The Apparatus Architect: Part 1

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.

In addition, there are other resources for technical data that can be helpful during the design phase. Contained in the appendix of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 Standard on Fire Apparatus is a questionnaire that takes you through questions that will prompt discussions in areas that may 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 hosebed because this was not sufficiently detailed in their specifications. Doing your homework up front 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.

Another pitfall is "incremental purchasing" - for example, the last pumper acquired was a 1,250-gpm unit, so the new one must be at least of 1,500-gpm capacity; the last unit was equipped with a 750-gallon water tank with a 400-hp diesel engine with seats for eight firefighters, so the new engine must be equipped with a 1,000-gallon water tank, 500-hp engine that seats 10!

While apparatus has become more multi-functional over the past decade, units have also become bigger to the point that 220-inch wheelbase/34-foot-long pumpers are becoming commonplace. Along with the larger apparatus comes a training issue - just how well can your drivers handle and maneuver these rigs around in your response area? 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 than that older pumper built on the 180-inch wheelbase and weighing less than 31,000 pounds.

An approach embraced by some departments is to tap the knowledge of individuals who possess an intimate technical knowledge of fire apparatus, but who are not directly associated with a 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. A "reasonable price" may not necessarily be the lowest price. Think of the adage "You can pay me now or you can pay me later." The several thousand dollars that the department can save by accepting the low bid could cost much more over the life of the apparatus.

Fire departments have long recognized the importance of training in the development and maintenance of members' technical skills. With the advent of hazardous materials, high-angle rescue, collapse rescue and weapons of mass destruction training, it becomes apparent that no individual can possess all of the required skills to be proficient in all of these areas. People who have become specialists or recognized leaders in their fields have the technical knowledge to assess problems and develop solutions.

This is where the apparatus architect can become an invaluable resource. We wouldn't consider designing a fire station without services of an architect. Likewise, the design, construction and acceptance of a new piece of fire apparatus is a complex process that may be beyond the technical expertise of a fire department's membership. Carefully evaluating the needs of your community and using of some of the previously mentioned outside resources may prove to be invaluable.

Our next article will explore the value of an apparatus architect and the makeup of an apparatus purchasing committee.

Tom Shand is a firefighter with the Onondaga Hill Volunteer Fire Department in Syracuse, NY, and a senior instructor at the Onondaga County Fire Rescue Institute. He is employed by American LaFrance and is assigned to the company's Hamburg Facility in the apparatus sales department. Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse