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Hot Wheels : Entertainment: Siren call of emergency vehicles lures ex-firefighter to assemble fleet of 30 trucks and ambulances.

August 09, 1995|EFRAIN HERNANDEZ JR. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SUN VALLEY — Joseph Ortiz Jr. is retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department, but surrounded by more firetrucks and ambulances than ever.

And making it pay.

Ortiz's lifelong passion for firetrucks and other emergency vehicles has led him to amass a fleet of them on a dirt parking lot, where he is visited by Hollywood filmmakers, organizers of small-town parades and anyone else who wants to rent a big, shiny firetruck covered with hoses and gleaming brass fittings.

Under one tarp is a big, red 1954 Cadillac ambulance. Nearby are all kinds of emergency apparatuses from the past--fire engines, pumpers and even a hook-and-ladder truck. A former Los Angeles Police Department SWAT truck is parked toward the back.

"I've been hanging around ambulance companies and fire stations since I was about 14 years old," says Ortiz, 51, who retired as a firefighter less than a year ago.

"I used to ride down on my bike and just hang around and talk to the guys."

And early on, Ortiz became as fascinated with the emergency equipment used by the workers he admired as he was with their experiences saving lives. Post-retirement, when some might expect him to be slowing down, Ortiz is busy living a dream come true.

The fascination that caused Ortiz to begin collecting small models and toys of emergency vehicles as a youth has grown. Now he has a fleet of about 30 fully operational firetrucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles.

Two Dalmatians--Dukey and Nini--as well as a shack full of firefighters' helmets, clothing and other equipment help add authenticity whenever necessary.

It is the largest such collection west of the Mississippi, he believes, despite being run from a modest one-acre lot some might mistake for a junkyard. Business is booming.

Vincent Saucer, president of Casting All Cars of Hollywood, stopped by late Tuesday morning in search of just the right yellow firetruck for an upcoming feature film.

"Every time I need firetrucks I come out," said Saucer, who has turned to Ortiz more than 10 times in the past couple of years. "Service is great. He has the most equipment. You can tell Joe what you need and then work together. That makes it easy."

A similar endorsement came from Brent Nelson, manager of Picture Vehicles Unlimited in North Hollywood. Ortiz is especially good at ensuring that film crews get the technical details accurate, bringing mistakes to the attention of workers on a movie, commercial or television program, but never causing undue embarrassment to anyone, Nelson said.

"He always keeps us straight as far as [accuracy requiring] a pumper [or] a ladder truck, because we don't know," Nelson said with a laugh. "He's always a pleasure to work with. He's been there [in the emergency services field], and we haven't."

For Ortiz, whose casual, animated style often is punctuated with a hearty laugh, the idea of collecting the equipment, making it available for parades or birthday parties throughout the year and also earning some money and prestige through the entertainment industry is about as much fun as he could imagine.

Ortiz, who grew up in West Los Angeles, said a big part of his fun comes from being with friends and relatives--like his brother, Jesse Ortiz, a firefighter in Mission Hills--who seem to care about the equipment as much as he does.

His two children, Jo Jo, 13, and Leanna, 10, also enjoy the adventures with the trucks, he said.

As for hiring Ortiz or renting any equipment, the cost generally is negotiable but may range from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per rental.

"I don't think I'll ever be a millionaire," he said. "I'm like a historian. I like talking about the Fire Department. Here I'm still going to fires."

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