By Alan M. Petrillo
A number of fire equipment makers use several types of assistance in testing a prototype product before they produce thousands of copies of the unit.
Typical groups might include advisory panels that have fire department, government agency, business, and industrial facility representatives on them. Other groups consist of focus groups, and beta testers put a product through its paces to identify any modifications that should be made before the manufacturer swings into full production of the item.
Rod Carringer, chief marketing officer for Task Force Tips (TFT), says TFT has used both product development and dealer advisory councils for 25 years to get feedback on its products before they go into full production. “Any company registered with the Insurance Services Office (ISO) will have a quality system in place that’s driven by the ISO standard,” Carringer points out. “And, part of that system is the ability to have a formalized method and manner of collecting customer feedback.”
|1 Task Force Tips used a variety of customer feedback methods in developing its PRO/pak Multi-Expansion Portable Foam Unit, which has a 2½-gallon reservoir with a built-in eductor that can be quickly set to the ratio of foam or wetting agents used.|
Carringer says that TFT’s approach to customer feedback is twofold: a worldwide dealer advisory council that meets for a week annually to advise TFT on “how we’re doing, our shipping history, financials, information about the marketplace and competition, and other things that keep them awake at night, which is our business advisory council,” he says. “We also run smaller regional group settings for product development that typically include regional managers and engineering people to collect feedback from customers of a specific product.”
“Sometimes we’ll test market with a few dealers for six months, get feedback, and modify the product accordingly,” Carringer observes. “There’s a lot of trial and error in product development. Some products never see the market, while others take the feedback and use it to develop a better product.”
|2 The Blitzfire High Elevation Oscillating Monitor made by Task Force Tips is a product resulting from feedback by product development and advisory councils and beta testing by career and volunteer fire departments. (Photos 1-2 courtesy of Task Force Tips.)|
Todd Herring, director of marketing for Fire-Dex, says his company uses a variety of advisory panels and beta testers. “We worked very closely with Safety and Survival Training, in New Jersey, in developing our in-pants harness,” Herring says. “We developed the prototype and put it in their hands to use over a period of time and took their ideas and incorporated them into the next version for more testing and feedback.”
Fire-Dex also has worked with Tactical Advantage Training in Florida to put its turnout gear products through real-world extrication challenges. “They cut up about 1,000 cars a year,” Herring says, “so we worked with them to develop our TecGen products. Their use was able to accelerate the wear on the fabric and its construction, testing the durability of the seams, and accelerate the aging process.”
|3 Fire-Dex brings prototype products to fire departments around its Medina, Ohio, headquarters for field testing and also has worked with Tactical Advantage Training in Florida on its TecGen turnout gear to accelerate the hard use and aging process on the gear. (Photo courtesy of Fire-Dex.)|
Eric Combs, divisional vice president of product management for Safe Fleet, says Safe Fleet’s companies [Elkhart Brass, Fire Research Corp. (FRC), ROM, and FoamPro] rely heavily on customer interaction during the product design process. “One very successful mechanism is working with fire academies and instructors around the world,” Combs says. “Some of our staff are instructors, and we are able to have them help keep our products current with best use practices.”
Globe Manufacturing Co. works heavily with training instructors at more than 20 fire training academies around the country, says Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Manufacturing Co., especially the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) and Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX). “We get the gear on the instructors and get immediate feedback from their simulated fire training environment,” he says. “It gives us specific ways in understanding quickly how our gear is performing. We also work with a variety of departments, both pre- and post-certification of the gear, to get direct comparison with their current gear.”
|4 Lion has been conducting user trials of its products for 30 years, working with career and volunteer fire departments around the country to test its products.|
Fire Department Testing
Herring says Fire-Dex has strong relationships with fire departments around its headquarters in Medina, Ohio, and often brings prototype products to them for field testing and face-to-face feedback. “We also use fire departments around the country, as when we brought out our H41 Interceptor particulate barrier hood, so we could get input from departments in different climates, conditions, and geographies,” Herring says. “In addition, we have put our products on potential customers for them to try out, gather data about the product, and then give us feedback on it for our analysis.”
