Apparatus Purchasing: Fiscal Alternatives

The compartment built into the driver’s side rear work platform contains a short five-inch curb jumper for making a big fire hookup.
(1) The compartment built into the driver’s side rear work platform contains a short five-inch curb jumper for making a big fire hookup. (Photo courtesy of Steve Howcraft.)

The current economic turmoil is forcing fire departments to become more judicious in allocating resources for new purchases. Having a large price tag, fire apparatus are financially conspicuous and an easy target for cost-conscious administrators. New purchases will come under intense scrutiny by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Fire departments fortunate enough to be authorized to spec out a new rig will be harangued at every step to save a buck. This article attempts to show how to achieve savings during the purchasing process without overly compromising the operational characteristics of the apparatus or jeopardizing the safety of the firefighters assigned to it. Hopefully it does not ruffle feathers. It is understood that each fire department is unique in procedures, demographics, staffing, equipment, and history. What may be considered a luxury in one jurisdiction can be a bona fide necessity in another. There is no intent to question, undermine, or minimize how or what any fire department operates.

Be prepared. Further economic turmoil may restrict apparatus purchasing to the point that fireground operations and personnel safety may be compromised.

The Fictitious Fire Department

For decades, the Fictitious Fire Department has purchased traditional side-mount 1,500-gallon-per-minute (gpm) pumpers with custom cabs, two 2½-inch discharges on each side and two at the rear, two 1¾-inch crosslays, and a three-inch riser for a deluge set. Inlets include nongated six-inch side steamers, a gated six-inch front suction, and two 2½-inch gated suctions on each side. Several years ago, the department switched to four-inch large-diameter hose (LDH). It retrofitted existing apparatus with, and new purchases now include, an electrically operated four-inch LDH discharge on the passenger’s side and an LDH piston intake relief valve on the driver’s side steamer. Except for the LDH connections, the plumbing is similar to what has been purchased since the 1970s. The department reasoned it worked then, so it’ll work now.

The majority of the department’s alarms are emergency-medical-service- (EMS-) related. Structure fires are few and far between. On the fireground, primary attack lines are the preconnected crosslays with a single 2½-inch backup line in the main hosebed preconnected to one of the rear discharges. Historically, if an incident required multiple lines, the extra lines were crewed by and pulled from another pumper. A single four-inch LDH bed is used as a supply line, to supply fire department connections, and to feed the deluge set in the portable mode. No one can remember the last time an engine pumped more than a single four-inch line or even multiple 2½-inch lines. I do not recommend, endorse, or condemn the procedures of this fire department. It represents how some organizations operate and is depicted to illustrate possible cost savings when like departments purchase similar apparatus.

Bells and Whistles

When authorizing the purchase of a new pumper, the AHJ directed the fire department to get rid of all the glitz and glitter. It was not going to purchase a parade piece. Prior to addressing bells and whistles, it is imperative to acknowledge that traditionalism and pride are prevalent in every fire department regardless of whether it is a career or volunteer entity. Tradition, pride, and professionalism are fundamental to the goodwill, morale, and discipline of the fire service.

In the volunteer ranks, one could claim that bells and whistles are a small price to pay for unpaid help. That claim may have merit during times of economic prosperity. In times of fiscal uncertainty, the entire fire service may be forced into making some harsh decisions. One such decision could be: Do you want a new fire truck without the bells and whistles or do you want no new fire truck at all?

Where to Save

The following is a small sampling of possible savings. A half dozen manufacturers and dealers provided pricing information. Prices shown are approximate; some have been averaged. Actual bid prices will vary.

1. Most custom cabs and chassis sport a two-tone paint job. It looks as good on a new fire truck as it did on a ’57 Chevy. Besides aesthetics, does the $1,100 to $1,500 two-tone paint scheme add anything tangible to the vehicle?

2. Estimated costs for a heavy brass chromed locomotive bell with an ornamental American eagle top piece and pull lanyard in the cab range from $1,200 to $2,500. Besides taking up space on the front bumper that could be used for hose or tool storage, a bell probably will not be heard over the mechanical siren, an electronic siren, or the air horns. Tradition may be a tough sell to the taxpayers.

