BY BILL ADAMS
The dictionary defines reality as realism, the truth, and actuality. It can be an accurate and verifiable statement of fact that can, when necessary, be substantiated with documentation.
In the fire truck world, reality is not always addressed objectively by some apparatus purchasing committees (APCs) or some firematically oriented members of the authority having jurisdiction. Pundits, commentators, and some so-called industry experts can be equally as guilty.
In the apparatus purchasing process, personalities, pride, and traditionalism can cloud the judgment of decision makers. The oft-heard statement that the fire service is “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress” is no longer relevant and, in my opinion, repeating it is detrimental to the goodwill, morale, and discipline of the occupation—whether it be career or volunteer oriented. The “good ole days” are gone. They will never return but should never be forgotten, because all parties can learn from prior mistakes and errors in judgment.
Look at the title “Fire Department.” Some organizations now call themselves Fire-EMS, Fire-Rescue, Fire & Emergency Services, or various combinations thereof. Changing a name to accurately define the occupation is innocuous, although it does reflect reality. Not changing the name is equally inoffensive. The name on the door is not going to affect the proficiency of the organization on the fireground or at the incidents it responds to.
On the other hand, purchasing a new fire truck is a different story. Purchasing one that reflects the personal preferences of decision makers who live in the past and yearn for those “good ole days” is disgraceful. Buying a rig just because it is bigger and better than the neighbors’ is equally shameful. Buying one that does not adequately address the actual day-to-day operations and fireground functions is doing a disservice to the taxpayers who pay for it and the firefighters who staff it. That is reality. Reality is the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts.
Accepting reality can be troublesome for many departments. The following statements in italics are common when specifying a “first-due” engine company. The realistic responses in rebuttal are typical and reflect the growing pains of smaller cash-strapped communities and volunteer entities where increasing nonfirematic responses and shrinking staffing are becoming the norm.
We need a 10-person cab in case we get a big crew like on meeting or drill night. The volunteers: “Studies over the past several years show our membership is declining. We’re lucky to get all the rigs on the road. During the week, we often only have one responding.” Career departments: “We’ve never had more than three or four people assigned to the engine, and it’s doubtful the city will increase staffing. We’re lucky the city doesn’t reduce what we have.”
Everyone is buying rigs with large horsepower motors. “Our district doesn’t have any hills. We shouldn’t buy a big motor just because our neighbors have one.”
We’ve always had multiple preconnects. You can never tell when you’ll need them. “Our analysis of past incidents where attack lines have been used shows a single line has been pulled on 95 percent of them. Two attack lines, a backup line, and perhaps a preconnected ground monitor are adequate.”
Preconnects should be located low where they’re easily accessible and easy to repack. “Being easy to pull has merit because the need is immediate. Repacking is not a priority as long as it can be done safely. At least the primary attack line should be low; the others don’t have to be. The space can be used for equipment used frequently.”
We always purchase rigs from the ABC Fire Truck Company; they’ve worked well. This can be an extremely touchy subject. “Yes, they have; however, there are other departments that’ve purchased apparatus from other manufacturers, and they also have worked equally as well for them.” “We are subject to competitive bidding rules, and the municipality will not let us write a proprietary spec.” “We should purchase what we need—not what we want.” A real kicker can be: “You just want that rig because the mayor’s brother-in-law sells them.”
Firefighting equipment should be mounted low; that’s our priority function. “Detailed analysis of the past several years proves that 90 percent of our runs do not encounter actual fire. The equipment that is mounted low and easily accessible should be what we use frequently. The only exception should be for extremely heavy equipment.”
We don’t need all that medical equipment taking up valuable space. “Same as above. That’s what we use the most. We do more emergency medical service than anything else.”
There’s no reason to carry a lot of auto extrication tools and cribbing. Volunteers: “Our response records prove we can’t guarantee staffing an engine and a designated rescue company, especially during weekdays.” Career departments: “The city is cutting funding to staff our heavy rescue truck. We have to put the equipment someplace.”
Vendors, whether they be sales staff, dealers, or the actual apparatus manufacturers themselves, are a mixed lot. I venture that the majority are professional and honest and play by the unwritten rules of “responsible” selling. It is their occupation and, as I have previously written, some are very, very good in doing so.
It would not be unheard of or illegal for them to cater to the whims, emotions, and past experiences of those in the position to make a purchasing decision. It’s their job. Should APC members yearn for apparatus designs of yesteryear, don’t blame the vendor for supplying what they want. I am sure most responsible vendors will make suggestions and recommendations and explain what’s new and coming down the road in the industry. However, there comes a point when educating the consumer may alienate him and cost the vendor a sale. It is a fine line vendors must walk. Despite the fact a purchaser may not accept reality, that purchaser is still going to buy a fire truck—outmoded as it may be—albeit still compliant with National Fire Protection Association 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. Someone will make the sale.
Biased views and experiences of commentators and writers can also influence purchasers into making imprudent decisions. Being inundated with multiple articles about the advantages of a subject similar to “low hosebeds” and hearing of authors’ past experiences may sway purchasers. Coupled with photographs and multiple apparatus manufacturers’ advertising low hosebeds, the decision to purchase a rig with one may be based on outside influences rather than the objective needs within a response district. Older pundits and critics often espouse safety and ease of operation and discreetly promote “the way it was” when they were in their prime. Younger observers and commentators whose experiences reflect actual happenings on the fireground today may have a better grasp of reality.
Combining real-life involvement with the wisdom and experiences of the past can result in a wise fire apparatus purchase. Anticipating both the actual and projected changing demographics of a response district and the availability of staffing will make for an ever better one. Good luck.
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.