Carringer notes that TFT has 13 career and volunteer fire departments represented among its employees, including five from his department, the Center Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department. “Often we’ll bring in several of them with their apparatus and let them use a product prototype to beat it up and use it the way it’s intended for fire service work.” He estimates that 60 percent of TFT’s products tested come to market as a result of advisory panels and beta testers.
|5 The development of Lion’s V-Force® structural turnout gear went through various user trials before it became a production product. (Photos 4-5 courtesy of Lion.)|
Lion works with a core group of career and volunteer fire departments around the country that test its products, according to Karen Lehtonen, vice president of innovation and product management for Lion. “We want to be sure to put out products that meet the needs of end users,” she adds, “so we might test a product, have to redesign it after the testing, and then test it again until it’s right for a product launch,” she says.
Mordecai adds that Globe has worked with the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department on developing an internal harness system for turnout pants, which became Globe’s Series III Internal Harness System, and is working with the Boston (MA) Fire Department and IFSI on the issue of particulate protection. “We’re getting a better understanding of what gets on a firefighter’s gear, skin, and in the bloodstream,” Mordecai says. “We’re trying to prevent egress of those toxins into personal protective equipment (PPE).”
|6 Globe Manufacturing Inc. used voice of the customer (VOC), an advisory panel, and field testing by fire departments and fire academies to develop its ATHLETIX™ personal protective equipment (PPE).|
Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) Fire & Rescue Services has been heavily involved in testing of the InView 360, a 360-degree camera system, Combs points out, using it on an aerial ladder and technical rescue truck. Eric Froese, Vancouver’s training officer, notes, “Our staff are very positive about the benefits of being able to see all sides of the apparatus.” Combs adds that InView 360 systems were in use on seven demo trucks at FDIC International 2016 and that Safe Fleet “got a lot of great feedback about the system” from that exposure.
Jason Traynor, global products business director for MSA, says that MSA also regularly seeks feedback from fire departments around the country and works closely with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; and Butler County Community College, using their training grounds.
|7 Working with the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, Globe Manufacturing developed an internal harness system for turnout pants that became its Series III Internal Harness System. (Photos 6-7 courtesy of Globe Manufacturing Inc.)|
End User Trials
Lehtonen says Lion has been using end user trials for more than 30 years. “We’ll take an idea or concept out for feedback from end users to see if we are on the right track and if we should continue to invest time and money in it,” Lehtonen says. “If the answer is ‘yes,’ then we’ll vet the idea, prepare a prototype, and do smaller field trials with it.”
Lehtonen points out that some prototype products might be tested in nonvolatile environments if the product is not certified yet. But in other cases, Lion might want to get the product up to National Fire Protection Association standards before volatile testing. She notes that Lion has groups “we reach out to regularly with ideas, and they have given us good feedback over the years. We also might do mass surveys for information collection and sometimes use focus groups after a survey if we need to drill down for details about what they think of a product.”
|8 Akron Brass Co. developed its Revel Scout battery-powered LED scene light after ride-alongs with firefighters, end user group meetings and councils, and beta testing by fire departments.|
David Durstine, vice president of marketing for Akron Brass Co., says his company has an end user group of about 100 around the world involved in its feedback process. He notes that Akron’s Revel Scout battery-powered LED scene light took about 2½ years from initial concept to deploying the product. “Our product managers did ride-alongs to watch firefighters do their jobs, gathered information, and came up with the concept,” he says. “We held end user group meetings, some done virtually, others in person, to get their hands on the concepts and get feedback on how they would do it differently.”
Akron also used its end user council to first view mockup sketches, followed by prototypes they could use and deploy. “We took that feedback and incorporated it into the product,” Durstine says. “We also asked the group for advice on how to best communicate the benefits to fire departments.”
|9 The UltraJet nozzle, produced by Akron Brass Co., is the result of VOC feedback as well as beta testing by fire departments around the country. (Photos 8-9 courtesy of Akron Brass Co.)|
Home Office Testing
Traynor says the development of MSA’s G1 self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) had three councils (firefighters, sales, and distribution) that met multiple times and often would test the prototype G1 together. “We’d bring them to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or another location and have them use the prototype to see if it met their expectations from the previous version,” Traynor says. “At one point, we delayed the launch by a year because they had given us information that needed to be executed into the product.”
