitals for help. Evans said she had an idea after speaking with former Chapel Hill Mayor Kenneth Broun and others.
“I heard that Clemson had orange fire trucks,” Evans said. “I thought, maybe we could approach the University and ask them for money if we promised them a blue fire truck.”
She said she and Broun approached then-Chancellor Michael Hooker and the dean of the medical school at the time with their proposal.
“They liked the idea because it was unique and would set us apart,” Evans said. “That’s how we got our first blue fire truck.”
Dace Bergen, deputy fire marshal at the Chapel Hill Fire Department, said then-Fire Chief Dan Jones wanted the truck to be Carolina blue since it would be servicing the University. He explained the color was mostly kept a secret, but some town officials were part of the planning.
“The color of the paint, you know it’s Carolina blue, is actually a trademarked color,” Bergen said. “In addition to that, he (Jones) had both logos, the University ram and also the hospital logo, put on the truck to recognize where the funds came from.”
After being introduced in 1996, Bergen said for the next few football seasons, the Carolina blue fire truck was a staple at home games. He said whenever the team would score a touchdown, the truck’s sirens would serve as part of the celebration.
Fire Chief Matthew Sullivan said the $300,000 truck was successful and showed the Town’s connection to the University. He said the Carolina blue fire truck attracted a lot of attention from people, and the community loved taking pictures with the truck.
Sullivan said he loves the blue trucks and plans to keep them that way, unless the council votes otherwise.
“Dan Jones made the decision, at that point, to continue to move towards buying an entire blue fleet,” Sullivan said. “Every truck purchased after that initial truck was Carolina blue.”
The color of the trucks has continued to be a huge success in Chapel Hill by providing visual representation of how much the school and the town form a close-knit community, they said, and the trucks also accomplish the stated goal of making the town a unique place to visit.
“I hope it never changes,” Evans said. “A blue fire truck is probably something visitors don’t even know is here, but once they get here and see it, they say, ‘Hey, isn’t that cool?’”
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