The Apparatus Architect - I

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.

In addition, there are other resources for technical data that can be helpful during the design phase of the new apparatus. Contained within the NFPA 1901 standard on Fire Apparatus is a questionnaire in the appendix which takes you through a number of questions that will prompt discussions in some areas that may very well be overlooked by the apparatus committee. We have all heard about a newly delivered apparatus that would not fit the available space in the fire station, or departments that could not fit the amount of supply line in the hose bed because this was not sufficiently detailed in their specifications.

Doing your homework up front to address all of the pertinent issues will not only provide for a cost effective piece of apparatus, but will insure that the fire protection needs of the community are being met.

One of the major pitfalls of apparatus design is evident with "incremental purchasing". Examples of this are the last pumper that the department acquired was a 1250 GPM unit, so the new one must be at least of 1500 GPM capacity. If the newest unit was equipped with a 750 gallon water tank with a 400 horsepower diesel engine with seats for eight firefighters, the new engine must be equipped with a 1000 gallon water tank, 500 horsepower engine with seats for ten firefighters! The old adage of "bigger is not necessarily better" is certainly appropriate here. While apparatus has certainly become more multi-functional over the past decade, units have also become increasingly bigger to the point that 220 inch wheelbase, 34 foot long pumpers are becoming commonplace. Along with the larger apparatus comes training issues of just how well your drivers can handle and maneuver these rigs around in their response areas. Even with improved steering cramp angles, ABS brakes, and engine retarders, the unit that has a gross vehicle weight rating of 44,000 pounds with a 220 inch wheelbase will certainly handle differently that that older pumper built on the 180 inch wheelbase that weights less than 31,000 pounds in service.

A unique approach embraced by some departments is to tap the knowledge of individuals that possess an intimate technical knowledge of fire apparatus who are not directly associated with an apparatus manufacturer. This person could be aptly titled "The Apparatus Architect." The apparatus architect is an advocate for the fire department whose main purpose is to insure that the department designs a functional piece of equipment that meets the needs of the community and that the chosen manufacturer produces the apparatus in accordance with the specifications and contract terms for a reasonable price. The term "reasonable price" may best be described as not extreme or excessive, which may not necessarily the low price. The old adage says that "You can pay me now, or pay me later. The several thousand dollars that the department can save by accepting the proposal of the low bidder could cost much more over the life cycle of the apparatus.

Fire departments have long recognized the critical importance of training in the development and maintenance of their technical skills. With the advent of hazardous materials, high angle rescue, collapse rescue and weapons of mass destruction training it becomes apparent that one single individual cannot posses all of the required skill sets to be proficient in each of these areas. People who have become specialists or recognized leaders in their respective fields have unique talents and technical knowledge to assess problems and develop solutions to various aspects within the subject area. Individuals who have become specialists or recognized leaders in their respective fields have the technical knowledge to assess problems and develop solutions. This is where the apparatus architect can become an invaluable resource for the fire department. When compared to a building project, we wouldn't consider designing a fire station without retaining the services of an architect. Likewise, the design, construction and acceptance of a new piece of fire apparatus is a complex issue which may be beyond the technical expertise within the fire department.

Carefully evaluating the needs of your community and utilization of some of the previously mentioned outside resources may prove to be invaluable to your fire department.

In the next article we will explore the value of an Apparatus Architect and discuss the makeup of your next Apparatus Purchasing Committee.