The Apparatus Architect: Part 31 - Rebuilding Apparatus

July 1, 2007
Michael Wilbur and Tom Shand review the need for bringing in outside expertise to properly evaluate your apparatus when deciding to embark on a rebuilding project.

The last installment of The Apparatus Architect reviewed a few success stories with fire departments that developed well-written sets of specifications and utilized their past experience to provide their new apparatus. While determining the requirements for a new piece of equipment can be accomplished using internal department resources, when deciding to embark on a rebuilding project, you should consider bringing in outside expertise to properly evaluate your apparatus.

The fire service has long prided itself as being both innovative and traditional. One long-standing tradition has been to replace front-line apparatus after 15 to 20 years of service. While this 20-year replacement interval is still used for establishing apparatus replacement policies, a brief survey of major urban fire departments would show that many have adapted programs in which front-line units serve from eight to 12 years and are replaced at 10 to 15 years. The rationale here is that with an increased number of runs and the associated road mileage, that it is prudent to replace the apparatus before the annualized maintenance costs become excessive.

Departments that track the preventative maintenance and repair costs for their fleets often find out that the life cycle costs for a front-line unit in a busy company begin to increase dramatically after the 10- to 12-year mark. Obviously, any fire chief would prefer to have apparatus replaced early during its life - in the range of 10 to 15 years. However, financial constraints may require that first-line units run longer with subsequently higher operating costs. Unions in some career departments have negotiated replacement cycles for apparatus.

From a practical standpoint, we need to understand that rebuilding apparatus simply puts off the inevitable. Sooner or later, the department will have to replace the rebuilt unit with a new one. Given the costs of new apparatus, together with the impact of inflation and government-mandated regulations, some departments have found themselves suffering from inadequate funding for new and replacement apparatus. When this occurs, rebuilding can be a positive, practical approach to providing upgraded units with improved safety and reliability.

If your department is considering an apparatus-rebuilding project, where can you obtain technical information regarding the scope of work that would need to be conducted? First, you should contact the original manufacturer of your apparatus. Many of the larger manufacturers have service and rebuilding centers that specifically cater to this type of work. These centers have technical personnel who can guide you through the process of what chassis and body components should be considered for upgrading or replacement. Manufacturers that build their own cabs and chassis also have programs to provide for enclosed four-door cabs as well as complete body replacements where this would be required.

When rebuilding custom-chassis apparatus, there will generally be a significant number of components and parts that are unique to your apparatus; when possible, replacement parts should be supplied by the manufacturer. Rebuilding commercial-chassis units can be problematic, as any major upgrading of chassis components will be limited to what was previously engineered to adapt to that model and upgrades to the cab area will usually always require an upgrade of the front or rear axles or chassis suspension components.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in its 1901 Standard, provides an excellent discussion covering rebuilding in Annex D. Any apparatus that was built prior to 1991 does not have many of the safety and operational enhancements that were part of the 1991 version of the standard. Units built after that date were required to have fully enclosed cabs, improved warning lights, non-slip step surfaces, reflective striping, auxiliary braking devices and electrical system upgrades and other improvements. A piece of apparatus that was built prior to that date could be retrofitted with these items, but the additional expense to include each of these items in a complete rebuilding project can significantly increase the overall project cost for the department. With this in mind, it would be wise for fire departments that plan to rebuild units to add at least 10% of the projected total cost of the rebuild to allow for cost overruns, hidden costs or problems that are uncovered during the rebuilding process. Units built prior to 1980 should be replaced outright, as the unit would be over 27 years old.

Before setting out to rebuild an older piece of equipment, carefully review its maintenance records and history. Chassis, pump or body components that have previously failed or caused the unit to be taken out of service should be identified, with these areas given special consideration when developing the specification for the project. With this in mind, if your department operates a large fleet of units, consider standardizing certain components such as axles, tires, engines, valves and gauges to reduce the operating and maintenance costs for the fleet. Fire apparatus electrical systems have become sophisticated to the point where the local garage may not be able to diagnose an electrical problem and get the unit back in service. In fact, apparatus have become so complex that taking a unit anywhere other than a certified fire truck mechanic may be a mistake. This is particularly true given today's legal climate.

In addition, the department must carefully evaluate the financial implications of any rebuilding project. In general, you should not spend more than 50% to 55% of the cost of a new apparatus on any rebuilding project. For this reason alone, any custom-chassis apparatus that was built after 1991 should be able to be upgraded and rebuilt for a total expenditure of less than this amount. Apparatus that require the addition of a four-door cab enclosure generally would also have to have the front axle and suspension components upgraded.

While just about anything can be added to an existing unit, you have to review the overall impact on the project cost, as well as the added weight to the apparatus. For example, simply increasing the size of the booster tank from 500 to 750 gallons may not seem to be much, but can increase the stopping distance of the unit and can significantly change driving and handling characteristics.

When you first set out to develop specifications for a new apparatus, the entire process seems daunting and time consuming. Rebuilding apparatus is no different. You must first evaluate your fleet to determine whether rebuilding is the right approach to solve your problem. Many departments have gained valuable knowledge from personal experience with rehab projects. Sourcing these departments for information and assistance may save your department from making a mistake and can provide the correct information. Don't simply rehab a unit because a neighboring fire department has done this. Plan, evaluate and then implement your decision. Remember, just like a baseball game: It's not over till it's over.

The next installment of The Apparatus Architect will review some well-designed aerial ladder and quint apparatus.

TOM SHAND, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and works with Michael Wilbur at Emergency Vehicle Response, consulting on a variety of fire apparatus and fire department master-planning issues. He is employed by Seagrave Fire Apparatus LLC as a regional sales manager. MICHAEL WILBUR, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information, access his website at

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