Welders to the rescue

Job shop specializes in repairs, cargo containers

Practical Welding Today November/December 2009
November 6, 2009
By: Amanda Carlson

In times of trouble we depend on firefighters and rescue personnel to provide assistance.But who do they depend on when they need assistance, particularly when their equipment is worn down or broken? In the areas around St. Charles and Aurora, Ill., they depend on Custom Welding & Fabrication.

custom welding fabrication

In emergency situations such as fires, health crises, or automobile accidents, we depend on firefighters and rescue personnel to respond quickly and provide assistance. In turn, rescue personnel depend on their equipment to function properly in order to provide assistance to those in need. When fire trucks, rescue boats, or equipment is damaged, the fire and rescue departments in the areas surrounding St. Charles and Aurora, Ill., depend on welders Jeffrey Morris and Matt Olseng from Custom Welding & Fabrication. Being a firefighter himself, Morris wouldn't have it any other way.

From a young age, Morris didn't shy away from hard work. At 14 he got his first taste of oxyacetylene welding; at 16 he was volunteering with his local fire department; at 18 he was enrolled in community college welding classes and working full-time; and by 20 he owned a house, had a full-time job, and ran a welding repair business out of his garage. Fast-forward 30 years and you'll find that Morris has turned that garage welding repair gig into a full-blown welding and fabrication business.

At first glance, Morris bears slight resemblance to Paul Teutul Sr., of the famous custom motorcycle fabrication shop and popular Discovery Network television show "Orange County Choppers." Although he is not at all as booming or as bulgingly biceped as Teutul Sr., he does demand the same commitment to organization, structure, and attention to detail. Everything has its place, from every piece of paper in the office, to the hand tools, power sources, and materials on the shop floor.

"I'm a neat freak. Everything is in its compartment, and everything is organized. You can look in a bin and say, 'We're missing these bolts.' We've got our truck so well-equipped that we go out on a job and we're there for the day and we're self-sufficient."

Morris and co-worker Olseng repair or fabricate just about anything, but Morris claims their specialty is high-end vehicle and machinery repair.

"I think we're a perfect example that smaller is better. Less is more. The amount of work we've rolled out of this shop with a two-man crew is unbelievable. I have people come in and ask me where the rest of the guys are. I tell them, 'This is it.'"


You could say that the fire and rescue profession is in Morris' blood. He doubles as a paid on-call firefighter, while his father, brother, two brothers-in-law, and son are firefighters or paramedics. It should come as no surprise that many local suburban fire districts take their trucks and equipment to Morris for repair, considering his intimate knowledge of the equipment and the people running it.

"They feel comfortable bringing equipment and things here. They know we're versed in how the equipment works, what it needs to do," Morris explained.

Recently Morris branched out from strictly performing repairs when he began fabricating components for the Rescue Vac™, a tool that assists fire and rescue personnel in trench collapse situations. The concept was developed by a couple of suburban Chicago fire chiefs to help prevent injury or death of rescue workers involved in trench collapses and entrapment maneuvers. The tool hooks up to a municipal vacuum truck and sucks away water, dirt, or other debris from a safe distance.

"They can park the truck a safe distance away so as not to superimpose the load. The biggest danger to would-be rescuers is a secondary collapse, which could be triggered by the weight or vibration of the truck or other equipment," explained Morris.

Morris and Olseng transform sections of 8-in. or 4-in. pipe by cutting them and adding flanges, handles, and pick points using GTAW, allowing the pieces to clamp together into sections for easy assembly. The pipe serves as the modular tip that attaches to the vacuum hose. It's not heavy-volume work, but the tool has caught on with more districts as news of confirmed saves from using the tool has surfaced.

"Sometimes departments come under a lot of scrutiny for buying that type of thing, but what price do you put on a life, especially with a confirmed save?

"It's like a lot of other fire and rescue equipment—it's waiting to do its job. When you need it, it's ready."

Forming a Rescue Tower ... Out of Cargo Containers

In 2005 one of the biggest jobs of Morris' career came in the form of metal cargo containers. The Southern Kane County Training Association, North Aurora, Ill., began developing plans to construct a fire training tower from metal cargo containers usually found on ships or semitrucks. The association's facility already provided firefighters throughout the region with a venue for training on several scenarios, including structural collapse, trench, HazMat, EMS, vehicle and machinery, and confined-space. The only aspect missing was vertical rescue.

"Southern Kane County Training Association called me up and said they were looking to build a fire tower. He said they talked to a couple of local contractors but everyone was kind of iffy on it," Morris said.

The nature of the project interested Morris, so he, along with association representatives, traveled down to the Illinois Fire Service Institute in Champaign, Ill., to check out its cargo structure. They took pictures, measured dimensions, and made notes of its configuration.

From there, a team of structural engineers hired by the association put together a layout plan for 13 cargo containers, which measured 40 ft. long by 8 ft. high. Some were positioned vertically, some horizontally, and some were stacked on top of one another. But to make it maneuverable by firefighters for training, designers had to include plans for doors, escape hatches, windows, latches, handles, stairways with railings, and hooks for rappeling. Whatever needed to be added would have to be fabricated, cut, welded, and assembled to the appropriate container. It was a big job, and with only two men on the job, it meant that the game plan had to be laid out perfectly.

Morris won the bid for the project and began work in October 2005.

"I approached them and said, 'We're a small shop. We're capable of doing this project, but I can't give you every day of the week.' I told them I could devote three days a week on it and leave the other three days for my core customers. I knew I was in for a long haul."

So Morris and Olseng dedicated themselves to working three days a week on the fire tower project and on core customer projects the other three days. Morris appealed to a couple of people to come in and help cut material some days just to keep things moving.

"The logistics of trying to get everything coordinated was one of the trickiest things to do."

Morris and Olseng fabricated and assembled everything they could back at the shop. The stairways, stair stringers, and steps were built modularly in-house using gas metal arc welding (GMAW). All of the tower's hand railings were fabricated to be removable, in case a certain training scenario required special access or bulky equipment. Hand railings were built in 5-ft. sections with pockets that would allow someone to slide and lift them out of place.

Once a modular assembly was completed, it was loaded on a truck and shuttled on-site. Then Morris and Olseng secured each modular assembly to its place on the tower with shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) or flux-cored arc welding (FCAW) for tubular steel parts or the large fillet welds that required more deposition.

This slow but steady process continued until the project was complete—two weeks short of a full year. Other than working outside during a Chicago winter and a motocross accident that forced Olseng to weld one-handed for a period of time, no other major hiccups occurred.

Back to Reality

Since completing the fire tower project, Morris has kept busy with regular welding and fabrication work and developing a couple of unique tools for the firefighters. The first, a spot wheel chock, is a diamond plate wedge with an angled bump that serves as a guide for drivers as they back up the trucks into the station's garage. The second, a swing hook, is a safety device for firefighters working in confined spaces.

"I've talked to a couple of distributors and I'm checking into the patents. I'm still at that stage of it."

He also spent the last four years serving as a part-time welding instructor at Elgin Community College (ECC) and a part-time collapse instructor (metal cutting) at Southern Kane County Training Association.

At the end of the day, Morris said being able to weld and still be active in firefighting, whether it be in full gear riding on the truck or with a welding torch in hand, is a dream come true.

"I don't work a day in my life. I love what I do."

Amanda Carlson

Amanda Carlson

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8260

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