Custom, Commercial Chassis in Focus

For the U.S. fire service, custom chassis are as American as apple pie, but with a down economy, that train of thought may change.

That's at least what Rosenbauer America Eastern Regional Sales Manager Sean Duffy is hoping.

Duffy, along with KME Fire Apparatus Nation Account Manager Mark Kopunek, spoke at the FDSOA Apparatus Symposium in Orlando, Fla. Jan. 19 about the differences between custom and commercial chassis.

While the names speak for themselves -- custom models have more available options than their commercial counterparts -- it really all comes down to dollars and cents.

A custom chassis cost between $150,000 to $300,000 while a commercial chassis costs between $90,000 and $225,000.

"They are not inexpensive," Kopunek said; referring to the custom chassis manufacturers such as KME builds. "But they are built for the fire service, which gives departments more options. They have pretty much been the tradition."

Duffy, whose company specializes in commercial chassis, said that if a fire department is in the position to buy a one, it is something that should be looked at.

He also noted that outside of North America, custom chassis are considered foreign.

"There is no such thing as custom chassis in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world," he said, pointing out that some of the biggest cities outside of the U.S. are running the same type of call volume as this country's biggest cities.

One advantage offered by commercial chassis is that parts and service are readily available. Duffy said that not only is it easier to find a larger selection of parts versus custom chassis, most parts and service stations are less than 75 miles away from firehouses in most parts of the U.S.

"Service is more readily available," he said. "You should be able to get the part right then and there."

A drawback to this though, according to Duffy, is that instead of having repairs done at the firehouse, departments must drive the apparatus to the service station.

Another drawback is that there are plenty of limitations commercial chassis have compared to custom chassis.

One is that the life expectancy of a commercial chassis is approximately five to seven years, while custom models can last much longer. Seating also is limited, with commercial models only seating up to five while custom models can seat up to 10.

As far as safety is concerned, custom chassis are NFPA compliant, while commercial models have some limitations. The seat belt lengths, for example, can be an issue. Also, airbags are not available in many commercial chassis.

"It's a big challenge at this point," Duffy said.

There are front and side airbags available on most custom chassis.

It also depends on what setting the fire department is located in. Custom chassis have a much shorter turning radius, which Kopunek says makes it ideal for city driving.

Duffy said that while the differences between commercial and custom chassis are night and day, for some departments they can be a good fit.

"In our current economic climate, you might not have the budget you thought you would. It may be a change from tradition, but when money talks, it's something you need to consider."