3. No sane individual wants to engage highly opinionated firefighters about the merits of gold leaf lettering; however, it should be addressed. Nontraditionalists claim lettering is advertising; most firefighters call it pride. Put “FICTITIOUS FIRE DEPARTMENT” on each side of the cab, “FICTITIOUS” on the front cowl below the windshield, “ENGINE COMPANY NO. 5” on each front door, and “FIRE RESCUE” on each crew cab door. One hundred and twelve three-inch-high double shaded genuine gold leaf letters will set the AHJ back between $14 and $18 each—about $2,000. Unshaded three-inch reflective letters will cost about half as much, and you can see them at night. Safety is easier to sell than pride or advertising.

4. Gold leaf striping is as volatile a subject as lettering. On custom cabs, striping usually covers, or hides, the sometimes irregular two-tone paint break line. The amount and style of gold leaf striping are unique to each fire department. One manufacturer will charge more than $20 per running foot for gold leaf. Depending on the manufacturer, pricing for reflective striping the same width as gold leaf striping runs between $20 and $10 per running foot. You make the call. Here’s a helpful hint: Make the most of “alternate” and “optional” pricing in your bid documents. The actual price will come out.

5. Using reflective rear chevrons is a nonissue. Compliant reflective striping on each side is another topic. While the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requires that four-inch-wide striping cover a certain percentage of the apparatus, many departments opt for six-inch striping. Add $200 to $400 to upgrade to a solid six-inch stripe. A popular pattern is a two-inch stripe over a four-inch stripe over a two-inch stripe with a small gap in between each (also called the 2-4-2). Add another $300 to $950. Elaborate configurations such as “Z” patterns and “S” swirls cost more. Again, consider alternate and optional pricing. Are you looking for vehicle conspicuity or NFPA compliance, or are you making a statement?

6. Manufacturers quoted polished aluminum wheels priced from $300 to $500 each more than painted steel wheels. Although they look better, can the cost be justified? Buyers, beware: If you specify painted wheels, make sure you require both sides of all wheels to be painted. You may be unpleasantly surprised down the road when you rotate or change your tires.

7. A raised roof is very common over the crew areas of custom cabs. Prior to sentence of NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, which squashed wearing helmets in the cab, a raised roof was a good idea. If firefighters no longer wear their helmets in the cab, is a raised roof necessary? The occupants of the driver’s and officer’s seats do not seem to have a problem, or they don’t complain too loudly. If they did, you would see a raised roof over the entire cab similar to European apparatus. If your crew members are not regularly smashing their heads when exiting the cab, is raising the roof worth the cost? Several vendors said there is no cost for a nominally sized raised roof. Others state departments can realize savings of $1,600 to $2,900.


Most fire departments are progressive in adopting modern tactics and strategies and following NFPA and governmental guidelines. In apparatus purchasing, there is a tendency to leave well enough alone, especially if a change is not mandated. As the old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

As an example, consider the four 2½-inch gated suction inlets still specified by the Fictional Fire Department that runs 100 percent LDH. How often is one used, let alone all four? Individually gated 2½-inch gated suction inlets cost $1,000 each. The NFPA requires one auxiliary gated inlet controlled at the pump operator’s position. It does not specify a size other than it cannot be less than 2½ inches. If you are adamant about having a 2½-inch inlet, put a storz-to-2½-inch female swivel adaptor on your piston intake relief valve. One distributor lists one for $130. Need more than one? The same distributor lists a six-inch suction siamese with two gated 2½-inch swiveling inlets for $1,500. Put it on the other side.

The four 2½-inch gated discharges on the side pump panels also cost about $1,000 each and are seldom, if ever, used by this department. A little known fact is that no regulatory agency says you have to have side discharges. Manufacturers build their apparatus around the standard midship pump configuration; it’s easy for them. Ever consider a pedestal pump? Ask your favorite vendor what the advantages and disadvantages of a pedestal pump are. NFPA 1901 only requires two 2½-inch discharges. A preconnected 2½-inch handline can count as one of them. Why purchase more than you will ever use?

