Apparatus Innovations

Many factors have affected the evolution of fire apparatus. The development of diesel engines led to larger, more powerful vehicles. Civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in enclosed cabs. Legislation and standards have brought about design and mechanical changes such as dual rear axles...


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Many factors have affected the evolution of fire apparatus. The development of diesel engines led to larger, more powerful vehicles. Civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in enclosed cabs. Legislation and standards have brought about design and mechanical changes such as dual rear axles, seated and belted riding positions and anti-lock brake systems.

Staffing shortages have forced the use of technological advances to compensate for lack of firefighters. Career fire departments are being pressed to cut budgets. Even volunteer departments today experience staffing shortages; many members work out of town and recruitment of new members is an ongoing problem.

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Photo by Charles Madderom
A highly maneuverable tractor trailer quint built by LTI on a Duplex chassis for Huntington Beach, CA

Perhaps the most visible change today is in apparatus color. What has actually happened, though, is that most of the fire departments that went to other colors have returned to traditional red or, now more common, white-over-red with white reflective stripes.

There are many reasons for the return to traditional colors. Among those cited have been appearance, confusion by the public, inability to keep these colors as shiny as traditional red and poor firefighter morale. Some departments actually experienced higher accident rates with these "safety" colors. New York City conducted a controlled pilot program using lime-green apparatus which was terminated with negative results after only a short period. Some of the larger fire departments that returned to traditional red or white-over-red after using lime-green or lime-yellow for years include Boston; Detroit; Bridgeport, CT; Yonkers, NY; San Jose, CA; Kansas City, MO; St. Louis; Tucson, AZ; Charlotte, NC, and the fire services operated by the U.S. Air Force, Army and Marine Corps at military installations.

An interesting color variation is making inroads. For years, Chicago has operated black-over-red apparatus. This color scheme is also becoming popular in specific regions many departments in New Jersey, for example, now use this color combination. Whatever the reasons for the return to red, the fact is that most apparatus being delivered today are red or white-over-red in color.

Another area seeing rapid and widespread development in apparatus design today is multi-functional vehicles. In some cases, particularly in the use of quints, multi-purpose vehicles have become controversial. A quint is an apparatus that can perform five functions: it has a pump, booster equipment, hose bed, a full complement of portable ladders and truck company tools, and an aerial device. Some cash-strapped cities are using a single quint to replace both an engine and ladder company in the same firehouse, with a single crew for staffing.

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Photo by John A. Calderone
U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, Engine 4, a 1995 Emergency One 1,250-gpm pump with a 500-gallon tank.

While quints have their place in the fire service, their use in a traditional firefighting system where engine and ladder companies have specific assigned missions and distinct responsibilities has limitations. This is particularly true in cities with older, attached multi-story structures in congested areas. The physical characteristics coupled with the construction features in these areas negate the technological advantages of the quint.

Traditional fire tactics in these areas dictate that the engine company positions at the nearest serviceable hydrant and hand-stretches a hoseline to the involved floor. The ladder company positions its apparatus in front of the fire building to perform rescue and ventilation. Non-fireproof apartment buildings in many older cities can be up to eight stories in height. The use of an aerial device is essential at such buildings. A quint would have to position at the hydrant to supply water and, unless the hydrant was in front of the involved structure, use of its aerial would be lost. A quint positioned in front of the structure, with its limited staffing, cannot accomplish all the functions of stretching the first attack line, stretching a supply line to the hydrant, laddering, and performing ventilation and search anywhere near as quickly as an independent engine and ladder company.

Relying on second-arriving units to get a supply line in place can be dangerous, given the realities of many older cities today: narrow streets, double-parked vehicles and vandalized hydrants. The quint is more suited to areas where buildings are of newer construction, small in area and in height, have limited life hazard and exposure problems, and where fire duty is light.

Combining the five functions incorporated into the quint can also impact the maintenance of the apparatus. Larger, complex apparatus with extensive electronic components can lead to increased maintenance costs and more down time. When this type vehicle is placed in service, it is imperative to have reserve vehicles of the same type for use as spares. Otherwise, the department will have to resort to using a pumper or a ladder truck to replace the quint and be unable to provide all of the quint's functions, or even more complicated will have to replace the quint with both a pumper and ladder truck to provide the same service level.