When TFT brought out new monitors and nozzles for industrial use, Carringer says TFT brought 10 large customers from petroleum processing facilities to its headquarters and plant in Valparaiso, Indiana, to discuss the new products, their design, the lifetime costs expectation, their price ranges, and how they set up against the competition, Carringer says. “At each stage of a product’s development, there’s a gate where we collect certain information before moving on with the project,” he adds.
|10 The redesigned Chief XD nozzle with a changed bail handle made by Elkhart Brass Co. is the result of direct feedback from firefighters field testing the product when it was in the prototype stage. Elkhart Brass took that feedback and incorporated it into a redesigned product.|
Voice of the Customer
Jeff Emery, director of marketing and product management for Scott Safety, says for Scott Sight, its in-mask thermal imaging system, Scott brought in 200 firefighters at FDIC International 2015 to use the system. “We watched and observed them using it and then went through 10 product revisions, with customer feedback after each one,” Emery says. “We were able to release the product at FDIC International 2016.”
Emery notes that, on a regular basis, Scott Safety will bring together a large group of beta testers for several days to look at an early-stage product. “We’ll use career and volunteer firefighters and males and females from different areas of the country and get them to have hands-on participative training with the product,” he says. “We supplement that testing with testing at major trade shows where hundreds of firefighters can get their hands on our product during its development cycle. Customer feedback is what drives our product development pipeline; we don’t move fast unless it involves the customer.”
|11 Elkhart Brass Co.’s InView 360 camera system has undergone beta testing by fire departments around the country and in Canada, including Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services, which has the system installed for testing on an aerial ladder and a technical rescue truck. (Photos 10-11 courtesy of Safe Fleet.)|
Traynor notes that at FDIC International 2016, MSA showed three SCBA concepts for firefighter feedback: a fall alarm, SCBA ranging, and breathing rate data. “We wanted to see what people gravitated to,” he says. “The two concepts significantly more exciting to customers were the SCBA ranging and the fall alarm.”
Mordecai says Globe uses voice of the customer (VOC) to capture customers’ expectations, preferences, and aversions to potential products. “With an advisory panel, you choose fire service veterans for their feedback, but often many of them are not using the products anymore because they are in the command or purchasing staff,” Mordecai points out. “With VOC, we get a 360-degree view of the people, which means career, volunteer, and combination departments; urban, suburban, and rural; men and women in different phases of their careers; and different geographies. To understand the VOC methodology from all those perspectives, you have to interview a lot of people.”
|12 MSA’s G1 self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) went through multiple prototype tests by firefighters, sales and distribution councils, and career and volunteer fire departments brought to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for field testing.|
Globe’s new ATHLETIX™ turnout gear is a direct result of VOC, Mordecai says. “We had 33 interview sites around the country and a half-dozen people at each site, selected for their different roles, genders, and department type. Four Globe teams interviewed them to collect the data about the product, which took about a year to complete.”
Mordecai notes that the feedback showed firefighters wanted turnout gear that was lightweight, flexible, and less restrictive. “This caused us to rethink the entire question of PPE and come out with new ways to address it, which we did with the notion of stretch, meaning a closer-fitting, less restrictive garment in ATHLETIX, which is a direct result of VOC.”
|13 MSA demonstrated three SCBA concepts at FDIC International 2016 to get firefighter feedback: a fall alarm, SCBA ranging, and breathing rate data, with the intent of pursuing the concepts of most interest to firefighters. (Photos 12-13 courtesy of MSA.)|
Durstine adds that Akron Brass meets with its customer councils about four times a year, often involving customers in new product design. “Sometimes the council gives us feedback that makes us rethink a product,” he says. “We did VOC with customers on our UltraJet™ nozzle and kept them involved through the entire process of its development.”
Combs says Safe Fleet also gets market input through surveys, including blind surveys where the company’s name is not used, that allows it to look at industry trends. He notes that when Elkhart Brass redesigned its Chief XD nozzle by changing the bail handle, “it went through a couple of design iterations because some feedback said the bail handle was too narrow. Firefighters were putting a couple of folds of hose through the handle to do a shoulder carry, but that was not a use in our original design,” he says. “So we opened up the handle to facilitate that type of usage in the field.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.