Why driving apparatus into the junkyard isn't cost-effective

One fire chief explains the pros and cons of a replacement cycle and how it applies to departments large and small


This feature is part of our new Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to FireChief.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Summer 2016 issue, click here.

By Sarah Calams, FR1 Associate Editor

Because fire apparatus costs a pretty penny, fire departments — both great and small — struggle with maintaining a strict replacement cycle. Replacement decisions are based on department operating budgets and available funding. Departments often end up driving an apparatus until they no longer can, and end up buying a new one years later than expected.

Meet Chief John Bast
In Easton, Pennsylvania, Fire Chief John Bast understands the struggle all too well. The city of Easton is 4.5 square miles and has about 27,000 residents. The topography is very hilly and is located at the confluence of the Delaware River and Lehigh River. It is about 60 miles north of Philadelphia and about 60 miles west of New York City.

The Easton Fire Department, a career department, has 44 members, including the chief and deputy chief. Three platoons of 14 firefighters at three fire stations run three pumpers and an aerial and command truck every day. The department has two reserve pumpers, and if their ladder goes out of service they rely on mutual aid.

Bast, who has been with the department just under 27 years and served as chief for 10 years, has written plans that try to hold true to a replacement schedule, but the issue is the availability of money. Bast said, for the most part, city officials believed a fire pumper could last the department 30 years. He explained that this expectation doesn’t hold true anymore, due in part to all the electronics now included on an apparatus. 

“Years ago, they were analog. There were no computers on fire trucks; the electronics were very simple. It was mostly just lights,” he said. “Today, everything is switches, relays, LED lights, and we now have computers. We probably have more computers in our rigs than what they did to go to the moon.”

When the new city administrator and finance director came on board, Bast said it made sense to them that the department had to get on a schedule to replace their apparatuses. But other concerns quickly took priority, pushing the fire department purchases to the back of the line.

“It was discussed that every three to four years we would replace our pumpers and every 10 years we would replace our ladder trucks,” Bast said. “It seemed that’s the way it was going, but city administrators move on rather quickly … It seemed in no time that we were back to square one with, ‘You’ll drive it until it’s done, and then we’ll move on.’”

Repair or replace?
Some fire departments will keep an old apparatus because the price of a new engine is too much. But by the same token, maintenance and repair costs can eat up at least half the purchase price for replacement rigs — sometimes more.

For example, if you spend $100,000 on repairs and maintenance over the next five years to keep an apparatus in service, then you’ll be spending $20,000 each year, not to mention the costs of updating outdated equipment.

As a result, you may be better off spending $300,000 on a new apparatus that could last at least 20 years.

But every department’s needs and funding issues are unique.

Some smaller departments and most volunteer departments don’t have any other option than to drive an apparatus until they no longer can. The choice of buying new doesn’t exist due to an even smaller operating budget. As a result, they’re forced to repair existing units even though maintenance costs exceed potential replacement costs.

The Easton Fire Department developed a written plan for pumper and aerial truck replacement based upon a projected life span and fleet size. However, delayed funding over the years resulted in sporadic replacement.

Easton’s frontline includes 2012, 2004 and 1998 pumpers. They have two other reserve pumpers — another 1998 and a 1995.

“The 1998 pumper is really nickel-and-diming us. That one’s going to be replaced,” Bast said.

The department is getting a new rescue pumper next year, and the city is taking out a bond to pay for the truck, but a local college will be making the payment. Bast says he doesn’t know where the next truck will be coming from.

“You never know when public works is going to need something or there’s a major project that pops up,” he said. “Sometimes it’s our fault because we say we can make do. We say, ‘Oh, it’s fine. We can work with it. We won’t get the new pumper, and we can make that pumper last another year.’”

But one year, he said, the Easton fleet got so bad that they were able to purchase two pumpers at once. The problem with two brand-new pumpers is that the city expects those to last, but they end up falling apart around the same time.

“Then what do you do?” said Bast. “For the large departments, I would assume it’s easier to rotate stock, but for us it’s not.”

Bast added that even cities with more than 100,000 in population are in the same boat.

“Whether you’re 10,000 or 100,000 in population, it’s always tough to decide what the cities will spend their money on,” he said.

Safety first
In a perfect world with unlimited funds, Bast said he would have his pumpers replaced every three to four years.  

Apparatus life expectancy is based on the experience of the department, NFPA recommendations and the availability of repair parts from manufacturers.

NFPA 1901 recommends that apparatuses greater than 15 years old that have been properly maintained and that are still in serviceable condition be placed in reserved status. It also states that apparatuses that weren’t manufactured to the applicable NFPA fire apparatus standards or that are over 25 years old should be replaced.

Life expectancy is also based upon the vehicle’s age and not necessarily the years of service in the department, Bast said. Safety is a major concern, both for continued operation and resale value.

When Bast first started at the department, they had a brand-new 1990 tower ladder that cost just under a half a million dollars. When they sold it eight years ago, the department got $7,000 for it.

“Once you get to that 10-year mark, the resale value is scrap because no one wants to buy a pumper that old,” he said. “We didn’t want to take a chance of putting someone in the bucket if something were to happen.”

Timely and planned purchase of apparatus, Bast said, not only benefits a department but also increases the reliability of a fleet to meet the challenges of the community.

Regular replacement, he said, also allows for new technology, safety standards and methods to be efficiently incorporated into emergency operations.

“We want to be responsible to the taxpayers, but the most important thing is getting crews there safely,” Bast said. 

Sarah Calams is the associate editor of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief. In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delves deep into the people and issues that make up the fire service to bring insights and lessons learned to firefighters everywhere. She can be reached at Sarah.Calams@FireRescue1.com.

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