The Apparatus Architect: Part 3

Now that your apparatus committee has been formed and you have begun the task of determining what type of equipment is required, you now should begin the task of gathering technical information from a variety of resources to expand your knowledge in the critical areas that will impact the design of the apparatus.

If you have followed some of the concepts that were mentioned in Part 1 of this series, you already have an idea as to where the committee should begin. While there is no right or wrong way to begin this part of the process, it is important that all members of the committee understand the importance of gathering this information and participate in the process.

Many apparatus committees do not even know what kind of truck they want or, more importantly, what the departments really needs - i.e., a pumper, tanker, pumper-tanker or a specialized combination unit. In some instances, the well-meaning but uneducated apparatus committee takes over and ends up with a pumper-tanker-aerial-rescue truck all rolled into one unit. This apparatus has a little bit of everything, but from a functional standpoint is not very good at anything. For many individuals this is the fun part of the process as the group will have the opportunity to travel to observe newer units, visit and participate in trade shows and interview manufacturers representatives about their products.

Each of these areas will require careful research and you need to have your questions prepared, to enable you and the committee members to obtain the necessary information for the group. Let's look at each of these areas to see where the time you spend to evaluate these components will be of benefit to the department.

Fire equipment trade shows are scheduled at various points around the country during the course of the year. Traditionally, the first few shows each year are when the apparatus manufacturers and the component suppliers unveil their latest equipment and innovations. Apparatus builders, in particular, will try to show newly delivered units, some of which may be fully outfitted with hose and equipment. This can be particularly valuable when designing a rescue-engine or heavy squad as your committee can look at what other fire departments have designed to meet their needs.

When attending a show, it is helpful to bring along a 35mm or digital camera to enable you to photograph the significant compartment layouts and designs that you wish to record. At some of the larger shows there may be representatives from the fire department displaying their unit with their apparatus. This will provide your committee with a unique opportunity to ask the fire department about the apparatus and get some direct feedback about the effectiveness of their design.

Trade shows offer an excellent opportunity to talk with the various apparatus manufacturers, including some of their engineers who design the equipment. Manufacturers will often have their senior managers and engineers staff the displays at trade shows to handle customer questions and service issues on a personal basis. Many manufacturers of components such as fire pumps, valves, warning devices, generators and foam systems will display their hardware; this is a significant opportunity to interview these people to discuss their products and how they may be integrated into a piece of apparatus for your department.

Viewing apparatus at trade shows does, however, have a few drawbacks. First, most apparatus manufacturers tend to show more complex units with numerous options that will show their overall capabilities. These larger units, while impressive, may not be exactly what your department is looking for, but they will generate some conversations over the relative merits of some components. Second, the trade shows are not the place to price compare among manufacturers. Advertised or quoted prices are relatively meaningless, as it is unlikely that your department will specify a unit identical to one being displayed by the manufacturer.

Conducting visits to other fire departments to review and inspect their apparatus can also benefit the committee. This lets your department critically evaluate another department's apparatus and equipment to see how that unit may meet your fire department's specific needs. This may often be accomplished on your own schedule, without having the influence of a salesperson accompanying your committee. Once again, you should plan on taking a camera, tape measure and notebook to record your comments and findings on the particular apparatus.

Should you locate a piece of apparatus that you have particular interest in, you may wish to record the manufacturer's model and serial number from the data plate that is normally provided inside of the cab on the driver's side. This reference number can provide you with additional information, should you desire to contact the apparatus manufacturer who built the unit. Manufacturers can supply you with additional information, including engineering blueprints and specifications that can provide the committee with specific design items and components installed on the unit.

When performing these outside inspections, do not go from firehouse to firehouse seeing newly delivered apparatus. Any new piece of equipment will generally appear to look good and with a limited in-service time there is no established record of use or maintenance history to evaluate. If you must rely on your local salesperson to set up your trip, instruct the salesperson that you do not wish to see any apparatus newer than five years old. A newly delivered apparatus can easily "wow" a truck committee with all of its chrome and state-of-the-art gadgets. The apparatus committee that has carefully planned its outside inspections, with the assistance of an apparatus architect, will be able to get through these smoke screens. Certainly, 10 years down the road, the committee members would much rather share the credit for a well-thought-out and reliable apparatus, rather than shoulder the blame for an apparatus nightmare that will not come close to meeting the needs of the community or making the projected 15-to-20-year apparatus life cycle.

Once the apparatus committee has reviewed both newer units at trade shows as well as older, in-service units, it is now time to schedule meetings with prospective manufacturers' sales representatives. This part of the process can become quite involved and there are several strategies that your committee should employ to make these meetings honest, informative and worth the investment of your valuable time. We will cover this portion of the process in detail in our next installment of "The Apparatus Architect."

Tom Shand, a Firehouse