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Second-life fire trucks: Know the risks

Repurposing rigs for fire-service duty can be a great cost savings, but they require great care to make sure they are safe for firefighting


Many fire departments, large and small, are trying to make the most of their fire apparatus purchasing dollars through the acquisition of surplus vehicles.

Those vehicles can come from a variety of sources in both the public and private sectors. Some of the more popular streams are found with state and federal surplus vehicle disposal agencies.

These programs, like the Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services and State Agencies for Surplus Property, or the Department of Defense Firefighter Property Program, can be a source for good quality fire apparatus (once it’s been refurbished a bit) or vehicles that can be converted into fire apparatus. The former typically come from a Department of Defense fire department while the latter may be coming from a previous life as a fuel truck or troop carrier.

When opting for those vehicles that are making a career change from non-firefighting status to firefighting status, one thing must be understood from the start. Any vehicle that’s modified from its original designed use must be done with great care and attention to detail. Those modifications should also follow the new manufacturer’s recommendations, which in the case of fire apparatus would be NFPA 1901.

Inherent risk

The U.S. Fire Administration has for many years been reporting that while the total number of vehicles repurposed as fire apparatus is small, they are involved in a large number of crashes. Most of those crashes involved surplus vehicle that were tankers converted into tenders and then overloaded with water.

A December 2010 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report, “Preventing Death and Injuries of Fire Fighters Operating Modified Excess/Surplus Vehicles,” detailed two case studies of repurposed military vehicles involved in crashes.

The authors highlighted several issues about these types of vehicles that can create an increased level of risk if not properly addressed. Of those risks they identified, six stood out.

  • Lack of or failure to use seatbelts and other protection equipment like airbags.
  • Inadequate initial and on-going maintenance.
  • Exceeding the vehicle’s gross vehicle weight.
  • Using tankers for hauling water without proper tank baffling.
  • Unsafe riding locations.
  • Inappropriate vehicle modifications.

Regulatory guidance

With this in mind, there are ways to minimize the risks that come with repurposing surplus vehicles as fire apparatus. The first place to look is the body of existing standards. In addition to NFPA 1901, three other applicable standards provide guidance.

  • NFPA 1911: Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus.
  • NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program.
  • NFPA 1071: Standard for Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications.

Some of the key provisions for repurposed vehicles contained in those standards call for no vehicle being put into operations without a minimum of lap and shoulder belt combination that’s properly installed and meets the current standards of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

They also call for developing a standard operating guideline for each repurposed vehicle that includes when the vehicle should and shouldn’t be used. There should also be criteria in place for determining when a vehicle is mechanically deficient or unsafe, and what actions to take.

The standards say that all vehicle operators should be given the proper initial training to ensure that they understand the handling characteristics of these different types of vehicles, and continuing refresher training to maintain skills proficiency.

4 areas of focus

Departments looking to repurpose a surplus vehicle as fire apparatus should make sure the personnel working on the vehicle are well-versed in the applicable provisions of NFPA 1901. There are four key areas here.

The first is ensuring that the weight of a fully loaded vehicle does not exceed the GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating). This is especially important when using military fuel trucks as tenders, since water weighs 8.33 pounds per gallon, approximately 20 percent more than certain fuel types.

Second, the weight of additional firefighting equipment should also be monitored, as this added weight may increase total vehicle weight in excess of the GVWR. Since wildland firefighting apparatus may see severe off-road use, the cross-country GVWR should be considered the maximum if specified.

The third is ensuring that water tanks on tenders are properly baffled to safely transport water. Tanks found on fuel delivery trucks generally lack the appropriate baffles.

And finally, they must ensure that a tender’s center of gravity has not been raised higher than when originally manufactured. A low center of gravity contributes to improved vehicle stability.

Old is old

A repurposed 15-year-old vehicle has already had one life, and not even the best refurbishing process can negate that fact. It’s still a 15-year-old vehicle. Spend the time and money up front to get the vehicle into its best possible condition before it goes in service.

Joe Pettit is the shop foreman for Memphis Equipment Company, a major military surplus vehicle refurbishment company located in Memphis.

“We’ll spend anywhere from 120 to 200 [labor] hours going over all the major systems of the truck beginning with the running gear (motor, transmission, drivetrain, etc.),” he said. “We replace all the hoses and belts, basically anything that can wear out on the truck.

“We give a lot of attention to the braking system and the truck’s suspension system because we know that when a truck goes to a fire department it has to be ready to work hard from day one.”

Pettit recommends that any department putting a surplus vehicle into service as fire apparatus do so through a professional service. That service should meet the provisions of NFPA 1901 for the vehicle’s major mechanical and electrical systems before placing the apparatus in service.

It should also implement a maintenance program following NFPA 1911 (Annex C). And it should make sure the vehicle is properly inspected, tested and repaired by a certified emergency vehicle technician following the provisions of NFPA 1911, NFPA 1500 and NFPA 1071.

Buying a surplus vehicle can result in significant initial cost savings for a department. Yet, those departments should be ready to do the necessary preparatory work before placing the apparatus into service.

Because a vehicle unfit for duty, at any price, is no bargain.

This article, originally published Aug. 13, 2015, has been updated

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.