The Apparatus Architect - I

Overall design and function of each piece of apparatus is dependant upon the individual needs of each department and to a larger degree, the personality factors in their community.


This is the first in a series of articles that will enhance the fire departments ability to obtain properly designed and functional apparatus.

The fire service has developed many specialized pieces of equipment to combat the ravages of fire under all types of conditions. Arguably the most significant, if not the most visible piece of equipment is the fire apparatus itself. Since the early days of the horse drawn steamer, fire trucks represent the largest piece of fire fighting gear that is utilized by virtually every department in one manner or another.

The overall design and function of each piece of apparatus is dependant upon the individual needs of each department and to a larger degree, the personality factors in their community. These can include the topography, climatic conditions, building construction, fire frequency and staffing considerations. Each of these factors and others can have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of the overall vehicle design. A visit to any major fire conference will show a wide variation in the interpretation of what type of apparatus is required to protect the community. There are several critical factors which need to be addressed before the individuals charged with the responsibility of developing the specifications can proceed with this process. This is an area where some fire departments can make mistakes which result in poorly designed apparatus or units which do not meet the needs of the community.

Webster defines apparatus as "a set of materials or equipment developed for a particular use". This is an appropriate starting point for most fire departments to carefully analyze exactly what they need to accomplish the fire suppression and emergency responses in their community. We need to realize that most of us do not have the experiences of the FDNY, Los Angeles or Phoenix fire departments so we should start with a careful assessment of what type of apparatus the community needs and where our existing fleet may be deficient in meeting that need. Experience can also be an important factor in helping determine what design criteria should be met when we begin to develop the specifications. There are some practical examples of concepts that we should consider, as well as some that we should avoid. "Those who fail to learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them". When spending several hundred thousand dollars of public funds, this is not the time nor the place to make poor choices that you will live with for the next fifteen to twenty years.

Many fire departments, particularly volunteer stations have experienced rapid turnover of membership. This results in many apparatus committees that have limited experience and technical knowledge in the purchasing and apparatus fields. While this can be an asset in that the opinions of the members will not be influenced by past habits, the amount of technical knowledge and expertise needed can in large part only be had by experience or surrounding yourself with people who have recognized knowledge with fire apparatus.

There are several good sources for obtaining this information which can be employed to the benefit of the fire department. Trade shows are often an excellent source of information, particularly when comparing similar products or components. Manufacturers who are interested in designing an apparatus can provide your committee with users list of departments who have acquired units from them. This reference list can plug you into other sources of information and in addition can give the committee an opportunity to visit with these departments to critique the apparatus. It is important to recognize that since the anticipated life span of the apparatus is upwards of fifteen to twenty years that you want to be careful in looking at to many one to two year old units. Apparatus which has been in service for three to six years will provide your department with a better profile of the service life and downtime which can be expected from the apparatus when built in these configurations. However, one of the common pitfalls is to design and acquire a piece of apparatus that is identical to a neighboring department simply because "It works for them, so it will be fine for us". While this may be in case, in most instances your department's needs, whether hose load configuration or compartmentation will be different and should be given careful consideration during the design process.

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