KME Kovatch (Kovatch Mobile Equipment) in Nesquehoning became the second largest manufacturer of fire trucks in North America in the past year.

John Kovatch III, president and CEO of KME, told his sales staff the news last night during a meeting held in the Sands Hotel and Casino in Bethlehem.

He said although the economy might not be good, KME has remained busy and sales have actually increased over the past year.

One reason is that KME has gone international, manufacturing fire apparatus for Chiana, countries in the Middle East, and Canada.

Nearly 200 people attended the sales meeting, including Kovatch personnel from the firm's plants in Nesquehoning, New York State, and Ontario, California.

About 40 firms from throughout the nation, which regularly do business with KME also had representation at the event.

A highlight of the program was the announcement that the firm has been "ISO Certified," which means it has attained a prestigious quality assurance status.

The certification is made through the National Accreditation Board, an independent quality control panel.

"This is very prestigious for any manufacturing firm," Kovatch said. "It ensures we're doing things on a consistent basis for procedures we have documented."

He said that a firm which makes just one small item might get this award for that item.

At KME, the firm received the honors for its entire operations which includes building chassis, ladders, complete apparatus, etc.

Because of the complexity of the operations at KME, Kovatch stated, "I said a year ago that not in a million years could we win this. A year later we did. It is just phenomenal when they certified the whole company."

Robert M. Krajcirik, director of quality assurance for KME Kovatch, said the firm which did the quality assurance inspections visited the local firm and did an extensive audit on the operation.

"This included analyzing the design, manufacturing, sales, and service of customizing specialty trucks and vehicles to the fire-rescue, aviation, petro-chemical, industrial, energy, and military industries," Krajcirik noted.

What has led to the continued success of KME during such a dismal economic climate?

"The continuing passion that the Kovatch family has for the growth of the business and the commitment to the families who work for the Kovatches," answered Jack Terefinko, senior director of engineering at the Nesquehoning plant.

Jason Whitmier, pumper and tanker product manager in Nesquehoning, added, "We've seen significant growth," noting that international sales have played a major role in this growth.

He agreed that the economy has impacted domestic sales, but sales have increased for China, countries in the Middle East, and Canada.

Whitmier said the company has also made some strides in supplying larger cities with fire apparatus, netting contracts from Boston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles City.

Waterous Inc., St. Paul, Minn., is a manufacturer of pumps and is a supplier for KME. Bill Smith, president of Waterous, said the firm is 126 years old and the third oldest Minnesota company.

"We work with just about every fire truck manufacturer in the country," Smith said, adding of KME, "We find they're a very respectful corporation and a very nice company to work with.

"They build a good product and we're proud to be able to support them," he added.

Kovatch said KME has about 700 employees. The Nesquehoning plant is the largest of the firm's three facilities.

KME was formed in the mid 1980s to begin the manufacture of new fire apparatus.

In 1983, the Kovatch Corporation purchased Car-Mar Inc. of Berwick, which was a fire apparatus manufacturing facility, and moved the operations to its Nesquehoning plant.

The first truck it built was an International 2,500-gallon tanker for the Albrightsville Fire Company, which was delivered during the summer of 1983.

Two years later, it acquired the fire apparatus line of the former Hendrickson Manufacturing Co. of Illinois.

In 1992, KME acquired the Grumman Emergency Products line, which included that company's aerial apparatus designs and manufacturing resources.

Today, KME manufactures its own cabs and chassis as well as aerials. Its top-of-the-line chassis is called the Predator.

The Kovatch Group, which is comprised of 13 companies, was founded in 1946 by the late John "Sonny" Kovatch.