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Reaching New Heights - the1975 ERF Snorkel

The development of the hydraulic platform: the Snorkel  

The hydraulic powered ‘elevating work platform’ (EWP) was first developed in the USA during the early 1950s in response to a Canadian engineered model which aimed at being able to pick fruit from a tree. Once the concept was proven, it made its way into the commercial market finding many utilities across multiple industries requiring open space high access. However, it would be its original concept of being able to pick fruit which would grant its nickname still in use today, the ‘Cherry-Picker’.   


In 1958 the Chicago Fire Department implemented the Cherry-Picker in firefighting and rescue contexts where it gained another nickname, the ‘Snorkel’. Snorkels had to do more to adjust to firefighting uses than simply run a hose line up to the basket. Firefighting versions were required to sustain long operation times, utilise baskets which could carry tremendous weight for rescue purposes, be able to sustain high winds of up to force 7 as well as accommodate for the back pressure from water jets when working as a water tower.   

ME 489 ERF Snorkel, c. 1970s [Museum of Fire Collection]

By the mid-1960s Simon Engineering Company became a manufacturer of EWP’s specifically for firefighting purposes, calling their line of products Simon Snorkels. By 1978 Simon claimed to have sold 420 Snorkels of various configurations world-wide; Australia would eventually receive 17 firefighting units, numerous industrial versions would also be imported by commercial operators. The New South Wales Fire Brigade (NSWFB; now Fire and Rescue NSW, FRNSW) ordered ERF variants of the Simon Snorkel, which at the time were considered the “most costly appliance in the Board's Fleet”. Whilst expensive, they were certainly some of the most valuable and versatile appliances in the brigade during this time.


Measuring 11m in length and weighing 16 tonnes, the ERF Snorkel was manufactured in England and shipped to Australia. The Snorkel was able to reach heights of 25m and was able to rotate a full 360 degrees. The vehicle was powered by a Perkins V8-510 diesel engine with Allison automatic transmission. The hydraulics were powered by the PTO (power take-off) system with a backup independent diesel engine also installed in the event of PTO failure.

ME 489

In 1975 ME 489 ERF Snorkel was first installed at Pyrmont, later being transferred to Glebe in 1978, then being sent for refurbishment in 1986. It was then withdrawn from service in 1997 where it joined the Museum of Fire’s heritage fleet.

ME 489 ERF Snorkel outside the Museum of Fire, c. 1990s [Museum of Fire Collection]

The value of the ERF Snorkel was utilised in many incidents, both great and small:

The ERF Snorkel from Pyrmont, under Station Officer J. Cornock, was used in the rescue of two tradesmen-painters on 2 July 1975 when they became standard on the fifth floor after a power failure. Glebe Fire Brigade was called, however, their extension ladder on their motor appliance was unable to reach that height, and so Pyrmont’s Snorkel turned out to save the day.


On 7 April 1975, a large two-storey building was involved in a large fire in Parramatta Road, Camperdown. Due to the intense heat and smoke, firefighters were unable to reach the seat of the fire, making the blaze significantly more difficult to handle. During the incident the ERF Snorkel worked alongside other appliances to provide aid by pouring large amounts of water from above. After more than three hours the fire had been properly suppressed, with less than expected damage to neighboring properties.

The Snorkel as work at Camperdown, 7 April 1975 [Museum of Fire Collection]

Control received a call on 18 January 1977 reporting that a passenger train had crashed at Granville and that the overhead traffic bridge had subsequently collapsed onto the train. This tragic disaster unfortunately resulted in 83 fatalities, a number that would have been much higher if not for the efforts of all involved. In total 10 brigades turned out, including Pyrmont’s ERF Snorkel, working alongside other emergency services and civilians, several of whom arrived with large cranes. ME 489 was used in the safe extraction of the injured and dead from the wreckage to the waiting ambulances. A confronting incident for all involved, operations lasted from the initial minutes of the disaster at 8:12am on Tuesday to 6:00am on Thursday.

Train disaster, Granville, 18 January 1977 [Museum of Fire Collection]

On Sunday 19 March 1978, Control received a call of a fire at the William Henry Street wool store, a major fire that would be remembered for many years to come. The Pyrmont motor and snorkel would be turned out to this incident, along with 25 other brigades. The fire was eventually extinguished at 5:13am, two hours after the initial “000” call.

Extensive damage from fire at Ultimo, at former wool store on the corner of William Henry Street and Bulwarra Road; 19 March 1978 [Museum of Fire Collection]

- Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team


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