David Stonitsch didn’t just grow up playing with toy fire trucks. He grew up driving real ones.
Stonitch began selling fire trucks to fire departments across Florida in 2001, first from his home and now from his newly expanded South Florida Emergency Vehicles business in Fort Myers.
He drove a working fire truck to his first fire at age 14, while his father was a volunteer fire chief in 1969 in the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. “My dad was a career firefighter,” said Stonitsch, who spent his early years in Joliet, Illinois.
SFEV has been headquartered in Fort Myers since 2014 at 4655 Cummins Court, an industrial section of town just west of Interstate 75 and north of State Road 82.
In October 2014, PapasFireTrucks LLC purchased its first warehouse for $625,000. The 23,000-square-foot building was at the end of a cul-de-sac. By 2017, Stonitsch realized his company needed more room and purchased an adjacent piece of vacant land for $372,500.
Stevens Construction broke ground earlier this year on a new 18,900-square facility, which just opened. The $2.7 million construction project financed by FineMark National Bank & Trust contains office space and a room for readying fire truck decals. The bulk of the building is two garages, one for applying decals on trucks and a larger one for servicing them. The older building is used for storing new trucks.
“This building here is almost all service,” Stonitsch said of the new facility. “We do a pre-delivery inspection on every truck. We mount radios, computers and equipment.”
Miami-Dade County, St. Lucie County, Palatka, Lake Mary, McGregor-Iona and Lehigh Acres were just some fire departments that had either new trucks awaiting pickup or trucks being serviced at the garage.
The Fort Myers dealership sells the Sutphen brand of fire truck, a Columbus, Ohio-based company founded in 1890. Sales range from 100 to 110 fire trucks a year, Stonitsch said. It’s a niche business, he admitted, but also a big one where the average fire truck sells for between $1.3 million and $1.9 million, depending on the size.
“About 80% of fire departments are volunteer,” Stonitsch said. “But not in Florida. From I-10 on south, most everything down here is career. Because Florida is heavily populated, and it’s an older population.”
He said that heavy population makes for heavy usage of fire trucks, with typical trucks traveling 25,000 miles per year and lasting seven to 12 years.
Nationally, about 6,000 fire trucks and 8,000 ambulances are sold, he said, as compared to the 2,500 Ford F-150 pickup trucks sold every day.
The current inflation rate has had a significant impact on the fire truck business, Stonitsch said, with truck prices soaring by 28% during the past year. Part prices have been increasing, too.
“It’s either an increase in price or a surcharge,” Stonitsch said. “But every piece of those trucks have gone up in price. It takes almost 30 months now to get a truck after you order it. Everything is kind of upside down right now.”
The new facility will continue keeping SFEV competitive, he said. His other two in-state competitors are Ten-8 Fire Equipment Inc., which sells Pierce-branded trucks in Bradenton, and Emergency One in Ocala.
Stonitsch no longer drives fire trucks but says selling them was the next best thing. “Growing up in the fire industry, fire trucks were always captivating to me,” he said. “I’ve been a firefighter, I’ve been a fire chief. I’ve built fire trucks. I wanted to stay in this industry.”