A small number of urban departments, particularly St. Louis, have made the quint concept work. Most larger departments that have introduced quints are experiencing tactical problems in their use. Baltimore is beginning to place its quints into reserve status. New York City decided against initiating a pilot program using quints. Buffalo, NY, has begun to buy quints but is assigning them as regular ladder companies. Los Angeles County has also recently added several quints to its roster.

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Photo by John A. Calderone
The FDNY's Collapse Unit, at Rescue Company 3 in the Bronx, is a 1995 Ford/Super Vac tractor-trailer.

Perhaps the most unusual quint to enter service recently was a tiller built by LTI on a Duplex chassis for Huntington Beach, CA. This unusual unit provides all five functions of the quint but instead of a large, bulky, straight frame unit is built on a highly maneuverable tractor-trailer chassis.

A positive side of multi-functional vehicles also exists. When a vehicle is designed to enhance functions already being performed, or being introduced, a multi-purpose vehicle becomes a positive tool to be used. Many departments have been providing first responder, EMS or paramedic services for years. The amount of equipment for such functions has grown with technology and the available space on the apparatus has not kept pace. Many departments are now designing apparatus with this in mind and are providing ample compartment space.

In some departments, particularly those with a small ladder-to-engine company ratio, extrication and rescue are initiated by the first-arriving engine. Extrication and rescue equipment has also outgrown available space, and pumpers are now being designed with extra compartment space to adequately carry these tools. Such rescue-pumpers are becoming common in departments that do not have independent heavy rescue units; in some cases, rescue-pumpers are assigned to units located remote from heavy rescue companies. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, operates a heavy rescue truck from its campus headquarters station but also operates a winch-equipped rescue-pumper from a station located in a base housing area at nearby Stewart Airport.

Other apparatus combinations provide other specific functions. In areas where water supply is limited, pumper-tankers (vehicles carrying all of the standard engine company tools and equipment plus a booster tank of 1,000 gallons or more) are becoming common as initial-attack vehicles. These are larger than conventional pumpers, generally have dual rear axles and have been delivered with tanks as large as 3,500 gallons.

Setting up a tanker shuttle operation takes time and manpower. Providing a larger water supply on scene early often makes the difference between knocking down the fire or giving up the building. Departments that protect interstate highways, fuel storage facilities, railroad yards and similar hazards are beginning to purchase foam-pumpers for assignment to units near these hazards. Foam-pumpers carry all conventional engine company equipment but are also equipped with a foam system and tank, foam turret and usually pump-and-roll capability. Such equipment, arriving early at the scene of a flammable liquid incident greatly enhances the department's ability to control these situations more safely.

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Photo by Joel Woods
District Heights, MD, operates a 1995 Simon Duplex/RD Murray/Aerial Innovations 105-foot tilt cab tractor-trailer aerial.

On the opposite side of the coin, some functions have become so technical and require so much specialized equipment and tools that apparatus designed specifically for one function are becoming more and more common. Hazmat, decontamination, collapse, cave-in, trench, cliff rescue, scuba operations, rehab and even command post functions have reached the point where, if a fire department wants to perform these functions, dedicated apparatus and certified personnel are required. Often, the first generation of these special vehicles are converted from older apparatus; in some cases, used vehicles are obtained from other agencies.

New York City's Collapse Unit went from a converted former heavy rescue truck to a custom-built Super-Vac tractor-trailer with built-in generator, slide-out compartment shelving and plenty of storage space for specialized equipment and shoring material. New York City is also using tractor-trailers for decontamination and as a command post.

Other departments have found the need to go to large tractor-drawn units to meet specific functions. The South West Suburbs Combined Area Response Team in Illinois operates a Hackney trailer pulled by a Ford tractor as a Tactical Rescue unit. Nineteen area departments pooled their resources to create this needed specialized unit that could not be justified by any department by itself. Orange County, FL, operates a tractor-drawn command post vehicle, and there are several departments operating tractor-trailer hazmat units.

