The Apparatus Architect: Part 16

Tom Shand and Michael Wilbur continue their discussion on designing ladder company apparatus.


With this installment in The Apparatus Architect series we will return to our discussion on the design and use of aerial ladder apparatus. We have previously reviewed a brief history of aerial ladder apparatus and how the operational characteristics of ladder trucks have evolved since the 1930's. Since that time, aerial ladder design has been most influenced by a combination of electronic technology and the influence of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire apparatus standards. How your fire department will apply this technology and make it work for your benefit is where we want to start.

Before making any decision to purchase a new piece of aerial equipment or upgrade your present apparatus, you want to make sure that your truck committee has "defined the job" of the proposed new rig. While this might sound like a simple, mundane task to complete, you will not believe the everyday horror stories from fire departments that acquired new ladder trucks without covering all of the bases. Consider if you will that the normal life expectancy for aerial ladder trucks is 15 to 20 years. However, in many departments the ladder truck is the oldest rig in the fleet. Because of many factors, not the least of which is the high cost of new aerial apparatus, ladder trucks may often approach 25 to 30 years of front-line service. This is certainly where making a short-term decision will have a long-term impact on the ability of the fire department to effectively deploy and operate its ladder company apparatus.

The first step in this process is to carefully look at and evaluate your department's first-due area. What type of buildings do you protect, what is the height and setback of these structures and most important where would you position the ladder truck to use it during offensive operations? Do you have significant grades or slopes that could limit the use of the aerial device? These are just some of the questions that you need to ask before you begin to design your new ladder truck. If your department currently operates a truck company, go back and review the past two to three years' worth of run reports to see how you have used the truck in the past. These reports can also give you great insight as to what tools and ground ladders you have used most frequently. The answers to these questions will assist you in determining what your real needs may be, not just what you think your department may want.

Here is a real-life example of what can happen when you do not review and analyze the needs of your district and instead buy on impulse. A fire department outside New York City operated a single-axle ladder truck that was equipped with a full complement of hand tools and ground ladders. Since the truck was purchased back in the mid-1980s, the district had become more built up with a large shopping mall and numerous garden apartment complexes. As the present truck had only a 75-foot aerial ladder the truck committee felt that a longer device was necessary. As a result the department acquired a tandem-axle 95-foot mid-mount tower ladder quint complete with a 10-person cab. Once the new tower was placed in service, the firefighters discovered that the new truck would not fit into some of the apartment complexes that the old truck would. Also, while they gained 20 feet of operating height with the aerial device, the new truck carried fewer ground ladders and was so large that many of the members refused to drive it.

Sounds crazy, that we would pay over $750,000 for a new ladder truck only to find out that it really does less than the rig you were replacing! This is why it is so important that your truck committee do their homework, with the assistance of an apparatus architect before you begin to decide what type of ladder truck that you are going to purchase for your department.

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