|Alexis Fire Equipment built a 1,800-gallon wetside tanker for the Waterman (Ill.) Community Fire Protection District on a Peterbilt 335 two-door cab and chassis. It has a Hale AP50 500-gpm pump and three EJ Metals air-operated tank dumps with 22-inch extensions. (Alexis photo)|
|U.S. Tanker recently completed its largest tanker, a 5,000-gallon, 41-foot apparatus built on a tri-axle Peterbilt cab and chassis with a custom UPF elliptical tank and a 2,000-gpm Hale pump for the Brant (N.Y.) Volunteer Fire Co. (U.S. Tanker Photo)|
|The Eagle Nest (N.M.) Volunteer Fire Department has a 2007 Firovac 1,800-gallon vacuum tanker built on an International 7500 4x4 cab and chassis with a front-mount 500-gpm Darley pump and a bumper turret. (Firovac Photo)|
|A 3,000-gallon tanker on a Kenworth T-300 cab and chassis built by Fouts Bros. Fire Equipment for the Faught (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department has a UPF tank and a Darley LDM 1,250-gpm pump. (Fouts Bros. Photo)|
There was a day when the sole purpose of a tanker – in some regions a tender – was moving water from a source to a fire scene, but that has changed.
Many tankers are equipped with substantial pumps capable of fighting fire as well as or better than Class A pumpers. Others are similar to Swiss Army knives, able to do a little bit of everything. But as tankers evolve, safety continues to be a major concern.
"Most tankers today are combination units, with larger pumps and tanks that are 2,000 to 3,000 gallons in size," said Jeff Morris the owner and president of Alexis Fire Equipment, an apparatus maker in Alexis, Ill. "It's due primarily to everyone trying to get a little more bang for their buck."
Alexis builds a variety of apparatus, from brush units, to aerials, but as much as 40 percent of the company's business is devoted to making tankers, Morris said.
Another manufacturer, U.S. Tanker Fire Apparatus Inc., founded in 1989 and based in Burlington, Wis., specializes in apparatus "designed to haul water to the scene in rural areas where no fire hydrants are available."
Tim Bendle, U.S. Tanker's president and owner, said most customers want pumps on their tankers, but the sizes of the pumps have been decreasing. Many have 750-gpm pumps or smaller, and he believes that is being influenced by the Department of Homeland Security through its Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program.
To be classified as a tanker for purposes of the program, Bendle said the apparatus can not have a high-capacity pump. Otherwise it is considered a pumper. "Why [DHS] can't update that requirement, I'm not sure," he said.
Brian Cowan, the director of the AFG program, said DHS has separate definitions for pumpers and tankers so grant applications can be ranked according to priorities. "There is this tendency now for pumpers and tankers to be combined," he said, "and we have to have a way to categorize them so we can be responsive to the recommendations that are made to us by the fire service on funding priorities."
He said pumpers are the highest priority apparatus in urban, suburban and rural communities, while tankers have a lower ranking in cities and suburbs. A tanker, by the DHS definition, carries more than 1,000 gallons of water and has a pump that is less than 750 gpm.
Most of the apparatus U.S. Tanker builds go to rural areas, and hauling water is the primary mission. "It really depends on a department's modus operandi what size [tanks] they purchase," Bendle said. "Some like smaller, some like bigger."
The majority of the apparatus U.S. Tanker builds have tanks that hold 2,000 gallons or more. Bendle said his company recently completed its largest tanker ever – a 5,000-gallon unit built on a Peterbilt cab and chassis for the Brant (N.Y.) Volunteer Fire Company. The apparatus is 41 feet long, has three rear axles, a 2,000-gpm Hale pump and an elliptical tank.
About two-thirds of the tankers Bendle's company makes are elliptical, but he said a number are wetside or rectangular, depending on what equipment customers want to carry.
When departments want ladders, hose and lots of tools and appliances, he said, there has to be a tradeoff in weight. He noted there's a huge push by the fire service, led by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), to reduce tankers' center of gravity and make them safer.
Unless departments want to add axles and increase the size of apparatus, he said, they have to decide what they need, whether it's lots of water, lots of equipment or a lower level of both.
He recommended departments only seek bids from manufacturers that comply with NFPA standards and build safe apparatus. "Some do," he said, "and some don't."
Larry Reber, the owner, founder and president of Firovac Power Systems, a builder of unique tankers in Apple Creek, Ohio, also emphasizes safety. "Tankers are getting too darn big if you ask me," he said. "Bigger is not better."
In 1985, Reber started making apparatus based on a vacuum system that extracts air from his company's specially-made tank, creating negative pressure that draws water to replace it. The system, according to Reber, is quicker and more efficient at filling tankers than conventional pumps at draft.
In a typical tanker shuttle operation, he said his vacuum tankers outrun any conventional tanker that needs filling from a draft. So, rather than having big tankers that can be difficult to maneuver and are challenging to drive and therefore dangerous, Reber recommends smaller tankers, that are more efficient.
"We need to slow trucks down," he said. "Tanker accidents are 99.9 percent operator error." Smaller tankers operated at slower speeds will yield exponential reductions in accidents, he said.
Most tankers made by Firovac are about 2,000 gallons. Because his apparatus are self-filling through the vacuum system, Reber said a pumper is not needed and setup time is short. Vacuum tanks are cylindrical with domed ends, constructed of high-quality aluminum or steel. Interiors are coated with proprietary Firokote and have special baffling.
Reber builds apparatus with pto pumps, typically with 500 to 1,000-gpm capacities, although he said he has built a few with pumps bigger than 1,250 gpm.
Another feature of the Firovac system is water can be discharged without a pump at rates in excess of 800 gpm by pressurizing the closed tank. That gives Firovac apparatus pump-and-roll capability. Reber said bumper turrets can be used to help fight grass and wildfires with water flow that's not dependent on vehicle or engine speed. "It's a very efficient unit," he said.
Fouts Bros. Fire Equipment, Smyrna, Ga., is also known for building efficient and affordable fire tankers, but in a more conventional fashion – with water pumps and standard polypropylene tanks.
William Pilcher, Fouts' sales manager, said most of the company's customers are rural volunteer fire departments attracted to affordable, quality apparatus. "They're the ones on a budget," he said, noting that his company can build an entry-level 2,000-gallon tanker for about $130,000.
Many of Fouts' customers, he said, are specifying tankers with bigger pumps so they can earn more points with the Insurance Services Office (ISO) in an effort to reduce insurance rates for property owners in their coverage area.
The federal AFG grants are influencing tanker purchases, according to Pilcher, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Community Facilities Program by giving money to communities that could not otherwise afford new apparatus. "We're able to give departments a good system for less money," he said.
Morris, the president of Alexis Fire Equipment, recommends that truck committees pay careful attention to specifications, including weight restrictions and ISO requirements.
A tanker specified with a 500-gpm pto pump could be upgraded to an apparatus with an ISO-rated pump for $20,000 to $30,000, he said, giving a community credit for an additional pumper.
Most tankers built at Alexis are on commercial two-door cabs and chassis, but Alexis can create four-door crew cabs for Peterbilt and Kenworth cab and chassis. Custom cabs and chassis are available for tankers, but are rarely ordered. "It's really a matter of economics," Morris said.
He said he's noticed a trend toward firefighters wanting to use every available space on tankers for compartments and equipment. While tankers are being asked to do more, he cautioned that safety could be compromised. "You have to answer a pre-sale question," he said. "What is the purpose of the apparatus? If it's a tanker, the answer should be to haul water."