Quite a few other specialized tractor-trailer units are in service, with others on the planning boards. These units offer flexibility in that if the tractor is out of service or wears out, it can be easily replaced. The disadvantage to such units is that they are less maneuverable and more difficult to position at the fireground. Another disadvantage to be considered is the need to constantly have qualified drivers available for these vehicles.

Platform-on-demand (POD) units have not caught on quickly in America. These units are standard throughout Europe and Japan and offer the advantage of being able to utilize any number of customized, special-purpose PODs capable of being transported by a single transport vehicle. Another advantage of this type of vehicle is that anyone who can drive a pumper can drive a POD transporter; there is no need to train and maintain dedicated qualified drivers.

Fairfax County, VA, operates an International POD transporter and currently has communications, command post, hazmat and Urban Search And Rescue PODS. Montgomery County, MD, operates a Mack POD transporter and utilizes cave-in, hazmat, Urban Search And Rescue, multiple casualty incident and vehicle transporter PODS. Other departments, including Prince George's County, MD, have POD systems under development. If a department has only one POD transporter and that vehicle is out of service, a transporter could be borrowed or rented from other city agencies or commercial trash haulers and es-corted by police or fire vehicles when responding.

More than ever before, fire departments are organizing heavy rescue units. This is true for departments that never had such units, departments that closed these units years ago and departments that are organizing additional heavy rescues.

Earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, terrorist acts, a greater awareness of collapse, confined space and other technical rescue situations, and the formation of federally sponsored Urban Search and Rescue Teams throughout the country have been catalysts for the formation of heavy rescue units.

Mandated training in areas such as hazmat, confined space rescue and trench rescue coupled with the additional tools and equipment needed for these operations justifies the need for such vehicles. Philadelphia, for example, at one time operated four heavy rescue units but opted to replace them with medical rescue units years ago. Several years ago, a new heavy rescue was organized, responding with a custom-built Saulsbury vehicle.

The U.S. Air Force, always a leader in fire protection, never operated heavy rescue units, instead utilizing smaller, rapid vehicles for this purpose. Recently, the Air Force took delivery of 29 Pierce four-wheel-drive heavy rescues for assignment to air bases and five additional similar units built by Super-Vac on four-wheel drive Spartan chassis and painted in military colors for deployment to forward operating locations. Seattle and Arlington County, VA, are among the many departments to recently place their first heavy rescue units in service.

The design of heavy rescue rigs is changing as well. The days when the crew rode inside the rescue body on a bench seat are giving way to longer apparatus with crew cabs accommodating all personnel and the rescue body being designed to maximize the use of space to carry more and more equipment. New York has five such apparatus on order with crew cab HME chassis and Saulsbury bodies.

The introduction of bunker gear has led to design changes in apparatus, mainly in buying fully air-conditioned crew cabs on standard apparatus. Another off-shoot of bunker gear has been the creation of dedicated fireground rehab units. Phoenix was among the first departments to operate a dedicated fireground rehab unit, using a former rescue truck. Boston's rehab unit is a former ambulance; New York City has five Recuperation and Care units in service.

Generally, rehab vehicles offer climate-controlled shelter areas, liquids for replenishment of lost body fluids, cots, water misting equipment, medical monitoring equipment and other facilities to allow firefighters a rest period on the fireground before returning to fight the fire.

Industries that had been devoted to ongoing military procurements have turned to other areas to survive. Fire apparatus built on AM General Humvee chassis have been aggressively marketed and are appearing in great numbers in the fire service in various configurations including airport rapid intervention vehicles, brush and forestry units, mini-rescue vehicles and others.

Chicago operates two rapid-intervention vehicles built by Fire Attacker on Humvee chassis. They are equipped with 225-gallon AFFF pre-mix tanks, 500-pound Ansul Purple-K dry chemical systems, bumper turrets, pump-and-roll capability and 325-gpm Darley pumps. Oshkosh recently announced its Phoenix, a large-capacity firefighting vehicle based on its eight-wheel-drive military chassis.

