Fire Apparatus Builders See Shift to Custom Cabs and Chassis

Sept. 16, 2016
Ed Ballam spoke with manufacturers who said the use of commercial cab and chassis is slowing down as custom orders are increasing.

Custom versus commercial cab and chassis—that is the question. When it comes to specifying apparatus, one question always tops the list and sets the tone for the rest of decision-making process.

“It’s the age-old question,” said Dave Reichman, national sales manager for Rosenbauer America, an apparatus builder headquartered in Lyons, SD. “Custom or commercial is one of the first questions asked.”

Bruce Nalesnik, chassis group product manager for KME Fire Apparatus, an apparatus builder in Nesquehoning, PA, said KME has built apparatus on both custom and commercial cabs and chassis for decades. He agrees that is a fundamental question that must be answered.

“You’re at a fork in the road,” Nalesnik said of the custom versus commercial cab decision. “It’s one way or the other. You can’t have both.

To help departments make the decision, or to at least have a bit more information from which they can base their decision, Firehouse spoke to a few manufacturers that build both kinds of apparatus to gain some insight on the topic.

John Schultz is director of custom chassis products for Pierce Mfg., a builder based in Appleton, WI. Like KME and Rosenbauer, Pierce also builds on both commercial and custom cabs and chassis. And Schultz said they both have their place in the fire service.

“There’s no question the custom cab and chassis is very specialized and designed with firefighters in mind,” Schultz said.

Rosenbauer America

Reichman, from Rosenbauer, said good apparatus sales reps will be able to help customers make the decision. Reps who have relationships with their clients know what their customers want before specifications even begin. Others can quickly learn just by chatting with the firefighters or observing what they already have in their apparatus bays.

“It’s where everything starts off,” Reichman said. “It gives you an idea of what their budget is like too.”

Reichman said fire departments are trending to custom cabs and chassis. It used to be about 50/50, especially for pumpers, but now the trend is more like 80 percent custom to 20 percent commercial.

“I am not exactly sure why the trend is going that way, but it’s been a dramatic change,” he said.

If he had to guess, Reichman said fire departments may be looking at the options available on custom cabs and chassis, particularly roll protection and the availability of air bags, not something that is readily available on vocational commercial cabs and chassis.

Custom cabs and chassis also allow for more firefighter seating and generally more room in the cabs than commercial vehicles, Reichman said.

“It’s in the name, custom,” he said. “There’s a lot more you can do to tailor a custom cab to your needs.”

Reichman also noted a “pretty big gap” between the price of commercial and custom units, but said the value is significant as well, for instance there’s more metal in a custom cab and chassis. He said Rosenbauer uses a heavy grade of aluminum extrusion in its cabs and heavier aluminum skins.

Over-the-road and vocational cabs are not unsafe, but they are usually constructed of stamped steel for a variety of reasons, cost being one of them. Commercial cabs and chassis in the vocational market are necessarily lighter weight for better fuel efficiencies and hauling more payload, Reichman said, adding there’s nothing inherently unsafe about commercial cabs and chassis.

Fire departments should also consider maneuverability when considering custom over commercial. Reichman said custom cabs and chassis are generally more maneuverable than commercial chassis because of the cab-forward design. Conventional commercial cabs and chassis have noses to accommodate the engines, which stretch out the front of the apparatus, he said. Therefore, custom cabs and chassis have a better turning radius and usually shorter wheelbases.

When it comes to commercial versus custom running gear, like engines and transmissions, there’s little difference. “For the most part, you can get pretty high horsepower in commercial cabs and chassis,” Reichman said, noting that if a department has to have an apparatus that goes beyond the Allison 3000EVS transmission to handle the horsepower, it should start seriously considering custom.

