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Built-environment buying: Apparatus selection and community construction

The surge of lightweight construction across the country underscores the need to look to the future of community development


The apparatus we choose for our community must be purpose-built.

Photo/Kris Blume

The design and construction of apparatus should follow a fairly linear process: planning, purchasing and progression. While no two communities are the same, consistencies do emerge throughout the process.

One consistent focus is the mission and expectations for our apparatus. They must be safe, efficient and well suited for the strategy and tactics for which they will be used. And in many communities, the specter or lightweight construction is now an essential consideration.

Let’s consider how this impacts an agency’s apparatus selection process.

Legacy vs. lightweight construction

Let’s disabuse ourselves of the illusion that modern, lightweight construction is somehow safer. These structures are crafted largely out of engineered materials that are lighter, weaker (under fire conditions) and decompose under heat at an accelerated rate. This is due to the materials being created with accelerant materials, the “methyl-ethyl bad-stuff,” not the materials of legacy construction – dimensional lumber, organic materials and fibers.

The truth of the matter for many communities is that lightweight construction rules the day. The harder truth is understanding that most of these buildings, residential specifically, do not come with mandatory sprinklers or home fire suppression systems.

Meeting the mission of the fire department is largely predicated on shared community values. While apparatus selection falls within the purview of the fire department or fire district, the funding and ownership resides with the community. So while we cannot control the structures, we can control, to some degree, the tools and apparatus we use to fight their fires.

Apparatus selection

NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus provides preamble to the decision-making matrix for many organizations. Offering best practices and compliance is ingrained and manufactured from the beginning. The tailored offerings that are agency-specific are another matter. Beyond the NFPA standards, early considerations for new apparatus, or additions to a fleet, should take into consideration your community’s build environment.

The apparatus we choose for our community must be purpose-built. This goes beyond the construction of the occupancies to include the infrastructure – roads, bridges, traffic, signage and traffic signals are the first that come to mind. Additionally, seasonal challenges must be considered. How is your community situated to address its hurricane threat or wildland-urban interface (WUI) vulnerability? The selection of apparatus should involve the many facets present in the existing infrastructure while recognizing the vision for the future of the community they serve.

When it comes to lightweight construction specifically, apparatus should be equipped to deploy fast (continuous/uninterrupted) water and ready for rescue operations to take place in short sequence. The crews responding to lightweight construction must be able to quickly recognize the construction type and apply appropriate strategy and tactics with minimal delay.

While fire service professionals understand how these occupancies will behave under fire conditions, many fire chiefs and senior leadership find it harder to square the cost-cutting and safety margins being driven by bottom-line dollars. This is where community and political support comes into play.

Community assessment and support

I encourage you to make a significant investment of time with your city planning zoning development teams as well as developers. Understanding their interests is valuable. When these groups have a clear, concise and accurate understanding of your agency’s capabilities, they can make an informed and educated decision about their investment.

Specifically, those responsible for approving developments or capital projects need to have a clear understand of how these occupancies will affect entitlements to public services. The number of residential rooftops, apartments, or multi-family dwellings or business and industrial occupancies have significant impacts to existing and future service for all residents. This is a cause and effect of growth. They cannot continue to approve occupancies without approving fire stations, apparatus and personnel to serve them. To do so is capricious and shortsighted – and for the community and firefighters – potentially deadly.

Taking this a step further, your elected officials must also understand the consequence of response times, building construction, operational capabilities and limitation. The courage to say no to new development that cannot be supported by existing service entitlements takes a comprehensive and responsible approach to community safety.

The mission comes first

The mantra of the fire chief, operations chief and apparatus committee members should focus on concentration, distribution and reliability of the organization. This is the “what and how” of your department’s service to the community. The purchase of an apparatus should be intrinsically linked to one – if not all three – of these facets.

Meeting the needs of the community and supporting an operational doctrine that is results-driven is paramount. One of the most powerful resources that can be used to support the data and its correlation to community is utilizing one of the many predicative analytic tools available on the market. Predictive analytics makes use of statistics and modeling techniques to determine future performance based on current and historical data. One of the most appropriate considerations, with no shortage of opinions, is the type – and maybe brand – of the apparatus that the community needs.

Achieving internal support is critical as well. It’s important to note that apparatus assignments are developed within our organizations down to the station level. I support this esprit de corps, but the mission must come first. Those crews that believe their apparatus assignments supersede fireground operations are poor tacticians. The most valuable resource that arrives on scene are well-trained fire crews. The apparatus you arrived on simply ferried you and some equipment.

Units should be cross-trained and know how to operate all fireground assets. Siloing crews’ operational purview and authority is short-sighted and dangerous. Withholding proper application of tactics touting the mantra that “that is engine work” (or “truck work” or the “squad’s job”) is counterintuitive to the mission. The one-team/one-mission approach is better suited for fire agencies that pursue positive outcomes.

States of change

The final consideration for apparatus selection is the attention to organizational and community development. Now more than ever, communities are in states of change. Some communities are booming while others are shrinking – in size and services. Landmarking your current state and future reality becomes central to the conversation.

In both instances, fire service organizations will have their work cut out for them. On the one hand, some organizations we be aiming to justify and purchase an apparatus that has never been bought before. This not only requires city or community buy-in but also organizational support for the mission. The opposite is also true. If the organizational need and mission set has changed or is in transition, not buying or seeking an alternative apparatus selection is an equally challenging proposition.

The organizational needs must align with the expectations of the community as well as the mission. Not all agencies’ needs are the same. No two communities are the same. With all of the differences that can be illustrated, it becomes all the more important to ensure that apparatus selection is not haphazardly undertaken.

The bottom line

One thing is certain, if not unsettling, lightweight construction will continue to get lighter, faster, quicker, and not better for our members. Ensure you have the apparatus that works at these calls.

Kristopher T. Blume is the fire chief of the Meridian (Idaho) Fire Department. He previously served as a battalion chief with the Tucson (Arizona) Fire Department. With over two decades of fire service experience, Blume is an author, lecturer and independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program and is an instructor at the National Fire Academy. Blume is an alumnus of the University of Arizona and holds several undergraduate and graduate degrees.