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Planning your apparatus fleet future: A 3-tier process of support

Successful management of long-term apparatus purchasing requires an all-hands approach at the fire department’s strategic, organizational and task levels


Successful management of long-term fire apparatus purchasing requires an all-hands leadership approach.

Photo/Michael Baker, TFD

The U.S. fire service is in the early stages of an emerging challenge – planning for the long-term purchase of fire apparatus fleets.

Several factors are impacting the ability to plan apparatus fleet purchases: price increases from 20 to 30%, manufacturing windows of 26 to 30 months, and organizational budgets that are unable to handle an unexpected increase in both time and money.

The unfortunate reality is that we are living in a volatile and complex post-pandemic world. The solution will ultimately depend on our ability to work together at every level of our organization.

Three levels of impact

Regardless of the size or type of the department, successful management of long-term fire apparatus purchasing requires an all-hands leadership approach. So, let’s start with a general refresher of organizational leadership levels – strategic, organizational and tasks – and how this impacts the purchasing process.

Strategic: The strategic level is occupied by the fire chief and command staff and has a more global/national/regional perspective. The primary mission of the group is to formulate strategy. This is where the adaptive challenges are addressed and the overall vision for solving problems is centered. Strategic team members will need to consider the political environment and ensure that the government officials who authorize and allocate the financial resources for apparatus purchases are aware of the challenges that are currently influencing the manufacture of vehicles. Conversely, the strategic group should be listening to those who have an insight into the health of municipal finances, emerging risks that impact a community’s ability to fund fire department projects so as to pursue options such as municipal bonds or lease plans. One word of caution for the members of the entire organization: Decision-making time at this top level is on a slower cycle. Be patient when attempting to get purchase approval.

Organizational: In the middle of our hierarchy, the organizational level is often known as the home of middle management and will include the direct supervisory staff, such as shift commanders, battalion chiefs and staff officers. This is the point where the strategic team’s vision for a long-term apparatus strategy will be communicated to other levels and placed into action. Data analysis, process monitoring and fleet management will be directed by the organizational level. Monitoring the use and condition of fire apparatus is an essential task of this group, as the department will need to get the most value out of the existing fleet when faced with tight finances and two-year manufacturing windows.

Tasks: The task unit is the frontline firefighting personnel working every day on the apparatus fleet. This is the location where taking care of fire apparatus is an essential portion of the duty shift. One of the most important aspects of the task unit’s work is to safely operate and ensure the readiness of fire apparatus. A damaged apparatus can disrupt the entire apparatus purchase strategy and have a cascading impact on other unit purchases. In addition to safe operations, vehicle problems must be addressed immediately, and issues communicated to the upper levels of the organization to ensure that the strategy is on track and that projected apparatus purchases are on track.

Now that we have looked at the roles associated with our organizations, let’s look at how the strategic-, organizational- and task-level components work together to form a long-term apparatus purchasing plan.

Building the purchasing plan

Every fire department organization has three components associated with the purchase of fire apparatus – finance, fleet management and fire operations. Navigating a rapidly changing fleet environment at its core requires planning. Involving each organizational element in the planning process is the best option for success.

Fleet replacement cycle: The essential first step is to develop the fleet replacement cycle. This is usually the number of service years that a piece of apparatus moves from a frontline to reserve or simply moved out of the fleet.

Determining this magic number is as unique as the fire apparatus themselves. Some departments chose a complex formula based on mileage, age and service history, while others may be able to simply replace apparatus at certain age. For example, seven years might work for a metropolitan department, but a smaller jurisdiction may have a 10-year replacement plan.

Once this number is identified, finance staff, fleet managers and fire operations can look toward a common goal for planning. Today’s challenge: How do you plan when the purchase components are so dynamic? The answer is that you simply must do the best you can and adjust as needed. Therefore, a collaborative approach with frequent communications at all levels is essential.

Data collection: Another critical element is data collection. Data on the mileage, pump hours and engine hours is readily available within most modern apparatus computer systems. Fleet management should be downloading this data frequently and reviewing the individual components for the goal of compiling a report of the results to all involved. Overall, strategic planning and purchase projections can be manipulated to remain on schedule. Additionally, emerging fleet technologies will make the planning process more informed and subsequently allow for accurate fleet awareness. Ensuring that your agency has a data guru who can convert the digits into a story is your best path forward.

Apparatus longevity: Vehicle safety is critical for effective fleet management. When finances are limited and timelines are extended, the loss of a vehicle to a preventable accident can cripple any size department. Additionally, daily pre-response checks are also important to ensure fleet longevity. Complacency in the realm of operations occurs when our personnel “believe” that all is well without verification. This is where both task- and organizational-level management play a role in ensuring our fleet stability. Firefighters are ultimately the closest to the fire apparatus, and their task-level work can help identify trends that are impacting the quality of the apparatus and the design elements that impact the work of a firefighter.

Communication: Bi-directional communication is easily facilitated through a department’s apparatus committee. This team, comprised of members from across all organizational levels, works to ensure that the fleet is meeting the needs of the department and that design changes are implemented with the sales representatives and manufacturer. Ultimately, it is the focus and communication that is achieved through a shared team that benefits the department in its fleet management planning.

Putting it all together

These broader concepts outlined above are intended to create awareness related to the situation we all face with fire apparatus. Once a firefighter recognizes a problem, or success, at the task level and communicates it upward to benefit a department’s overall fleet, the long-term fleet management program improves.

Our fleet is essential to achieve life-saving work, and it takes every member of a department to be involved in their operation, planning and purchasing. This is the reason that conversations are occurring at all levels of the fire service, our existing fleet replacement plans are under constant change, and we are working in a volatile system that we cannot control.

To be successful, we must be strategic in our planning, adherent to processes and listening to our firefighters at the task level. It may seem an illogical approach to long-term apparatus replacement, but until we get these fundamentals in place, we will not be successful in communicating our need, planning for a purchase, and anticipating lengthy delays. Simple situational awareness will help us handle the monumental challenge we face today and tomorrow.

Michael Baker is the fire chief for the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, leading a department of 725 members and 30 fire station locations. A 26-year veteran of the Tulsa Fire Department, Chief Baker held previous roles as chief of EMS, public information officer and fire captain. Baker holds a master’s degree in security studies (homeland security) from the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, and a bachelor’s degree in university studies (political science, sociology and emergency management) from Oklahoma State University. Chief Baker was selected as a 2016 EMS 10 award recipient for EMS Innovation by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.