Department of Defense agencies are taking advantage of group purchasing power by procuring apparatus from the General Services Administration's catalog of fire truck resources. Several manufacturers now offer these standard apparatus, built to GSA specifications, to municipal departments at re-duced costs when compared to ordering a single, custom unit.

Financial restrictions have caused many fire departments to resort to rebuilding existing apparatus rather than buying new units. An entire sub-industry has been created to rehab apparatus, varying from minor body work and repainting to complete overhauls, including new cabs and chassis with only components from older vehicles being used. Some strange-looking vehicles, bearing little resemblance to the original apparatus, have resulted. This trend is expected to continue and grow as new apparatus costs continue to escalate.

Mechanical sirens are also making a comeback on new apparatus. They are not replacing electronic sirens but are being added to apparatus as additional warning devices. Many departments are finding that the electronic sirens alone are no longer sufficient. Sound-proof automobiles, with inattentive drivers operating entertainment systems that are played in high volume, air-conditioning background noise and cellular phones are all factors masking the siren projected decibel levels.

The directional sound projected by mechanical sirens has been an added safety factor. In addition, sirens and air horns are being moved off the roof and mounted lower, on or in the bumper or low in the grille, to provide maximum effect. Additional warning lights, positioned to gain the attention of other vehicle operators, are also being added to apparatus.

Another safety aspect that is being used to advantage is the graphics being placed on today's apparatus. What started out as a belt-line reflective white stripe that would get the attention of motorists at night has developed into many different combinations. These include wide stripes, angled stripes, multiple stripes and several stripes of different colors. Many departments are also positioning their department patch, name and unit number on their apparatus, using reflective materials. All of these graphics not only lead to an apparatus that is sharp in appearance but also greatly enhance its visibility at night and in poor weather conditions.

Roll-up compartment doors are becoming standard on apparatus. While standard on European fire apparatus for many years, they are relatively new to American apparatus. The obvious advantage to roll-up doors is unobstructed access to the compartment. How often have firefighters struggled to get equipment out of a compartment, hitting the inside of the open compartment doors? With roll-up doors, firefighters can easily jockey equipment on an angle if necessary. Another advantage, especially on narrow, urban streets, is that the apparatus is never positioned too close to a parked car or another apparatus to open a compartment. Another innovation becoming more popular in compartments is slide-out trays. Maximum space utilization can be obtained while still providing easy access to all equipment. Heavy tools, such as generators or hydraulic extrication equipment located on slide-out trays becomes a safety factor as well. The tray can slide out where two firefighters can more easily lift it than if it was on a standard compartment shelf.

Some departments have found that providing medical responses using firefighting companies has resulted in severe wear and tear on heavy apparatus because the bulk of responses are to medical emergencies.

In the Southwest, a new type of vehicle is beginning to appear. Known as the ladder tender, this vehicle is assigned as the second piece of a ladder company. It carries all of the equipment carried by regular ladder apparatus, except for the aerial. When the unit is dispatched to a medical response, all personnel respond with the ladder tender, leaving the aerial in the fire station. When finished with the medical emergency, the unit becomes available and is immediately capable of responding to fires to perform almost all functions of a ladder company. When the unit is dispatched from the station to a fire, it responds with the aerial ladder. This procedure has resulted in less wear and tear on the more expensive ladder trucks, extending their replacement cycle, while still providing an acceptable level of firefighting capability. Phoenix pioneered this concept and it is being copied by other departments.

On the flip side, budget-conscious city officials have used similar apparatus to replace ladder companies. Such was the case in Indianapolis, where two Strike Rigs, each staffed by two persons and operated as the second piece of the engine company they are housed with, replaced ladder companies.

Once thought to be outdated, tillered aerial ladders are making a comeback. While many large departments completely replaced their tillers with rear-mounts, others operate with a mix of the types. San Francisco, Los Angeles and Baltimore are among the many cities that recently purchased tillers. Some cities, including Atlanta, New York and Washington, recently replaced rear-mounts with tillers.