Another thing to be mindful of is front axle weight restrictions. Commercial cabs and chassis generally have less front axle capacity he said, noting that Rosenbauer offers custom apparatus with axles rated up to 23,000 pounds. That’s important for some apparatus, especially aerials. Reichman said it’s extremely rare to see an aerial built on a commercial cab and chassis because of weight restrictions. Additionally, custom cabs allow departments to “notch” the roof for nesting of aerial devices.

Commercial cabs and chassis are well suited for other applications in the fire service market, Reichman said, adding tankers, or tenders, work well built on commercial trucks.

“Typically, you don’t have the same seating requirements for water shuttle operations,” Reichman said. However, there are customers who want custom cabs for their tankers to keep the fleet matching or to take advantage of the increased maneuverability available with custom cabs. Rosenbauer offers a two-door custom cab to bridge that gap between commercial and custom for tankers.

For first-time apparatus buyers, the cost of a custom cab might be an issue, and even those departments that haven’t purchased a new apparatus in a while might have to pause and consider the price difference between the two choices.

“If budget is an issue, you have to have a good understanding of what you’re getting,” Reichman said. “We’ll tell them the price difference and give them all the information and let them make the decision. We’re not here to push them one way or another. We just want to give them the information and let them make the decision.”

Pierce Manufacturing

Schultz said Piece builds apparatus on both commercial and custom cabs and chassis. In fact, Pierce has seven custom cabs available, with a variety of options on each of those offerings.

He said there are a number of similarities between custom and commercial, including engines, transmission and some suspension components. But, there are many more differences to consider, including an overall robust 13-inch frame rail and Pierce Tac4 independent suspension.

“Departments definitely need to look at their area of coverage and how much time they’ll spend in the cab,” Schultz said, offering some tips to get the decision-making process started. “They’ll have to figure out if they want 10 people in the vehicle, and what kind of storage they need...custom cabs offer more space for medical storage cabinets and occupants.”

He said there are a lot more tradeoffs with a commercial cab and chassis, with less storage and occupant capacity. On the plus side, Schultz said there may be a bigger service network with commercial than there is with custom vehicles. Departments should consider their nearest apparatus dealership when making purchases, especially if a commercial cab and chassis is being considered.

There’s definitely a price difference between custom and commercial, Schultz said, but fire departments need to consider the true cost of ownership over time. Custom tend to last longer than commercial and many apparatus builders, including Pierce, offer custom apparatus at various price points to make it more affordable for departments.

Weight limits and payloads should be considered too when picking cabs and chassis, he said. Questions to be answered include the amount of equipment and water the apparatus be expected to carry. Time in service should be a consideration as well as safety, he said, noting custom cabs offer overall occupant protection, including frontal air bags.

“There’s value associated with all of those points,” Schultz said.

Custom cabs and chassis often have roll-cage designs and heavy-duty extruded aluminum, he said.

“With a custom product, you’re able to provide a level of safety in every aspect of the cab,” Schultz said. They are built and designed with safety in mind. You may have to make some compromises with commercial cabs.”

Nevertheless, he said commercial products are still very popular with fire departments. Tankers and rescues are often built on commercial cabs and chassis and there are a fair number of pumpers built on those products as well. He added there are some larger cities looking at commercial cabs and chassis for stations with lower call volumes as a way of stretching the budget.

“There are times when going back to a commercial product might make some fiscal sense, depending on the duty and coverage perspective,” Schultz said.

However, Schultz said he too has seen a trend where departments are going more toward custom cabs and chassis with a split of about 80 percent custom to 20 percent commercial.

Another reason for the shift to custom cabs and chassis, in addition to the extra space and safety, is better access for maintenance, he said.

“Generally speaking, a tilt-cab custom is going to give you more access to maintain components,” Schultz said. Serviceability is often better with custom cabs and manufacturers can often pick convenient places for fuel filters, air dryer assemblies and other components that need routine maintenance.

“You’re somewhat limited in the ability to access components if you’re not able to tilt the cab,” Schultz said, noting that even pump houses are more accessible with tilt cabs. “You might have two or three angles (of approach) with a tilt cab, whereas you might only have access from the one angle on a commercial cab.”

