USSC’s Continued Growth and Focus on Firefighter Safety
BY CHRIS Mc LOONE
I’ve been traveling to Chester County, Pennsylvania, for most of my life. My grandfather, a retired Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department firefighter, moved his family there in the early 1970s. After retiring from the fire department, he worked for National Foam, in Exton, Pennsylvania, a short 10- to 15-minute drive from his new home.
When I was a kid, my grandfather would bring me there to take a look at fire apparatus that were at the facility. Back then, most of the Chester County I knew was still farmland. More than 40 years later, the area has seen the type of growth many communities located near major cities experience. As families moved west of the city but still within commuting distance, strip malls, shopping malls, myriad supermarkets, restaurants, housing developments, and highways began to appear. The National Foam facility predated much of this growth.
It had been close to 30 years since I was in that facility when I revisited in 2016 to tour the offices and manufacturing floor of the USSC Group, known to the fire service primarily for its Valor First Responder Seating. And, I made the trip back out in November 2018 to get a tour of the company’s new headquarters located just across the street. The company is growing both in square footage and product lines through acquisitions, which is a benefit to firefighters and the county it calls home. For the fire service, Valor First Responder Seating is a hub for a variety of other safety products USSC Group now produces.
USSC Group has been in business since the 1980s, rapidly growing from a small shop in a garage. The company started out making seats for trains and locomotives and moved into seats for buses in public transportation. According to Joe Mirabile, president and CEO of USSC Group, the company now enjoys a 60 percent market share of all public transit buses around the country. In the early 2000s, USSC Group began making seats for the military, and Mirabile says it manufactures the number one blast seat for the military. It is from its military DNA, says Mirabile, that the company began to make seats for the first responder market. “In about 2009/2010, we began to make seats for first responder, fire truck, and ambulance vehicles, and we also began to make fire suppression systems for vehicles,” says Mirabile. “We transitioned in 2009/2010 to a safety and survivability company where we were making a wide range of safety products outside of seating.”
Before diving into developing seating for the fire service and emergency medical service (EMS), Mirabile says company representatives participated in ride-alongs with different departments as well as meeting with fire and EMS chiefs. The feedback gleaned from these interfaces sent the company into about two years of prototyping and investment to come up with what Mirabile calls “the most durable, highly engineered fire and ambulance seats on the market.” He says that the growth in USSC’s fire segment has been dramatic. “We’ve doubled every year since 2010 in the fire and first responder market,” says Mirabile. “We’ve continued to try to release revolutionary safety products to the fire market. Our passion—our entire premise—as we’ve gone along is, how can we make their job safer; how can we make them safer in their environments? At the core of it is, how do we make them not have to make a choice between their duty and service and safety?”
Mirabile cites seat belt use—or nonuse—as one example. “We always saw firefighters going to fires without their seat belts on,” he says. “So, how could we make it easier for them to get their seat belts on yet still be able to get their self-contained breathing apparatus on and still be able to egress the vehicle quickly so they could save lives?” He adds that the company continued along those lines on the ambulance side. “We found that emergency medical technicians (EMTs) in the backs of ambulances did not have the mobility they needed,” he says. “They were severely limited when they were treating patients on the mobility side. We focused on how we can make them as mobile as possible; give them slide track seating; and give them four-point, four-retractor harnesses that give them full mobility.”
The company went a step further when it considered how to allow firefighters and EMTs to do these things and do them comfortably. “We added heating and cooling to those seats,” Mirabile says. “A traditional fan cooling system wouldn’t work, so we used inductive cooling to cool them through their heavy gear and try to return their body temperatures to normal. In the winter, we found it was very cold in the trucks and ambulances, so we added heating elements. That has really been our focus: continuing to add elements to their workplace that allow them to be safer, more comfortable, and better able to do their jobs without making choices.”
EXPANSION AND ACQUISITION
Healthy companies grow not only through acquisition but also through investment in themselves. USSC Group has done both.
In November 2018, the company hosted customers across all its product lines, partners, and the press at a grand opening for its new headquarters. Having outgrown the old National Foam plant, the company was able to move into a facility right across the street. Its former Exton headquarters consisted of 150,000 square feet, and its manufacturing partner facility in Chicago, Illinois, approximately 600,000 square feet. “We maxed capacity at Exton and our manufacturing partner facility in Chicago, so we rapidly needed to find a new location,” states Mirabile. Referring to the new headquarters, he adds, “This building became an option for us after the township allowed for a major renovation to take place. This building today is 325,000 square feet. It needed a significant conversion. We’ve invested approximately $55 million in the facility, equipment, and the plant itself.” With the expansion, Mirabile says the company has increased capacity substantially to continue to serve its markets. And, it’s not done. “We have a groundbreaking this month on another 200,000 square feet that will be connected to this building,” he adds. “We plan to have about 525,000 square feet of dedicated manufacturing space here by the time we’re finished.”
