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Pros and cons of tractor-drawn aerials

Decades ago tillers fell out of favor with the fire service, now they are making a comeback — but are they the right aerials?

When it comes to aerial fire apparatus, opinions run strong and deep. For many firefighters, especially those in our larger cities, the prototypical truck company arrived at the fire scene aboard a tractor-drawn aerial (TDA) — the driver and tillerman exploiting the smallest opening to masterfully position the vehicle in front of the fire building.

The 1980s and 1990s, however, saw a dramatic decline in the number of new TDAs sold in the United States. Some of the factors for this decline cited by apparatus manufacturers include: cost of TDAs compared to other aerial apparatus; reductions in truck company staffing due to departmental budget cuts; and the introduction of all-wheel steering for non-articulating aerial apparatus — tower ladders and platforms.

The last decade has seen a resurgence of the TDA as more departments have come to miss the positive aspects they bring to emergency operations, especially those departments that provide service in localities with challenges such as:

  • Older, narrow streets;
  • Maze-like apartment complexes and office campuses; and
  • Single-family dwelling subdivisions (where every street seems to end in a cul-de-sac).

Increased maneuverability is one advantage that a TDA can bring to a department. The tractors being used for today’s TDA have shorter wheelbases than their predecessors that have further decreased the already impressive turning radius of earlier TDA.

Then there’s the fact that with a driver and a tiller operator you have two of everything — sets of eyes, pairs of hands, and brains — working as a team to get the job done.

The trailer of a TDA can accommodate a greater number of ground ladders with more variety than the typical non-articulating aerial apparatus. And, today’s TDA have storage compartment capacities that range between 500 to 650 cubic feet of space on the trailer and 40 to 60 cubic feet on the tractor.

Disadvantages of TDAs

TDAs do not come without potential drawbacks. The need for a third firefighter to operate the tiller might be considered a negative factor by those departments facing staffing shortages.

The third firefighter staffing the tiller position may have his or her personal protective clothing on while en route to the alarm. But, there will still be a time lapse before they are fully equipped to participate in emergency operations.

Both the initial training for drivers and tiller operators alike to develop initial competencies, along with the necessary continuing training to maintain those competencies, can be a stress to departmental resources. This can be a particularly challenging aspect for smaller departments and those departments that move personnel around to fill staffing vacancies.

The Seattle and Raleigh Fire Departments made a 17-minute safety training video for tiller operations. Seattle is frequently cited as having one of the best TDA training programs in the United States.

Then there is the cost. TDAs are more expensive when compared with non-articulating aerial apparatus.

“I don’t think you can get one [today] for less than $950,000. But almost certainly you will spend $1 million plus,” according to Byron Brooks, vice president for apparatus sales at Bulldog Fire & Emergency Apparatus.

What’s new

Some of the newer features of TDAs being touted by apparatus manufacturers include:

  • Improved fifth-wheel articulating design that provides short turning radius and high maneuverability;
  • Improved trailer steering to allow the tiller driver to better negotiate tight corners and congested streets;
  • Availability of fire pump and water tank options (The Gladwyne Fire Company of Lower Marion Township, Pa., operates a TDA with a 2,000 gpm pump, 1,000 feet of LDH, two 1 ¾-inch pre-connected attack lines (400 feet each), and a 350-gallon polypropylene water tank);
  • Ladders with wider steps and high handrails;
  • Tractors with improved visibility for the driver;
  • Pre-piped telescopic water system with remote controlled master stream devices for quick master stream operations;
  • Modular body designs that enable fast repair and reduced downtime;
  • Compartment design options so that both the tractor and the trailer can be custom tailored to specific needs;
  • Out-and-down outriggers that provide flexible placement and improved short-jacking capability;
  • Increased below-grade operating capability — some TDAs can operate 5 percent below grade for water or ice rescue situations; and
  • Available tip load capacity ranging from 250, 500 and 750 pounds.

Tractor-drawn aerial apparatus may not be the right choice for every department, but the TDA is once again becoming a viable apparatus option for those localities where the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Man, if you have the staffing for a tractor-drawn, by all means go for it. They are especially good if you have a lot of garden-style apartments and tight turns in your area,” wrote one firefighter on an online forum about aerials. “Highly maneuverable and just plain easier to work from. Forget the mess with those oversized tower ladders and skylifts. A Tractor Drawn would be my only choice.”

Spoken like a true truckie, no?

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.