The Apparatus Architect: Part 1

Tom Shand and Michael Wilbur introduce a series of articles that will enhance a fire department's ability to obtain properly designed and functional apparatus.


This is the first in a series of articles that will enhance a fire department's 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 firefighting gear that is used by virtually every department.

The overall design and function of each piece of apparatus depends on the individual needs of each department and to a larger degree the personality factors in the community. These can include topography, weather conditions, building construction, fire frequency and staffing considerations. These and other factors can have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of the 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. Several critical factors 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 a fire department can make mistakes that result in poorly designed apparatus or units that 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 as they carefully analyze exactly what they need to accomplish the fire suppression and emergency responses in their community.

Most of us do not have the experiences of the New York City, Los Angeles or Phoenix fire departments, so we should start with a careful assessment of what type of apparatus the community needs and where the existing fleet may be deficient. 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. When spending several hundred thousand dollars of public funds, this is not the time or place to make poor choices that you will live with for the next 15 to 20 years.

Many fire departments, particularly volunteer, have experienced rapid turnover of membership. This can result in apparatus committees whose members have limited experience and technical knowledge of purchasing and apparatus. 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 of fire apparatus.

There are several good sources for obtaining this information. 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 a users' list of departments that 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.

Because the anticipated life span of apparatus is 15 to 20 years, you want to avoid looking at too many one- to two-year-old units. A unit that has been in service for three to six years will provide your department with a better profile of the service life and downtime that can be expected from the apparatus when built in these configurations.

A common pitfall, however, is to design and acquire a piece of apparatus that is identical to one being used by a neighboring department simply because "It works for them, so it will be fine for us." While this may be the case, in most instances your department's needs, whether hose load configuration or compartmentation, will be different and should be given careful consideration.

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