There are several reasons for this retrenchment. Many older cities have narrow streets and are congested. The size of rear-mounts has grown since their widespread introduction during the 1960s. They have become heavier, longer, higher and less maneuverable. Most of the original aerial ladder designs were capable of a 250-pound tip load at the end of an unsupported aerial. Recent designs provide for 500-pound and even 750-pound tip loads, which substantially increase the requirements for the chassis and stabilizer systems. Many larger departments are also operating from older fire stations, sometimes built during the horse-drawn era, imposing height and weight restrictions. Other departments have returned simply because of the tiller's advantage in maneuverability.

Other technological advantages are also making inroads. Rear axle steering on straight frame vehicles was introduced by Seagrave in the late 1960s. This concept was only tried to a limited degree then but now, due to the larger size of contemporary rigs, the rear steering option is becoming an advantage. Quints, tankers, pumpers and heavy rescues have all been delivered by various manufacturers equipped with rear steering.

Rear-mounted engines are another option available today. Mounting the engine at the rear provides better overall weight distribution, more design options for the cab as well as a much quieter cab, allowing for easier communication and less noise abuse to the firefighters.

Video equipment is beginning to be exploited on fire apparatus. Larger apparatus have been delivered that are equipped with video cameras that view the area to the rear of the apparatus. The driver monitors this camera in the cab and utilizes this system when backing up. It provides a cost-effective safety factor when manpower is limited.

An option offered on some elevating boom devices, particularly those mounted on aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicles, is a remote video camera that is used to examine areas, such as tail-mounted aircraft engines, that are inaccessible from the ground. Video equipment is also beginning to appear on command vehicles mounted to record the fire scene and fireground operations, functioning much like video equipment on police cars that records stopped vehicles.

The size of booster tanks on contemporary apparatus is increasing. The larger tanks allow fewer firefighters to operate longer. A properly operated pre-connected line from a pumper positioned close to the average structure fire is able to control the majority of these fires using water from the booster tank. Pumpers with larger booster tanks can operate at wildland fires or at locations remote from water sources for greater periods of time. As personnel expenses increase, city officials will look more and more toward technology to replace whatever manual functions possible.

The comfort of firefighters is also becoming a factor in apparatus design, although sometimes mandated. Cab noise levels, ease of communications, climate control, reasonably comfortable riding positions, ease of access and other creature comforts are all areas of design consideration.

Top-mounted pump panels are becoming common on pumpers. This design allows for the pump operator to have a better overall view of the fire scene and react quickly to changing conditions. It also removes the pump operator from traffic hazards and the possibility of being struck by a motorist. However, many urban departments feel that putting the pump operator in this position makes him an ideal target for snipers and bottle throwers, a sad fact of life in urban America today but something that must be considered when designing an apparatus.

An interesting trend in fire apparatus is the greater use of commercial chassis. Many of the custom fire apparatus chassis builders have ceased production and the cost of those still in production is higher. Commercial chassis manufacturers are even beginning to market chassis that are designed with the fire service in mind. Freightliner has a four-door chassis that is suitable for fire apparatus and White/GMC is offering a four-door tilt-cab chassis. Freightliner recently acquired American LaFrance and begun marketing fire service chassis under this traditional name.

Once never seen in the United States, fire apparatus built on foreign-made chassis, although not an everyday occurrence, are accepted practice today. Many fire apparatus manufacturers are involved with foreign firms, some being owned by an international parent company, others utilizing joint-marketing agreements.

Fire apparatus design is always in a state of evolution. So what can we expect to see in the future? More styling similar to European fire apparatus: larger crew cabs, more boxy body work with roll-up compartment doors and slide-out trays; more apparatus on commercial chassis, including more on foreign-built chassis; more technological devices to make-up for decreased staffing; and more firefighter comfort and safety features designed into the vehicles.

Whatever the final outcome, the almost 6,000 fire apparatus produced annually in the United States and Canada, along with the fire service in general, will continue to be influenced by the changing global economy.


John A. Calderone is a 24-year fire service veteran currently serving as a battalion chief in the FDNY battalion. He holds a degree in fire protection technology, has authored several books on fire apparatus and writes extensively on the subject.

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