The Apparatus Architect: Fleet Alternatives to Buying New

Nov. 14, 2022
Tom Shand and Michael Wilbur shed light on the particulars of purchasing used fire apparatus and refurbishing existing rigs.

Any fire department that recently received bids for a new apparatus recognized that the marketplace has changed, resulting in extended delivery times and a dramatic increase in cost. Macroeconomic conditions along with geopolitical issues created a series of conditions by which the fire apparatus industry is experiencing unprecedented production backlogs, exponential increases in costs for raw materials and electronic components, and labor shortages.

Budgets for capital projects often are determined six months or more ahead of the beginning of a fiscal year, with the anticipation of bidding new vehicles shortly thereafter. In many cases, fleet managers are struggling to acquire needed vehicles because of the increased cost and delayed deliveries (18–24 months). Therefore, apparatus that were slated to be removed from the fleet or to be placed into reserve status now are being relied on to provide frontline service for extended periods. All of these circumstances result in increased operating expenses for and frustrations in stabilizing the vehicle fleet.

Although some departments have sufficient financial resources to afford new apparatus today, others that aren’t funded by the municipal tax base and that rely on fundraisers and donations are at a significant disadvantage. The cost of a new apparatus is beyond the means of many communities.

Several alternatives to purchasing a new apparatus should be considered when evaluating your department’s vehicle fleet, including acquiring a used piece of apparatus and rebuilding one or more current rigs to extend their life cycle.

Used apparatus marketplace

Some departments never have been able to afford a new apparatus, and given today’s cost of the latest engine and ladder apparatus, even well-funded organizations that purchased new in the past might find that path beyond their reach. Thus, acquiring a used apparatus that’s newer and in better condition than the one that’s planned to be replaced might be worthy of consideration.

The used fire apparatus market has been relatively stable price-wise over the years, with a slight increase during the period of 2007–2010 because of a combination of the economy, Environmental Protection Agency regulations on diesel engine emissions and changes to NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus.

Furthermore, prior to the pandemic, the availability of used fire apparatus and the subsequent sales of these vehicles didn’t experience year-to-year fluctuations.

Unfortunately, the extended delivery times for new apparatus has affected the availability of high-quality used rigs (a decrease of as much as 40 percent) and the cost of these vehicles (at an all-time high).

Several websites provide resources where potential buyers can input criteria for a vehicle (commercial or custom chassis) that they seek, including build year, manufacturer, model, pump rating, water tank size and budget, to provide real-time information on vehicle availability that matches the criteria.

Rebuilding existing rigs

The history of apparatus rebuilding can be traced back to the late 1970s, when many departments’ fleets suffered from premature rust and corrosion of the steel body and water tank components. During this period, hundreds of rigs were rebuilt with new aluminum or stainless steel bodywork along with upgrades to the pump, piping and warning lights. As new NFPA 1901 standards were introduced, canopy cab rigs were provided with four-door cab enclosures; eventually, steel cabs were replaced with aluminum four-door cabs to enhance crew protection.

During the latter part of the 1980s, inflationary pressures caused new apparatus prices to spike; several apparatus manufacturers required a down payment at contract or progress payments, as unstable material costs affected the industry. At the same point, NFPA 1901 changes for enclosed cabs and aerial ladder enhancements required the apparatus industry to redesign many of its products to comply with the new requirements. Fire departments were quick to assess their fleet to determine which units would make sense to rebuild to extend their life cycle.

Today, NFPA 1912: Standard for Fire Apparatus Refurbishing provides excellent guidance. This includes a detailed questionnaire to determine the extent of work that should be conducted on the apparatus, including to meet the requirements of NFPA 1901.

Before setting out to determine the extent of the project, five matters should be scrutinized.

  • At what point will the department be in a position to replace the rebuilt rig with a new unit or a newer used apparatus? The answer to this question helps to determine how many years of additional frontline or reserve service are needed to get the apparatus to the finish line. Some departments that can’t afford a new unit tend to spend whatever funds that they have in their coffers on refurbishment, only to find that they unknowingly increased the annual cost of ownership because of extensive upgrades, despite only needing to get another 3–4 years of service life.
  • Compare the characteristics of the rebuild candidate rig to newer units that are in your department’s fleet to determine which components and equipment must be upgraded to meet the rebuilt vehicle’s primary mission. Units that have been problematic because of drivetrain issues, that have marginal axle ratings and/or that are overweight generally aren’t good candidates for rebuilding unless the budget for the project addresses these issues.
  • Although not set in stone, apparatus models for which replacement parts are scarce or that were made by a manufacturer that no longer is in business can cause delays in the rebuild process once the unit is torn down to identify components that require replacement.
  • Depending on the desired life-cycle extension, the total cost of the project shouldn’t exceed more than 40 percent of the cost of a new apparatus. That said, there might be times when this number can be exceeded, particularly when the rebuilt vehicle must provide more than 8–10 years of additional frontline service.
  • Depending on the average age of other units that are in the fleet, rigs that are newer than 15 years old tend to be more reliable than units that are 15 years and older, including in consideration of repair and replacement parts being difficult or impossible to acquire.

    Fleet options

    Departments have had to adapt to economic pressures and budget constraints to maintain an acceptable level of fire protection for the community that they serve. The current fire apparatus market presents some challenges that chief officers and fleet managers must address.

    The Apparatus Architects appreciate the assistance of James Wessel, who is the president and founder of Brindlee Mountain Fire Apparatus (Union Grove, AL), to help us to better understand the used apparatus market.

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