The Apparatus Architect

Many fire departments are struggling with reduced budgets, including little or no funding for capital projects. Fire station repairs and apparatus maintenance and testing are often being deferred with resulting higher costs to the community when equipment fails to perform.

The end result is that we must be in a position to justify the expenses involved with apparatus and equipment maintenance as well as having a documented fleet-replacement program for all units.

The fleet-replacement plan should encompass a number of criteria, including initial acquisition cost, preventative maintenance, fuel and insurance costs, mileage, age and condition of the apparatus as well as suitability for use to meet the current deployment strategies of the department. Community demographics, types of incident responses, staffing levels and training all impact the type, size and functional capabilities on our apparatus. Putting all of the tools in one toolbox may not necessarily be the optimal strategy to deliver fire and emergency services.


The “what-if” factor

Over the past few years, we have observed a number of fire departments that have designed engine apparatus with every conceivable option under the “what-if” premise that this could be the only unit to arrive at the incident scene. This type of apparatus, in addition to being super sized with respect of overall length, will carry a minimum of a 1,000-gallon water tank, a 2,000-gpm fire pump, hydraulic rescue tools, a large-capacity generator with a light tower and a full complement of technical rescue gear.

While not discounting the value of this equipment, every engine company in your community does not need to be a quint version of a pumper. Special-service apparatus has a purpose in every fire department and, properly designed, can meet the needs of most fire and emergency departments without spending more than $600,000 for a multi-purpose, all-hazards pumper. The “what-if” can be an intimidating factor for the apparatus committee and can cause it to up size everything on the apparatus so no one can ever come back and say why didn’t you get the biggest pump, tank, etc., even though in the first-due area never was there a situation that would have dictated such a purchase.


Define your mission

So how do you determine exactly what the appropriate type of engine apparatus that you need for your department? As we have mentioned several times in The Apparatus Architect series, the organization must clearly define the mission of the vehicle. Your department’s current apparatus, staffing levels and training can provide valuable information on the appropriate size, minimum fire pump and water tank capacities based on the hazards in your response area. There is nothing inherently wrong with combination apparatus such as rescue-engines or engine-tanker units; however; it is critical to avoid the pitfalls that make these vehicles expensive to operate and maintain.

During a recent visit to a fire department operating with 10 pieces of apparatus from several stations, it was observed that while the fleet was impressive with newer units, the size and complexity of several vehicles had a detrimental impact on department operations. One unit in particular, an engine-tanker apparatus, had only seven qualified drivers with no one from the outlying rural station capable of operating the apparatus. Due to the myriad components and systems on the apparatus, the annual maintenance costs were excessive for a unit that saw limited front-line service.

Once the mission of the apparatus is defined, establishing the maximum dimensions of the vehicle, including the overall length and height, wheelbase and turning radius, will provide an outline profile for the vehicle.

When developing specifications for a new apparatus, whether engine, truck or special-service unit, ask each manufacturer to bring a similar-size apparatus to your community to see how it performs and maneuvers in the response area. Pick at least five areas in your first-due area where it may be difficult for the apparatus to maneuver and challenge the manufacturers to make it happen so you can judge each apparatus on the same criteria. More than one department has been embarrassed when the new engine arrived in the community only to find out that it did not fit into the fire station bays or could not negotiate in tight areas where apparatus positioning would be critical. Manufacturers can provide turning radius information for review by the department to verify vehicle performance and capabilities.


In-service weight

An important, but often-overlooked aspect of apparatus design is the amount of hose, tools and equipment to be carried on the vehicle. While the current National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1911 standard on apparatus maintenance requires that all units be weighed on an annual basis to verify in-service weight, many departments have found that units in their fleets, regardless of age, are operating with unsafe, overweight vehicles. The department should determine the hose and equipment complement that is going to be carried on the apparatus and have each prospective manufacturer provide a detailed weight analysis of the vehicle showing the projected front and rear axle loads when fully equipped.

Fire pump and water tank sizes have grown incrementally over the years with attendant increases in concerns about axle ratings, vehicle sizes and centers of gravity. Many of these areas have been addressed by NFPA 1901, but there is no regulation regarding how much water, body compartmentation and auxiliary appliances can be built on a single rear axle.

From a practical perspective, some manufacturers will limit rescue-engine apparatus to a 750- or 1,000-gallon water tank in order to produce a unit that will be safe to operate under most conditions. Be wary of the builder that would permit the department to design a combination engine-tanker unit with a rescue-style body and 1,800-gallon water tank on a single axle while claiming the unit will “handle like your car” and meet all NFPA and local weight restrictions.


Incremental purchasing

The fire service has suffered over the years with what could be described as incremental purchasing. The 22-year-old pumper that you are replacing was equipped with a 1,250-gpm fire pump, 750-gallon water tank and a standard complement of hose, tools and equipment with seating for six personnel. After reviewing some local new apparatus deliveries, the truck committee determines that the new engine should be outfitted with a 2,000-gpm pump, 1,000-gallon water tank and dual ladder racks with seating for eight personnel. A review of the department’s last five years’ worth of incident responses found that average unit staffing was 4.5 personnel on all calls, the 1,250-gpm fire pump had never been used to capacity at a structural fire and no member could ever recall running out of water at a fire.

This fictitious scenario is an example of the logic that is often employed by departments when replacing older apparatus. If larger-capacity components are available, then they must be better than what we currently operate with, the thinking goes. The result of these decisions will impact the department for the life cycle of the vehicle, including training and maintenance costs. When going to municipal officials to justify the cost of the new apparatus, there needs to be a clear rationale for the overall design of the unit to avoid the pitfall of bidding out the new apparatus only to be told that you must cut $40,000 from the bid price as the project is over budget.


Budget scrutiny

The fire service is not immune from citizen scrutiny when it comes to our operations and budgets. In many communities, any capital expenditure must be approved by the citizens. With the cost of modern apparatus, the fire department must often get out in front to inform the community of its needs and how the apparatus and equipment will benefit everyone. Simply claiming that the apparatus will save someone’s life will not pass in the court of public opinion.

A well-developed and well-funded apparatus fleet replacement plan can go a long way to meet the long-range needs of the department while providing a time line for acquiring new vehicles with appropriate justification. Fire departments must be proactive in the public arena to not only provide the appropriate level of emergency services, but must design and specify apparatus to protect both their members and the community.