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When is a fire truck not a fire truck?

Specialty-use vehicles can slip across the line of not being classified as emergency vehicles; here’s what to know about these units


We recently received an email at FireRescue1 from a reader who was concerned about his fire department’s rehab vehicle not being classified as a fire truck by their state’s regulatory agency. This got us to ponder the question: When is a fire department vehicle not a fire truck?

Most fire departments operate vehicles that go beyond pumping apparatus and aerial apparatus as they deliver emergency and non-emergency services to their communities. Those vehicles include, but are not limited to, mobile command vehicles, hazardous materials response units, adjunct EMS units (not ambulances), and the aforementioned firefighter rehabilitation unit.

So what qualifies those types of units to be classified as fire apparatus? Certainly a pertinent question, given our litigious times and the necessity for fire departments to properly manage risks to the organization.

So let’s take a look at what you and your department can do to ensure that the vehicles you’re operating as fire apparatus truly meet objective criteria for being considered fire apparatus.

Anytime we’re discussing fire department requirements, the first question has to be, what’s the applicable NFPA standard? Remember, NFPA standards are consensus standards that have been developed through an intensive and recognized development process that, depending on the topic, includes end users, technical experts, manufacturers, regulatory agencies, agencies affected by a standard, researchers, labor organizations, the insurance industry and consumers.

NFPA 1901: Standard for Motorized Fire Apparatus specifies the requirements for special service fire apparatus in chapter 10. Here are four key requirements.

  • A minimum of 120 cubic feet of enclosed weather-resistant compartmentation meeting the requirements of Section 15.1 shall be provided for the storage of equipment. (Section 10.3)
  • If the apparatus is designed to carry ground ladders or has a pump, the contractor shall … provide and install such brackets or compartments as necessary to mount the equipment. (Section 10.4)
  • If fire department ground ladders are carried on the apparatus, they shall meet the requirements of NFPA 1931. (Section
  • Stepladders and other types of multi-purpose ladders shall be permitted to be carried provided they meet either ANSI A14.2 or ANSI A14.5 with duty ratings of Type 1A or 1AA.

Laundry list
The standard goes on to provide a listing of additional required minor equipment in Section 10.5. This equipment must be mounted on the special fire apparatus before it is placed in service. It also says that brackets or compartments shall be furnished so as to organize and mount the specified equipment. Those items include:

  • Two portable hand lights.
  • One approved dry chemical portable fire extinguisher with a minimum 80-B:C rating.
  • One 2½-gallon or larger water fire extinguisher.
  • One SCBA unit that complies with NFPA 1981 for each of the assigned seating positions, but not fewer than two, mounted in brackets fastened to the apparatus or stored in containers provided by the SCBA manufacturer.
  • One spare SCBA cylinder for each SCBA carried, each mounted in a bracket fastened to the apparatus or stored in a specially designed storage space(s).
  • One first aid kit.
  • Two or more wheel chocks, mounted in readily accessible locations, that together will hold the apparatus, when loaded to its GVWR or GCWR, on a hard surface with a 20 percent grade with the transmission in neutral and the parking brake released.
  • One traffic vest for each seating position. Each vest must comply with ANSI/ISEA 207 and have a five-point breakaway feature that includes two at the shoulders, two at the sides and one at the front.
  • Five fluorescent orange traffic cones not less than 28 inches tall, each equipped with a 6-inch reflective white band no more than 4 inches from the top of the cone, and an additional 4-inch reflective white band 2 inches below the 6-inch band.
  • Five illuminated warning devices such as highway flares, unless the five fluorescent orange traffic cones have illuminating capabilities.
  • One automatic external defibrillator.

When I first read Chapter 10 of NFPA 1901, I was taken back a bit by the above equipment list — as I’m sure that many of you are. However, consider this: What do people expect when a vehicle shows up at their emergency that has the name of your fire department on it?

My guess is that their expectation is that it — and the personnel aboard — are there to start fixing their problem.

State requirements
Before your department commits to the time, money and effort necessary to add such a vehicle, make sure that everyone in the department understands what will be required to add a piece of special service fire apparatus per NFPA 1901.

It may be true that your department has not formally adopted the use of NFPA standards, however, that’s not a likely shield against future liability. In the course of a lawsuit, a plaintiff’s attorney will provide the applicable NFPA standard to the court showing that there was a consensus standard for the fire service that was not followed by the defendant department.

Make sure to consult your department’s insurance carrier to obtain their input concerning what type of coverage they can provide for the vehicle regardless of whether it will be classified as special service fire apparatus or not. The time to discover the vehicle does not have the proper coverage is not after the fact.

Each state is responsible for the licensing and regulation of all vehicles, including emergency-response vehicles. Do your homework beforehand with your state’s department of transportation to ensure that you clearly understand their requirements for the vehicle.

Finally, consult with the authority having jurisdiction for fire service rules and regulations in your state to understand what the applicable requirements are for special use vehicles. This is another task that should be completed before you get down to the details of procuring and outfitting a special-use vehicle for your department.

An often-heard refrain these days is, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Planning and preparation on your department’s part can go a long way toward the smooth acquisition and introduction of a special use vehicle into your department.

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.