In a perfect world, all fire departments would be able to operate with an engine, ladder or truck, and rescue or squad for response to emergencies.
In the real world, this probably occurs mostly in metro departments. Smaller organizations-i.e., suburban and rural-operate with some hybrid of this structure. This is the result of staffing and funding-big surprise here. Some departments may make a conscious decision to create a different response system. Regardless, this system has placed a great deal of responsibility on the engine to carry additional equipment to respond to an ever-increasing variety of emergencies. The traditional engine has become the “jack of all trades” for many fire departments.
Fire engines are significant investments for any department, and there is a tendency to maximize the functionality to the point that it creates additional challenges for departments. There is nothing wrong with doing as much as you can with what you have. But, this cannot come at the expense of trying to do too much with what you have or failing to plan to accommodate additional operations. Many remember the term “triple combination pumper.” This referred to having a pump, water tank, and hose. This is a misnomer because these vehicles now carry truck company equipment, ladders, emergency medical service (EMS) supplies, special rescue tools, and more. The EMS equipment can be significant if the engines are used for paramedic response. All of this has an impact on performance and service.
Define the Mission
Departments must decide what functions they expect from their engines. They must consciously plan how their operations will go-not only for fire response but for other emergencies that are within their organizations’ responsibilities. This is critical in that it helps decide the type of vehicles fire departments need. If they do not do this, it can add too much to a vehicle, which can make it more difficult to use, more expensive to operate, and less reliable. It can also lead to a shorter life expectancy because the mileage can add up faster than expected and lead to earlier replacement.
No matter what you have, there are limitations on what can be carried. This is often limited by the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which establishes the overall weight that the frame and axles can safely carry. There is a finite amount of compartment space, and only so much can be jammed into a compartment. Too often, departments add to vehicles as they acquire more equipment to address expanding roles. The added weight will create a safety issue if it exceeds the vehicle’s GVWR and can impact warranty and vehicle durability. It adds to liability should something go wrong. Overcrowded compartments can slow operations as firefighters look for equipment for the job at hand or need to remove unneeded equipment to get to what they really need.
Fire departments need a comprehensive approach when acquiring apparatus or making modifications to current apparatus. They need to consider specifications when ordering or making adjustments to an apparatus that significantly change it from its original intent and design. Investing in a planning process that looks at the end goals in totality will benefit all organizations.
Establishing the proper specifications before the purchase is the first step in making sure you get the vehicle that can handle the workload you expect it to. Realistically anticipate the expected equipment to be carried based on the jobs assigned to the engine companies. Besides the usual triple combination pumper duties, will you be providing ALS, extrication, truck company functions, or any special rescues? If so, what equipment will be required? Based on the answers to these simple questions, you should have some idea of what you need to carry. From there, assess if there is significant weight to be added. If so, adjust your specifications to handle the increase. You are almost always best to overspecify with the expectation that over the life of the vehicle you will increase its equipment load.
The equipment cache to be carried affects the design of the vehicle. There must be enough space to carry everything. If the equipment needs to be protected from the weather, then a department will need more or larger compartments. If the amount to be carried is great, it may require designing a larger vehicle. This could place items farther out of firefighters’ reach. The hosebeds could be higher off the ground or the ground ladders could be up high. Examples like these affect operational issues and could create injury risks. You may have limited options, but make sure that you look at these potential issues to make the best decision. This is best addressed early-not after purchasing the vehicle.
For a pure triple combination pumper, training is relatively simple. You need to get water from the tank or hydrant through the pump and into the hose. If that is the vehicle’s sole function, then this is the area that departments should focus on during training. As engines add functions, the training must correspond. If no truck companies are readily available, then personnel must be able to perform these important aspects of fire attack. If they are assigned to rescues and extrication, the same applies. This logic relates to all expected duties. So by adding equipment and responsibilities, you increase the need for training and increase the related challenges to the organization.
Areas of preparation that must be factored into the plan are driving, operating, and simple vehicle and equipment maintenance. If an engine needs to be bigger to accommodate all that goes into adding responsibilities, it will affect its handling and operation. This could require more than cursory driver training with a new vehicle and possibly a significant review of operations of the onboard items. This is important for safety to reduce the risks associated with operating a vehicle and also to ensure the engine operators’ competence. It is about service delivery and personnel safety. Organizations are more exposed to liability claims if they are not reasonable and prudent with their personnel training. Should something happen, you can be sure that your training records will be reviewed.
For various reasons, departments need to get more functionality from their engines. The motivation, whether it is purely financial or based on staffing or a belief in maximizing efficiencies, is irrelevant. What is important is that there needs to be a plan in place that considers the entire package-from purchase to maintenance to preparation (training). Simply adding functions without looking at the consequences can lead to problems and issues. Spreading resources and capabilities too thinly can create additional risks. Although the engine can be the jack of all trades, being a master of none won’t work. Take the responsibility to be competent seriously and take on only what you can handle effectively.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.