Chris Mc Loone
On a recent trip, I visited the Task Force Tips (TFT) headquarters in Valparaiso, Indiana, and sat down with Rod Carringer, chief marketing officer, who answered the following five questions.
CM: Could you talk a little bit about the new FlipTip™ nozzle?
RC: The FlipTip, as many people saw on the front of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment recently, is kind of an unusual design. There’s a funny story about it. One of our product developers, Bob Steingas, actually found a patent from 1896 that was based on this style of FlipTip, which included the combination of a small tip on the front and a larger tip to the rear-something that with a twist and a push would allow you to change from one orifice size to the other, basically going from lower flow to a higher flow. [It was] a silly little design, and the patent, of course, expired hundreds of years ago. But in looking at it today, we can machine and design things that we couldn’t back then.
So, today it’s a commercially viable product. And really it’s as much for fun as anything else. It allows a fire department to have a lower flow and with just a flip of the ring-you just twist it and flip it down-you immediately go to a higher flow. It can be done either with the different smooth bores that we have or we can put a combination nozzle on the front of it. So, it’s interesting. At the same time, I don’t know that it’s going to be an incredible market piece but we’ve already had a lot of interest in it from people looking because they feel it solves a need for them because it gives them both the combination nozzle and the functions they have there-fog pattern, straight stream, flush-as well as with a simple flip down they now have a much higher flowing, low-pressure smooth bore combination.
CM: What keeps a company like TFT at the forefront?
RC: Part of it is a corporate commitment. You have to have the commitment of people like Stewart [McMillan], the owner of the company, as well as the management team that I’m actively involved with as well. But strategically for us, we’ve long had an initiative that we’ll always have six, eight, 10, or 12 products every year-things that are providing solutions to our customers, things that fire departments demand, or distribution partners are looking for. We’re always trying to fill in the gaps. And every once in awhile, something like a FlipTip comes along. Some days you just have to put some new innovative things out there-even though it was an 1896 design, it’s still going to be new to the market-and have a little bit of fun with them. With 900 different models of nozzles that just squirt water, good grief, we have a lot stuff that we produce for just squirting water at a fire. So, we’re very much about meeting customer needs and expanding the market with innovative products. Safety is always something we’re trying to integrate into our design and development.
And I think as you saw on the shop floor, our commitment to new machining technologies to youngsters who are running the machines now who are coming in for us-this is how we’ll be competitive globally in the years to come. It’s fairly easy for us to compete here domestically. We’ve done that for years. As soon as we leave our shores, the protection that we have with just a few competitors goes away, and we literally are competing with everybody else around the world. So if there is no innovation, if there is no technology, first of all it doesn’t give them anything to copy, and second of all we can’t bring good things to other markets around the world where it is appreciated. We do see it being appreciated based on our sales.
CM: As a firefighter yourself and as a manufacturer of firefighting equipment, what do you feel is the most important innovation during the past five years?
RC: To me, for the 40-plus years I’ve been actively involved in this plus the 25-plus years I’ve been here at TFT, it’s our ability on the fireground to use and manage data; our ability to communicate better; our ability to take advantage of huge volumes of information, rapidly access it, and let that be a tool when we are making strategic decisions on the fireground; things like just being able to pull up very quickly a floor plan of a building while you’re standing in front of the building; or the ability to quickly and electronically access information on a hazardous material; or the ability to communicate flawlessly and seamlessly with multiple other jurisdictions, other departments. To me, that is one of the best. I think if you’re in the military, you call that a forced multiplier because you’re basically leveraging technology to do things that in years past you wouldn’t be able to do. So for me, as much as I’d like to say it’s nozzles changing the entire fire service, I believe our use of information and technology that brings us additional information to make good solid fireground decisions is really what’s changing the world.
CM: What are some of the issues in the fire service that are troubling you the most?
RC: You and I are both active volunteer firefighters, and one of the challenges I know that we face both locally in the fire department as well as across the country is twofold. One is the recruitment of new people into the fire service, especially the volunteer ranks. What you’re asking them to do at a young age, the amount of hours to commit to just becoming a volunteer-being able to be an engineer, to ride the truck, to move toward an officer’s position-is pretty demanding.
Second is retaining good people. Recruitment and retention aren’t new. Different sections that we have in associations in our industry have long been plagued with this. But the recent NFPA studies show very clearly that volunteerism in fire departments is starting to wane. At the same time, the average age of the active firefighter in volunteer fire departments continues to go up. So, I guess the real challenges are how we get new blood into the fire service; how we continue to get our fire departments staffed with not only energetic and caring people but people who are going to bring innovation into the fire service; and how we maintain and keep the core knowledge that we have with some of our older people and continue to keep them active and teaching and in roles that are going to continue to grow the fire service.
It’s not just in the United States. We’re seeing it in a lot of places where the volunteer fire service has always been an active part. The economy, the political situations-there are a lot of things that tend to push people away from wanting to be volunteers. It’s a struggle because so much of our country relies on volunteerism and the volunteer fire and emergency response sectors to basically support our efforts. Because we can’t all afford to have either a combination or a career fire department as much as we would like to have that.
CM: What keeps you up at night?
RC: Oh, there are probably 25 or 30 different things. TFT has long been a devout supporter of our distribution partners and the importance they bring, the value that they bring to the marketplace, and the support they give fire department customers. One thing that keeps me awake is I’m a firm believer that the care and feeding of our distribution network from our perspective as a manufacturer are absolutely vital in that the value they bring fire departments we can’t replace as a manufacturer. So, for us one of the things that keeps me awake is worrying about how these small, often second- or third-generation family-owned businesses, can continue to bring value to their customers in what is turning out to be an extremely competitive marketplace at this point with a lot of erosion in profitability. So, that’s one.
I think another one certainly would be, if you’re a small business owner or even the manager of a fire department, uncertainty in our economic and geopolitical climate. If you know things are going to be a certain way; if you know there’s going to be taxes; if you know there’s going to be some hit to your bottom line, you can plan on that. If things are going to be good and you’re happy with how some outcome is coming out of Washington, D.C., you can plan on that.
The problem is we have a lot of uncertainty. So, I think what happens is business owners as well as a lot of fire departments and municipalities pull their horns in and they will not make a decision based on waiting to see what’s going to happen. And right now, that’s one that we also find troubling because there are expansions we’d like to do, but we’re just not quite ready to pull the trigger on them yet until we see some of the changes that are coming out of Washington, D.C. Now that doesn’t mean we’ll do it. But, at least we’ll know and we can make decisions based on facts vs. conjecture.