All-wheel drive is another consideration for departments looking for new apparatus. Four-wheel drive is available on commercial cabs and chassis, but custom cabs generally have lower axle heights.

Schultz said when all is said and done, departments will usually find custom cabs and chassis are an upsell of between $30,000 and $50,000.

“If you really get into apples to apples, the customer has to make choices,” Schultz said. When departments consider the extra storage options, occupant protection, independent suspension and purpose-built air conditioning, the cost of a custom cab may not be out of the question.

“It may not be as big a jump when the dust settles and the spec is finalized,” Schultz said. “The word custom becomes available in the drive to that delta.”

KME Fire Apparatus

Like other experts in the field, Nalesnik, from KME, said the decision about custom versus commercial boils down to departments’ individual needs, expectations and budgets

“Longevity, customization, affordability, frequency of use, it all comes into play,” Nalesnik said.

And, like Rosenbauer and Pierce, KME has also experienced a shift to custom cabs and chassis apparatus.

“I am not sure why that is,” Nalesnik said. “I don’t know if it’s tied to grant money being more readily available, but there are a number of commercial departments now going for custom.”

Other reasons for the increase popularity of custom products might include the “huge amount of options” available with customization, Nalesnik said. Departments have a wide variety of seating configurations and occupant capacity, more horsepower range, choices in secondary braking, three different all-wheel drive systems, some that are not available on commercial cabs, superior visibility and longer warranties, he added. Custom KME apparatus have a lifetime warranty on frames and 10-year corrosion warranties of cabs whereas commercial cabs typically have three- to five-year warranties.

And Nalesnik agrees that custom cabs are generally safer than commercial product with some KME cabs exceeding NFPA crush loads requirements by five or six times. He said all custom cab apparatus, regardless of manufacturer, are required to meet the minimum standards.

Additionally, commercial cabs and chassis used for fire apparatus must all meet the NFPA 1901 standard and KME uses International, Freightliner and Kenworth products for fire apparatus because those manufacturers have tested their cabs and provided documentation proving compliance. KME doesn’t build on larger Ford cabs and chassis because the company has not provided the documentation, Nalesnik said, noting that Ford might meet the standards, but KME doesn’t have the proof it needs.

Other advantages of custom cabs is the ability to raise the roofs up to “the mid-20s” in inch height. That allows for in-cab command centers, walk-through rescues, enclosed pump panels and many door configurations. Custom cabs also accommodate cabinets and compartments integrated into its construction. Cabinets in commercial cabs has to be bolted in raising questions about structural integrity.

“But, you can get a basic pumper, with five occupants and SCBA seating on a commercial cab that will pump the same water as a custom,” Nalesnik said. “It is a good value for the dollar. It all depends on the customer’s expectation.”

For the future, Nalesnik said electrical systems on custom apparatus will become more “state-of-the-art” with far more diagnostic capabilities built in and accessible remotely. Telematics will also become more prevalent in custom apparatus as will other sophisticated advancements like collision avoidance systems.

Idle reduction technology (IRT) will also become more popular with departments, especially as the federal government imposes more emission standards.

The next big milestone for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in five years and it’s not clear what the government is going to require, Nalesnik warned.

One thing that is fairly certain in Nalesnik's mind is the fire service is unlikely to see significantly different drive systems, with diesel engines continuing to be the powertrain of choice. He said the lithium-ion battery technology is not yet sufficiently robust to operate fire apparatus. Yet, there’s little question the federal government will require carbon footprint reductions, even for fire apparatus, he said.

Technology usually trickles into the fire apparatus market from the vocational segments, including the Class 7 trucks, Nalesnik said.

“We usually like to see how they work out on the road before we bring it into fire apparatus,” he said.

And, whatever technology becomes available, it’s likely it would end up on a custom fire apparatus first.

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