Part 46: How Do You Justify a New Apparatus During These Tight Economic Times?
The fire chief and his deputies had just returned to the station after attending a budget hearing with the town council. The chief was discouraged, as he learned for the third year in a row that his request for funding to replace a 24-year-old pumper had been denied. While the chief thought that this year the department would finally receive council approval for the $450,000 expenditure for the new engine, he came away disheartened and upset with the budget-approval process.
The chief compared the fire department's plight to the police and highway departments by stating, "Surely, police officers are not riding around in cars that are 24 years old and I know that the highway department just received two new snowplows last year. You councilmen are playing with public safety here and you should approve the department's request for this new pumper."
Unfortunately, the fire chief did not succeed with his case and the department was told to resubmit its request during next year's budget cycle. This account is playing out in many communities across the country and we as fire service managers need to be prepared to state and sell our program to the politicians and outsiders who control the financial resources in our municipalities.
The past few years have presented some of the most difficult economic challenges for the country since the Great Depression. Municipal governments are struggling to provide services in all areas as their income has decreased. Real estate transfer taxes, sales tax receipts and other funding streams have decreased to the point where for the first time in years, many municipalities must consider reducing the level of services, including closing libraries and schools and laying off some municipal employees.
Looking at the Numbers
It should come as no surprise that fire departments would be included in an analysis of government services that would come under review for possible budget reductions, particularly with respect to capital purchases for fire apparatus. In many places, the cost of a new engine apparatus or ladder truck would most likely be the most expensive piece of rolling stock that would be acquired by a municipality. Simply stating that "we need a new pumper right now" will not satisfy those in charge of approving large capital cost equipment, especially when the total amount of the purchase will impact the budget in a single year.
Any fire department, regardless of the size of its apparatus fleet, should have a well-developed fleet replacement plan for all units. This plan should encompass a number of aspects, including initial vehicle cost, maintenance, fuel and insurance costs, vehicle usage, mileage, age and condition as well as compatibility with recent safety enhancements. Using this data, the department should be able to develop a profile of actual vehicle cost per run or per mile to determine the cost effectiveness of each unit in the fleet.
There are several fleet-management software packages that provide different modules that can produce the information needed to assist department personnel with quantifying vehicle performance and life-cycle costing. This data can then be used to determine the appropriate time frame for apparatus replacement for each unit in the fleet. This program then needs to be reviewed and approved by whoever controls the financial resources in the community. In this manner, there should be no surprises when funding is requested for new or replacement apparatus during the budget process.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in the 1901 Automotive Fire Apparatus Standard, provides excellent information in Annex D with respect to replacement-cycle recommendations for apparatus. In part, it states: "It is recommended that apparatus greater than 15 years old that have been properly maintained and that are still in serviceable condition be placed in reserve status and upgraded in accordance with NFPA 1912." Since 1991, the NFPA 1901 standard has been revised six different, times including the current edition, which was adopted in January 2009. Apparatus older than a 1991 model lacks a number of significant safety enhancements, including four-door cabs, non-slip step surfaces, slow-close pump intake and discharge valves, improved emergency warning lighting and many more items.
Perhaps your community in the past has historically acquired new apparatus through an outright purchase and has encumbered the entire cost of the new unit upon delivery and acceptance. While this has been the traditional method for many jurisdictions, one alternative is to investigate the use of a municipal lease, in which the cost of the new apparatus can be spread over several years with a smaller annual impact to the overall budget. Use of a lease purchase or other alternative funding strategies may let the department acquire apparatus when called for in a fleet-replacement program as opposed to going to bat for a larger single capital expense. As many communities are investigating methods of providing services to their residents without increasing the tax rate, we in the fire service must begin to think "outside the box" for alternative methods to provide the needed apparatus and equipment resources to ensure the safety of our personnel and those that we serve.
It is unfortunate that at the same time we are called on to do more with less, the overall cost of fire apparatus has increased dramatically over the past four years. The impact of two major changes in diesel engine technology as a result of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that took effect in 2007 and 2010 caused all builders of both commercial and custom fire chassis to make major engineering investments to redesign cabs and electrical systems to accept the new engines. Also, during the past two years, there was a dramatic spike in the cost of metals and raw materials, which also impact the entire fire apparatus industry. Both of these situations, together with more moderate cost increases due to the most recent NFPA 1901 requirements, have all had an impact on the cost of new apparatus. All of this has been beyond the control of local fire departments, which now must increase their budget requests to account for these technological advances.
Some departments may be in a position where although they require a new replacement apparatus, there is simply no available source of funding to meet that need. For departments in this situation, there are several alternatives to consider, including the rebuilding of a newer apparatus to extend its life cycle. The NFPA 1912 Standard for Fire Apparatus Refurbishing contains valuable information and a specification guide in Annex B of the standard to assist a department through the rebuilding process. In addition, the department may wish to gain the advice and experience of an apparatus architect to properly assess the apparatus to ensure that the needs of the department are being met with a rebuilding project.
An apparatus that was built after 1991 and has a four-door cab and a mechanically solid drive train, fire pump and body work may be a candidate to be rebuilt. However, if the apparatus has already been substantially rehabbed, a full frame-up rehab would cost 50% of the cost of a new apparatus or if the manufacturer that built the apparatus is no longer in business, the apparatus probably would not be a good candidate for a rebuild. This is why maintenance and testing reports are vital to properly assess the apparatus for a rebuilding project.
Another alternative may be to look to acquire a newer used apparatus that is in good condition or could be rebuilt to enhance safety components while extending its useful life cycle. With the cost of a new aerial apparatus approaching $1 million, the acquisition of a used aerial ladder or platform apparatus may provide the needed apparatus for a smaller community at a fraction of the cost of a new unit.
It is important to review the maintenance and testing records of any used piece of apparatus, including pumper service testing and a current aerial testing certification, to ensure the basic condition and safety of the vehicle. Once again, a department may wish to consider gaining the expertise of an independent outside consultant to evaluate the prospective apparatus prior to making any financial commitment to acquire the unit.
While the current financial conditions may be with us for some time, there are some practical things that fire departments can do to ensure that we have the appropriate tools and documentation to justify our apparatus and equipment needs. Following the Boy Scout motto of "Be Prepared" is appropriate when planning for major capital expenditures in any area and especially where public safety is concerned.
TOM SHAND, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 36-year veteran of the fire service and works with Michael Wilbur at Emergency Vehicle Response, consulting on a variety of fire apparatus and fire department master-planning issues.
MICHAEL WILBUR, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information, access his website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.