Considering the ‘new normal’ for fire apparatus
With financial woes striking, how will fire departments need to adapt for continued service delivery?
As I write this, we're only a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are many unknowns concerning what the post-coronavirus world is going to look like in the United States. One certainty is that there is going to be a whole lot of “new normal” discussions – and the fire service will not be immune.
The budgets at the federal, state and local levels of government are being decimated, and many politicians and economists don't believe we've hit bottom yet.
With this in mind, let’s explore what some “new normals” might look like for fire departments when it comes to fire apparatus.
Consider the finances
First, a quick fiscal primer for those who don't manage a fire department budget. The cost of personnel – wages, benefits and workers’ compensation insurance – accounts for 80-90% of a typical fire department’s budget. It can even be as high as 95% in some departments.
For example, if a fire department's overall budget amount is $1 million, and 85% of the budget goes to personnel costs ($850,000), that leaves $150,000 to pay for everything else for the next 12 months – things like training, utilities for the fire stations, fuel and maintenance costs for fire apparatus, and much more.
If the fire chief is directed to reduce the budget by 20%, that's going to leave $680,000 for personnel and $120,000 for everything else. Think it can't happen? Think again.
The reality is that fire departments are going to get smaller, staffing-wise, through layoffs and furloughs, and they're likely never going to return to where they were on Feb. 1, 2020.
How safe, effective and efficient are smaller staffing levels going to be with your department's current fire apparatus? In the coming years, what impact is the continued operation of your current fire apparatus going to have on your diminished operating budget?
Fire apparatus costs
Fire apparatus has become an awfully expensive means of transporting personnel and equipment.
What’s been the biggest improvement in fire apparatus in the past 20 years? If you answered “the crew cab,” which for current fire apparatus accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of the total truck, you’d be spot on. The initial investment in a Type I engine today is anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000. And aerial apparatus is $800,000 to $1 million or more.
How many fire departments will be able to justify such an expense for an engine when most of the fires in the locality are being extinguished with 100 gallons of water or less?
Apparatus fire suppression options
Military leaders are frequently accused of fighting the last/previous war rather than employing the most current strategies, tactics and technologies. They continue to “go with what they know.”
It's my belief that many fire service leaders continue to “fight the last war” because, to date, many of them haven’t taken advantage of two widely available fire suppression technologies: compressed-air foam systems (CAFS) and ultra-high-pressure (UHP) pumps. Both are cost-effective technologies that serve as force-multipliers – that’s a fancy way of saying they make a small firefighter staff fight fire like a big staff.
Both CAFS and UHP pumps can give a fire department the means to reduce fire apparatus size without sacrificing fire suppression power. Yet the fire suppression capabilities of most pumping fire apparatus is still 18th-century technology that relies on plain water to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
When combined with today's more powerful diesel-powered light truck chassis, either of these technologies can create a very nimble and powerful piece of fire apparatus – the quick response vehicle (QRV). Will it look like today's fire apparatus (a Type 1 engine)? No, probably not.
Initial-attack requirements and apparatus size
Let’s now look at the specifications for initial-attack fire apparatus, as described in NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus.
Initial-attack fire apparatus must have the capabilities for firefighters to quickly initiate a fire suppression attack on structural, vehicular or vegetation fires, and to support associated fire department operations. At a minimum such fire apparatus must be equipped with:
- A fire pump of at least 250 gpm (1000 L/m) pumping capacity.
- A water tank with a capacity of 200 gallons (750 L). Now is a good time to remember that CAFS has a 20:1 expansion ratio. So, a CAFS with this 200-gallon tank could provide 4,000 gallons of finished foam.
- A minimum of 22 cubic feet (0.62 cubic meters) of enclosed water-resistant compartmentation for the storage of equipment.
- Hose storage bed areas, compartments or reels to accommodate a minimum storage area of 10 cubic meters for 2½-inch (65 mm) or larger hose, and two areas, each a minimum of 3½-cubic feet (0.1 cubic meters), to accommodate 1½-inch (38 mm) or larger preconnected hoselines.
- Ground ladders: (1) 12-foot extension ladder or combination ladder.
- Suction hose or supply hose. A minimum of 20 feet (6 m) of suction hose or 15 feet (4.5 m) of supply hose. (If suction hose is supplied, a suction strainer must also be carried).
European fire apparatus apparently don’t play well in the United States, but when viewed from an effectiveness and efficiency perspective, it’s hard to argue the merits of fire apparatus from the Compact Line (CL) at Rosenbauer (World).
CAFS and UHP pumps are options that give a small vehicle big vehicle performance, along with plenty of compartment space and ergonomically designed interior and exterior storage.
An example of a hybrid pumper is the Timberwolf from Rosenbauer. With a 1,000-gpm multi-stage pump and a 750-gallon water tank, it is designed to meet the NFPA 1901 requirements as both a Type-1 engine and Type-3 wildland firefighting vehicle.
Here's another aspect to think about when considering smaller apparatus. Today many fire departments are struggling with how to transport contaminated PPE back to the fire station after structural firefighting operations are completed. Can't carry it in the crew cab, and the remaining compartments are already stuffed with other equipment, right? So, what’s the possible solution?
Anyone remember the “engine and wagon combinations” that operated in big-city departments more than a half-century ago? In the earliest meanings of engine and wagon, the wagon carried the hose and appliances, and the engine had nothing but the pump and perhaps hard suction or a soft sleeve. The engine went to the water source, and the wagon laid out from the fire to the engine.
What about a “QRV and van combo”? Or a QRV and utility body truck combo, like the Squad 51 truck that Johnny and Roy staffed in the 1970’s TV show “Emergency!”? You could have two firefighters on the QRV and two on the van or utility truck. You’d have the equipment-carrying capability in the van or utility truck to replace that lost by switching from a NIMS Type 1 engine to the combo. And you would be able to create segregated space on the van or utility trucks for transporting your contaminated PPE back to the station.
Now I'm enough of a realist to know that no fire department can make monumental changes like replacing the fire apparatus in the current fleet with smaller and less expensive apparatus, now or even in the next year or two.
And if there’s one thing we know from fire department history, it’s that every advancement in fire apparatus technology has been met with resistance from firefighters. Change is difficult, but the realities of fewer firefighters and less money in a department's operating budget cannot be ignored for long.
The coming times are going to require innovative thinking and courage from fire service leaders. And I don't use the word courage lightly because the fire chief who thinks like this is going to face big push back from their firefighters and unions as they all struggle with the “new normal.”