In the midst of a busy shop filled with clanging sheet metal and screeching saws cutting through thick oak planks, a painter delicately applies gold leaf to the side of an aerial ladder fire truck destined for Caledonia, Wis.

Andrew Sale, president of Peter Pirsch & Sons Co. and the great-grandson of the company's founder, points proudly to the fine hand-painting and gold pinstriping on the truck. "We've been building trucks this way ever since 1900," he says. "Every truck we build is a custom piece of equipment, from the ground up."

The oldest privately owned fire truck manufacturer in the United States, Pirsch has a long tradition of craftsmanship and innovation. In 1899, Peter Pirsch received a patent for his compound trussed extension ladder, which was much lighter than the solid beam ladder that firemen used then. At the time, he was working for his father's wagon and carriage plant in Kenosha, Wis., and he was a member of the local volunteer fire company, the James S. Barr Hook and Ladder Co. He started his own company a year later and went about the business of making fire ladders and fire vehicles. Another of his inventions was a portable smoke ejector, which was first used in Chicago in 1931 to save the lives of 16 workmen trapped in a tunnel filled with smoke and deadly gas.Until his death in 1954, Pirsch received dozens of patents for original ideas and improvements in the field of fire fighting.

"My great-grandfather was a genius," says Sale, who became president in 1978. "I found a picture he'd drawn on the back of a business letter dated July 1939 that shows a high-rise building on fire and a helicopter putting the fire out with a hose connected to the ground."

But Peter Pirsch was no mere doodler; he knew how to get out and sell. In the backseat of his car, he carried three changes of clothing for different sales situations: a three-piece suit for calling on state and county politicians, overalls for volunteer fire companies in rural communities and coal mining towns, and shirtsleeves for city and county fire departments.

Today, the company is visibly successful. Some 25 manufacturing reps around the country carry on the work Peter Pirsch started, and sales range between $5 million and $10 million a year. A brand-new office building now stands next to the old white stucco plant that was the company's headquarters for the last 40 years. But one thing hasn't changed: the old-fashioned craftsmanship that Pirsch uses to build its engines.

Pirsch builds about 100 trucks a year. The total annual U.S. market, says Sale, is about 3,500 trucks, and Pirsch has some 50 competitors. With a limited market like this, Sale is firmly convinced that trying to convert to highvolume, assembly-line operation would be suicide.

"We have master craftsmen here who have been building trucks for years," he says, "and they've trained their sons to do it, too. So building a truck from start to finish doesn't necessarily take longer than an automated process. It just means a sounder product."

Besides, he says, when it comes to a specialized industry like building fire engines, "big isn't necessarily better. Two of our major competitors just went out of business, one because they over-extended themselves by trying to fill a huge overseas order. I feel the only reason to switch to high volume is if the market increases."

There is one change, though, that's obvious even to a nonfireman: "Red is no longer the only color for fire engines. A greenish yellow has become one of the most popular colors for engines, since a study demonstrated that it could be more easily seen at night than the traditional red. White, yellow, navy blue, silver, plum -- fire engines are now made in the Pirsch shop in all the colors of the rainbow. One fire chief in Pennsylvania has taken advantage of this variety of colors with his "rainbow system": Instead of calling "engine number three" to the scene of the fire, he calls "the silver engine" and sends "the blue engine" to a different fire.

At Pisch, employees work as a team -- a lead man and a helper -- and they work on one truck from the chassis to the final product. Blueprints for the overall design of the truck are provided by a four-man engineering department, but each worker has some freedom in creating his own way to make the pieces of the truck fit together. "This approach gives people a sense of pride in what they're doing," says Sale, "because they see the end result.

"Recently Volvo has been working with the team approach, and they're being recognized as a company that's solving the problem of boredom in building automobiles. All I can do is chuckle a little. We've been doing it for 40 or 50 years."

In addition to Peter Pirsch & Sons Co., the city of Kenosha, Wis., is also home to American Motors Corp.'s main plant, where UAW wages are considerably higher than what Pirsch can pay. Still, turnover at Pirsch is low, says Sale. "We've had people who worked for us, went to work for American Motors, and came back to work for us, because here they can basically make their own product without the boredom of the assembly line."

The money a fire department pays for a Pirsch truck ranges from $50,000 for a standard pumper to $350,000 for an aerial ladder truck with a special tower attached to it that raises the fireman so he can direct the spray at taller buildings. Sale claims that Pirsch prices are fairly competitive; if a fire department balks at the price, he points out that the cost can be spread our over at least 20 years -- the expected life of the machine.

Even in this era of budget cutbacks, Sale adds, fire departments still manage to find ways to come up with the money for fire trucks. "Surprisingly," he says, "volunteer fire departments are often wealthier than their city counterparts." Sale tells of one such department in a rural mining town in Pennsylvania. The East Bethlehem Township Fire Department ordered a 2,400-gallon tanker-pumper for $128,000. They paid for it with the proceeds from bake sales put on by their wives and rent they collected from weddings and parties held in a hall they had built on their own time with donated materials.

Not all departments are interested in buying new equipment, Sale concedes. He points to a privately owned firefighting company in Scottsdale, Ariz called the Rural/Metro Fire Department. An enterprising citizen named Lou Witzeman formed Rural/Metro as a cooperative fire department in 1948 when the Phoenix fire department would not answer a call to a neighbor's house because it was outside the city limits. Today, he provides fire protection and other emergency services in two states. To cut costs, he builds most of his own equipment, and has also bought some used equipment.

Does Sale worry that more departments will decide to start buying used equipment? Not very much, he says. "As long as the population keeps growing and new communities keep springing up, there will always be a need for more fire departments and for more fire equipment."

But when you build as well as Peter Pirsch & Sons Co., you have to expect that your equipment will be around for a long time. Recently, Sale was reading an airline magazine on a flight home from a trade show in New York. He opened to an article about Witzeman's Rural/Metro fire company and just about spilled his drink. A full-page color picture showed two stern-looking Scotts-dale firemen standing in front of the grill work of a yellow, 1950s fire ladder truck; shoulder-level to the firemen, right above the grill work, smack dab in the middle of the photograph, was the nameplate of the manufacturer of the truck -- Pirsch.

"Our equipment holds up," says Sale proudly.