Rescue Trucks Are the 'Swiss Army Knives' of the Fire Service

March 15, 2019
When it comes to specialized equipment used by the fire service, rescue trucks, also known as tool boxes on wheels, are the hands-down winners.

Rescue trucks are the Swiss Army knives of the fire service, expected to do a little bit of everything, and some are built to do very specific tasks and are built to fill those needs.

Take, for instance, the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District in Morrison, CO, a rural department west of Denver. The community, accessed by a small two-lane road with virtually no shoulders, had a problem with elk versus car collisions and needed something to help clear the roads after the crashes.

The department turned to SVI Trucks, an apparatus builder based in Fort Collins, CO, and had the rescue truck manufacturer build a new truck with a crane on board to lift the dead carcasses and open up the road to restore access.

“We’ve done three or four cranes in the last 35 years,” said Bob Sorensen, vice president of sales for SVI Trucks. “Because [Inter-Canyon} had so many car-versus-elk crashes, they wanted a crane.”

While the crane was originally designed for a specific need, it also provides an anchor point for vehicle stabilization and can lift items in collapse situations and other rescue situations, Sorensen said. And that’s a trend, having multiple uses for rescue vehicles, he explained.

“Many departments are making rescue trucks more functional, able to handle hazmat situations and support rescue and breathing air needs,” Sorensen said. “It provides more justification for owning and maintaining them. … Departments want them to do as much as possible and to have enough equipment to get started on just about anything.”

Multi-purpose Use

Multi-purpose use is a trend also noticed by Wyatt Compton, application engineer/product manager for Spartan ERV at the company’s plant in Brandon, SD.

“More and more, we are seeing a departure from standard rescues,” he said. “More and more, departments are having water on the trucks. We used to have walk-in or walk-around rescues, but now they want some amount of water on the trucks.”

Compton said those kinds of department don’t want to operate master stream devices or be a water supply unit. Rather, they want to “have a credible amount of water” for car fires or other small incidents, like dumpster fires. Compton said a rescue truck with firefighting capabilities is called a wet rescue.

“It’s another tool in the tool box,” he said, acknowledging that rescue trucks are often called tool boxes on wheels. “You’re going to need a charge line there anyway when you’re doing extrication work.”

Compton said production of a wet rescue was once a rarity for Spartan, but it has become a majority for rescue vehicles the company builds.

Sorensen said SVI too has seen an uptick in rescues with pumps and tanks. He said many departments are looking for rescue apparatus with 300-gallon water tanks and 750-gpm pumps. That configuration gives fire departments points for a fire pumper for Insurance Service Office (ISO) class ratings.

Sorensen said one Colorado community known for partying specified a rescue apparatus with a fire pump and tank to use for decontamination after people get sick on public ways. The department stations that rescue vehicle downtown with staff just waiting for calls during busy times, and they can provide medical care as well as wash-down services.

'Swiss Army Knives of the Fire Service'

“Rescue trucks have really become the Swiss Army knives of the fire service,” Sorensen said.

The city of Charlotte, NC, took delivery of two Swiss Army knife-like rescue last year and they cover the entire city.

“They each have enough equipment to get started,” Sorensen said, noting they both have big air compressors and generators to run them to provide breathing air, and are equipped with LED light towers, ample lighting, trench panels, struts and stabilizing kits, as well as cutting torches and extrication tools.

If the situation is bigger than one truck can handle, the second will respond and then mutual aid can provide additional resources, Sorensen said.

With the need to have more and varied equipment, Compton said he’s seen an increase in the size of rescue vehicles.

“In most cases, departments keep adding things,” Compton said. “We’ve seen kind of a trend to things getting bigger.” He added that despite departments wanting more things, they’re not willing to sacrifice any space for other things.

“Every single stitch of equipment is on that truck because someone has been injured or killed and they need it in case it happens again,” Compton said of firefighters’ mindset when it comes to space needs. “They all say, ‘my truck can’t get smaller.’ That’s an uphill battle.”

That’s why Compton said departments need to assess what their needs are within their response area and decide what must be on the apparatus, or what function it must provide.

For the St. Louis, MO, Fire Department, its members decided they needed an inflatable water craft with an outboard motor, so SVI built a specialized compartment for that equipment, Sorensen said. St. Louis’ rescue, like Charlotte’s, was built on a custom cab and chassis, to accommodate all the equipment, he said.

Finding a Niche

Sorensen added that SVI Trucks has found a niche between the huge tandem-axle vehicles and the smaller Ford F-550 commercial cabs and chassis, and that means many of its vehicles are built on custom, single-axle cabs and chassis.

Compton said he has noticed many departments are specifying custom cabs and chassis, not only for the extra capacity for specialized equipment, but to take advantage of their tighter cramping and turning radius.

“On virtually every scene, the rescue truck is the last vehicle to get there, so it needs sharper, tighter cramping,” Compton said. “As the last on the scene, it has the toughest road to navigate with all that apparatus all over the roadway.” He said custom cabs and chassis offer more curb-to-curb, wall-to-wall turning radius.

Sorensen said Charlotte’s newest rescue vehicles, which are to be delivered toward the end of March, are twins to those purchased 12 years ago—with some notable changes.

One of the biggest changes is the deletion of cord and extrication hose reels, Sorensen said. The older apparatus were filled with reels for a variety of needs.

The 2019 models are instead filled with charging ports for battery-operated tools and equipment, Sorensen said, noting that battery technology has improved to the point where noisy and bulk power units for extrication tools and generators for light towers have been replaced by electric tools and efficient LED lights.

Sorensen said there’s even been a trend to battery-operated ventilation fans. Because they don’t require generators and take up less space than other kinds of fans, Sorensen said many departments are equipping rescue trucks with more than one.

Compton said there are still some departments that require megawatt generators that dominate much of the apparatus, but those are designed for specific needs.

“Departments that need the 40,000-watt generators have the need for the current,” Compton said. “They’re fulfilling a contingency supply and usually have three-phase power available to power a hospital or some other facility.”

With today’s efficient lighting, Compton said a 16,000-watt, or smaller, generator is more than ample for most rescues, if they need a generator at all.

“It’s an important conversation to have with customers,” Compton said, noting that there can be competition for power from the vehicle’s drivetrain that must be considered when specifying a rescue vehicle.

Sorensen said departments that want a pump and a PTO-driven generator on their rescue vehicle need to have certain expectations about what the vehicle can and can’t do. Operating both at the same, while possible, might limit the engine speed needed to flow more water.

Working with Manufacturers

“There are some things we just can’t change,” Sorensen said. “That’s why it is important to work with the manufacturers beforehand and do the prep work before bidding so they know what they’re getting.”

Compton agreed.

“Some of these trucks can be pretty intense,” Compton said. “… There are so many moving parts and pieces that it can be like a puzzle. We have to take all those pieces and make them fit together. We all want to build trucks that are going to work and last. But, it takes an understanding about how things work and move and flex to make everything come together.”

Compton advises that departments with specific and unusual needs for their rescue truck convey that information to the dealer and builder early in the specification process.

“It’s paramount to do that,” Compton said. “Most of our dealers are resourceful enough to bring us in early to make sure we get everything right. He said if a department wants a small, extendable arm crane, the vendor of that particular component should be involved in the process early so the apparatus manufacturer has a clue on what it will do to their build process.

“If it’s important enough for the customer to include it in their spec, bring in the experts to sort it out because you don’t know what you don’t know and we don’t want any surprises,” Compton said. “… It’s a beautiful thing when all the pieces of the puzzle come together. 

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