The fire service is seeing a new generation of “combination” fire apparatus. Among other names, they are being called multipurpose, dual-purpose, multiuse, and multivocation. A multifunctional fire truck can be defined as having several uses or being capable of doing more than one task. One rig combines the functions of several. There is no doubt that “combination” apparatus have merit; they’ve been around for a long time. Look at the earliest motorized pumpers. They were, and sometimes still are, called triple combination pumpers, combining the functions of a steam engine, hose wagon, and chemical company into one rig. The gasoline engine enabled a logical amalgamation of horse-drawn apparatus into one unit to accomplish the prime function of an engine company-putting water on a fire. I believe early consolidation of apparatus was a common-sense proactive measure to achieve efficiency on the fireground whereas the latest merging of job-specific apparatus is a reactionary measure.
In some instances, the fire service may be doing an injustice to itself and its firefighters by eagerly adopting this newest generation of “combinations” whether they are pumper-tankers, rescue-pumpers, tanker-rescues, quints, quads, or some name not yet thought of. The concept may not be in the best interests of every fire department. Is this blasphemy? No, it’s just a different opinion.
Funding and fate can influence and even mandate the number and type of apparatus a department purchases. If City Hall tells the fire department there is no funding to staff several companies or to close two fire stations the following year, then a combination unit may be in order. If a small rural fire company can only staff one or two pieces, multitasking apparatus may be a necessity. Purchasers are thus divided into two groups: those who are forced into multitasking apparatus and those who choose to embrace the concept because they think it is a good idea. This article is directed at those purchasers who willingly adopt a combination-type apparatus without having to. Use caution; there are ramifications.
Do not fault apparatus manufacturers for developing multipurpose apparatus. They are reacting to the marketplace. The fire service wants apparatus to perform multiple tasks and the manufacturers build them. And, they have done an excellent job designing and marketing the concept as they respond to the needs of the marketplace.
For example, one manufacturer’s recent advertisement asks, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get two trucks for the price of one?” Another, from a different manufacturer, states, “One Truck … Every Response.” An article from the January 2012 issue of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment titled “Fire Departments Purchasing More Practical Apparatus” further exemplifies this commitment and the fire service’s acceptance of the multipurpose concept. For example, John Greible, from Spartan ERV, said that departments are solidly behind the trend of multipurpose vehicles. Paul Christiansen, from Ferrara, said there has been a movement toward replacing two vehicles with one. And, Joe Hedges, from E-ONE, said, “This vehicle does both jobs and [departments] don’t need to staff two vehicles.” Philip Gerace from KME added, “We’ve also seen departments combine vehicles, like a rescue and a pumper, so they end up with a more expensive single truck but one that’s less expensive than purchasing two vehicles.”
All that being said, buyers should beware-just because something is new and shiny does not mean it will work for everyone. Common sense, sometimes a lost commodity, must prevail. When researching the appropriateness of a multitasking apparatus, purchasers should consider staffing, size, and space. The success of a multivocation, multitasking rig on the fireground is contingent on the purchaser addressing those items.
Staffing is a highly volatile and sensitive subject held sacred by career people and one not eagerly debated by volunteers. Today, the rationale of combining job-specific apparatus into a single unit is, in my opinion, a reaction to inadequate staffing. Fire apparatus, whether job-specific or multitasking, do not put out fires. Firefighters do. Whether or not they draw a paycheck is irrelevant. The multipurpose fire truck may carry enough equipment to accomplish more than one task, but if there aren’t enough firefighters, those jobs may not be done in a timely or safe manner.
There is no question a multifunctional fire truck can do more than one task. However, from an operational perspective, is the intent for those tasks to be done simultaneously? That is a key question. How many people will be riding the proposed combination apparatus? Will the crew be split, with half doing one job and half another? The success of any apparatus design can be influenced by how efficiently the firefighters staff it.
Evaluate safely staffing a multitasking apparatus. Also, read the “1994 Providence Fire Department Staffing Study” by J. Curtis Varone. It is an excellent, well-researched piece comparing the financial impact of “injuries, overtime, and medical bills” between three- and four-person companies. Read it if you are planning to purchase a multitasking apparatus-especially if the expectation is for that crew to safely accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously. Should your department conduct an objective “time study” evaluating how long it takes for a combination’s crew to efficiently perform the multiple jobs expected of it? If there are only three or four people riding your new rig, consider using them wisely-and safely.
You can evaluate size two ways. The first is the physical limitations of your fire station. How much room do you have for a combination vehicle? Every year, the media gleefully tell stories of new fire trucks being delivered that are too long or too tall to fit in a fire station. Do your homework. If your bay doors are so narrow you have to fold in the rig’s mirrors when entering and leaving, chances are the firehouse floor was probably designed for a two-horse team and a second size steamer. You may be unpleasantly surprised if you think you are just getting “another pumper” if you purchase a rescue-pumper. Your old rig may have had a 12,000-pound front axle rating and a 22,000-pound rear axle rating. That new rescue-pumper might have a 50,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating (GVRW). Can your floor handle 50 percent more dead weight? It may also be a good time to check the weight limits on your roads and bridges.
The other way to evaluate apparatus size is by determining the “comfort level” of its drivers. In career departments, chauffeurs’ complaints about a rig’s size may not be covered in collective bargaining agreements. Hopefully, their concerns and common sense will be addressed in the chief’s office.
It is imperative to recognize the comfort level of drivers in the volunteer sector. Some of these new rigs can exceed the size of a large motor home. If the last four members who volunteered drive four-cylinder compact cars, they may not feel comfortable driving the new rig. You can’t force them. Before you buy it, make sure you’ve got someone who is willing and able to drive it.
It seems inconceivable to take all the equipment from two rigs’ compartments and physically combine it on one rig, albeit of a different design. Good luck. Standard pumper bodies have around 100 cubic feet of compartment space and a standard nonwalk-in heavy rescue truck may have 600 cubic foot of enclosed compartment space. One recently delivered good sized rescue-pumper has about 300 cubic feet of compartment space. Where are the other 400 cubic feet of equipment going? Are you leaving it on the floor of the fire station? Or are you cutting down on booster tank size, supply hose, or the number of attack lines? How efficiently will that new piece operate as an engine company?
In Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment’s December 2011 issue, Chad Newsome, national sales manager, PL Custom Body & Equipment (PLCB), stated that PLCB’s Rescue 1 division is seeing interest in purpose-built products. “Many departments, given the fiscal restraints of recent history, have come to us after trying the multitasking apparatus approach,” said Newsome. “They tell us that this decision, while initially filled with optimism, led to realities of a unit that falls short on multiple fronts.” He asserted that the ever-increasing operational roles departments play today cannot always be met by one-size-fits-all apparatus. “Specialized rescue services are unique unto themselves, and many of these customers are realizing the pitfalls associated with the generalist approach.”
Although his comments were directed at the rescue truck market, they may offer foresight for the entire apparatus industry. Perhaps multitasking apparatus will be a fad. Regardless, they are here. They are additional tools for the fire service-no different than an ax, a halligan bar, or a cut-off saw. If used properly, they will serve a purpose on the fireground.
BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesperson, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.