Be Mindful of Your Flows

Use discretion. Do not sell yourself short. The total outlets have to meet NFPA 1901’s flow requirements for the size pump you have and, if you do not have onboard foam capabilities, a nearby discharge may be desirable when using a portable eductor.

This department’s apparatus-mounted deluge set has a maximum flow rate of 1,250 gpm when supplied from the pump. It has a maximum 1,000-gpm flow rating in the portable mode when supplied by the LDH. The department uses 1,000-gpm automatic nozzles and its standard procedure is to pump no more than that amount for all master streams. If the department will only flow 1,000 gpm, could the prepiped deluge set be supplied by a 2½-inch valve and piping in lieu of the three-inch pipe? Ask your dealer. Several manufacturers say it would cost one half as much—$1,000 vs. $2,000. Somebody someplace must have run flow tests. They should have. Most fire apparatus manufacturers have degreed engineers. Put them to work. Your purchasing specifications could read, “one valved discharge to the deluge set that will flow 1,000 gpm.” Let the manufacturer figure it out. Require a field flow test on delivery. Operator, beware: Do not exceed the maximum flow rate to any deluge set. You may break it or, worse yet, launch it and the firefighter operating it.

The four-inch LDH discharge with a storz elbow and cap and a four-inch electric valve on the passenger’s side costs close to $4,000. A manual valve controlled from the pump operator’s panel is about $600 to $800 less. The same correlation can be made here as with the deluge set. The department’s policy is to flow a maximum of 1,000 gpm through its four-inch LDH. If it is content with that, is a four-inch valve and piping necessary? A three-inch manually controlled valve with a four-inch Storz elbow and cap will cost half as much—about $2,000. Will it work? Did anyone do an actual flow test?

Remember when departments initially switched to four-inch LDH? It was loaded on existing apparatus, usually equipped with 2½-inch discharges. Out of necessity, the apparatus used a 2½-to-four-inch Storz adapter on the discharge. What did it flow? What can it flow? Does anyone still use a pitot tube?

The pumper has two 2½-inch discharges piped to the rear of the apparatus. If a rear discharge is to be used as a preconnect, it could be piped to the front of the hosebed. Although most manufacturers said it would cost about $300 less, one said it would cost $200 more.

Rethinking the Front Intake

For busy engine companies, especially in metropolitan and urban settings, the gated front suction is advantageous. When companies regularly reverse lay fire to hydrant, it is a necessity, especially when the chauffeur must make the hookup alone. But, what about those departments whose primary responses are EMS, followed by false calls, automatic alarms, odors of natural gas, one car fire a month, and two workers per year? Can they do without the gated front suction?

Extending the front bumper of a custom cab; fabricating and installing decking and a hose well; and running the piping and possibly a primer connection, a six-inch swiveling discharge elbow, and supplying an electric controller can cost between $8,000 and $13,000. An air-operated valve costs less. A manually operated valve is the least expensive if it can be physically installed and controlled from the operator’s panel. That depends on pump style, pump location, and operator’s panel location. Would a 50-foot length of LDH stored in a running board trough or strapped to the running board and preconnected to the side piston intake relief valve work for those two fires a year?

Several manufacturers note that a six-inch rear inlet could cost half as much as a six-inch front suction. Can a rear six-inch suction accomplish two tasks—serving as an LDH inlet for laid hose as well as a preconnected six-inch suction? Yes it can (see photo 1).

Deciding What You Don’t Need

The intent here is not to marginalize the features specified on any fire apparatus. It is to make the purchaser aware of alternatives—both firematic and financial. Your apparatus dealer should do the same thing. I do not endorse or recommend these alternatives.

Continuing economic instability will prolong the negative impact on fire apparatus purchasing. An apparatus purchasing committee’s main objective may no longer be to determine what the fire department needs on a new rig but what the fire department does not need and can do without. Sad days may be ahead in the firehouse.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, 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.

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