Choosing to stay in Exton was an easy decision for USSC, and it benefits not only USSC Group but also Chester County. Adding manufacturing space and expanding allow the company to add jobs to the area as well. “We decided to stay here because of the talent surrounding us in Chester County,” Mirabile says. “We believe in the people here. We believe in the community here. Putting our headquarters here is really reflective of our belief in the area.”
The company had 125 employees but now expects to cross 300 by the end of this year. “We’ve probably hired about 70 people in the last couple of months,” says Mirabile, “and we have about 75 open requisitions currently.” The company is actively looking for good people across all types of jobs. “I think that’s the unique part of engineering,” adds Mirabile. “We are hiring tons of blue collar jobs all the way up to MBA-level corporate jobs. It’s full engineering, customer service—you name it, and we’re hiring the best people to fill each and every one of those positions.”
Regarding acquisitions and partnerships, Mirabile says that USSC has always been known for safety and survivability solutions. “We never go into the market with a me-too product,” he says. “It’s always a product that’s going to revolutionize the area we’re putting it in. They are making a difference in the safety and survivability and technology areas of the person doing the job.” For example, when the company identified that there was an increase in vehicle fires in vehicles that also had its seats, it found, acquired, and brought in fire suppression technology that would prevent the loss of an asset and would provide a very good chance that any evacuation of a vehicle would be able to take place when the fire suppression system was engaged. “So, it was inextricably linked to our safety seating and technology around the seats.” That product is USSC’s Fogmaker North America.
Most recently, USSC acquired Vista Brake, LLC. The company manufactures Vista Brake Lock for apparatus equipped with air brakes and Vista Park Lock for apparatus with automatic transmission shifters to prevent theft of emergency vehicles while on a call. “We saw growing issues with runaway vehicles, rollaways, etc.,” says Mirabile. “This system has always been largely combined with the seat, so sensors of the system have always surrounded whether someone was getting out of the vehicle—getting out of the seat. It’s technology that ultimately surrounds the seat and occupant. It makes their job safer. It makes an event less likely to happen that could put their safety at risk. And, that’s the way we looked at Vista Brake and why we thought it was a great fit for our company.”
Earlier in 2018, USSC announced a partnership and licensing agreement with ClearMotion, an automotive technology company specializing in digital chassis control. The agreement is for ClearMotion’s proprietary control software, algorithms, and mechatronics for active seating. ClearMotion’s active suspension seat, formerly known as Bose Ride, cancels road disturbances and reduces whole-body vibration and fatigue for drivers. Mirabile says, “The theory was that this suspension can eliminate about 94 percent of road vibration. Time and time again we saw firefighters and EMTs and those in our other markets suffering from back injuries because of vibration from long-term driving. It was a natural fit to integrate this technology with our products to make drivers more comfortable, to improve their quality of life, and to make it less likely that they would get injured on the job.”
USSC is actively acquiring other technologies for the markets it serves, with multiple acquisitions currently underway. “We are pushing the limits of what we can bring to firefighters and first responders as far as we possibly can,” says Mirabile. “Our interest is continuing to release and bring to our customers the best technologies and products we can. We know that we can innovate, and we can continue to create here.”
“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be at USSC,” says Mirabile. “The company has had an incredible growth path over the last 10 years. It’s a tremendous company driven by dedicated people who really care about our customers.” It is the customer whose expectations Mirabile hopes to continue to meet. “It’s more about what firefighters and EMTs can expect from us,” he states. “And, what they can expect is that we’re going to continue to deliver revolutionary, game-changing technologies to their environments. We’re continuing to innovate. My message to the firefighter and EMT is we want to continue to hear from them so we can continue to focus on the R&D and the investment to change the way we’re looking at seating. It is really those customers—the voice of those customers—that drive our passion for innovation and will lead to the next big breakthrough that will continue to revolutionize seating in their space.”
CHRIS Mc LOONE, senior editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 25-year veteran of the fire service currently serving as a safety officer and former assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has served on past apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and an editor for more than 20 years.