How to Keep Fire Apparatus Buying Simple
Common vendors and dedicated replacement funding go a long way to ease fire truck buying
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 Frank R. Myers
If you work for a department that purchases apparatus on a recurring basis, keeping the process simple and consistent can pay off in the long run. This approach offers more than financial benefits. One additional advantage is the familiarity the emergency responders and maintenance personnel will have with the new purchases. And established contacts can be maintained with apparatus vendors and parts suppliers. In short, the objective is to not reinvent the wheel.
The specification process can be long and arduous. If you have a well-designed, functioning apparatus in service, using it as a template for future acquisitions can save substantial time in the planning and pre-fabrication process. It may even help speed up fabrication.
It is inevitable that fire apparatus will break or wear out — replacement is a fact of life. With that in mind, apparatus purchases need to be a recurring expense in the fire department budget. You cannot wait until the municipality’s bond rating increases to have extra funds available when trucks are already beyond their service life. Money must be set aside out of each budget for future purchases.
Yet the process of determining service life and how much money to set aside can be difficult. Much of it depends on the amount of run load you have, or how busy the department is. Are you looking at rigs to handle light, medium, heavy or severe service? Many factors influence this, such as time in traffic, road conditions, mileage, time spent idling, routine maintenance and accidents.
At my previous department, the ideal service life for our apparatus was three to five years for rescue trucks (advanced life support transport with firefighters and gear), five to seven years for pumpers and seven to 10 years for our aerial apparatus.
Unfortunately, this replacement schedule was hard to maintain due to budgeting, cutbacks, politics and other unforeseen factors. My former department had approximately 100,000 alarms per year in a 20-square-mile area with 14 stations and about 600 firefighters. We were what I consider severe service.
At one point we were driving rescue trucks that were 10 years old, pumpers that were 15 years old, and aerial and quint apparatus that were around 20 years old. During that time, we had rescue apparatus from three vendors and parts for four to five different types of engine manufacturers. In some cases, parts were no longer available or we had to wait until they were fabricated. Breakdowns were constant because we had to deal with an aging fleet and loss of funds due to the recession. In the long run, it costs more to maintain an old fleet than it does to pay for new, newer or leased trucks.
Preventive maintenance in that department was a challenge because of a shortage of mechanics. Just when our shop would get around to doing preventive maintenance, the mechanic would be taken away from that truck to work on another vehicle that needed immediate repair due to a breakdown. These times hopefully are past us. Since then, my former department has purchased many new apparatuses and hired more mechanics.
Sometimes it is hard to get away from technology and its associated added expense when purchasing new apparatus due to NFPA 1901 requirements. However, for the most part, keeping the same trucks, vendors, dealerships and parts suppliers will pay off.
But loyalty to vendors must be in the fire department’s best interest. There are times when these relationships take a turn for the worse and departments must change manufacturers. If you are not satisfied with the service you are getting, there is nothing like entertaining another vendor. This will get a response from your current manufacturer to improve. If a vendor wants to keep you as a client, they should be more than willing to accommodate you, especially when you are purchasing a fleet of apparatuses.
If you decide to get those extra items not required by NFPA, such as all-wheel steering, suspension upgrades, electronic collision detection and avoidance systems, etc., make sure the tradeoffs are worth it. With these items come more maintenance and possibly more problems due to the complexity of their functions and cost of parts, especially when maintaining a fleet. If yours is a smaller department that has fewer purchases to make, these may be realistic options for you.
One expensive feature our department experienced was the NFPA requirement of remotely operated mirrors with controls in the cab. We had always used the old method of fixed mirrors on brackets that were adjustable by hand or by loosening and tightening the fastening hardware. We would replace these mirrors on a regular basis due to them cracking or breaking. This would occur from hitting objects like tree branches or clipping other commercial vehicles with mirrors at the same height as our trucks. With the remotely operated mirrors, the expense for the parts shot up exponentially, as did the time it took to replace them.
Another consideration when changing manufacturers is the additional training required both for the emergency response and maintenance personnel. This can be streamlined if you remain with the same or similar specified apparatus as purchased in the past.
Basically, try to keep it as simple as possible. It will pay off in the long run.
Frank R. Myers is a retired lieutenant with the Miami Fire Rescue, where he served for 32 years. Before his retirement, he served at the training center for six years as the driver engineer instructor. He now works as a consultant for PSTrax.com, a technology service that helps fire departments automate their apparatus, equipment and inventory checks.