Doing more with less is certainly the mantra these days. Though the economy might be slowly climbing out of this recession, the public sector usually lags the private sector by 24-30 months. If history, once again, repeats itself, the challenges facing the fire service will remain for longer than most of us ever anticipated. Certainly staffing, apparatus replacement schedules, and equipment purchases have been cut. There has also been a lot of discussion about the use of smaller apparatus. This column takes a look at why that might happen.
The rest of the world’s fire service has done quite well with smaller apparatus. Granted, we need a hosebed (unlike most of the world), and there are debates about building construction. But, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America are not in charred remains because their apparatus are too small.
The first and foremost reason to consider smaller apparatus is cost. Today’s economy underscores this reason. With few exceptions, smaller apparatus cost less to build and maintain. The chassis components do not have to be as robust. Lighter components cost less and weigh less. In most cases, the assembly time is less. Concurrently, ongoing maintenance costs are less.
The operating costs are less. The lighter vehicles are more fuel efficient, which is important because fuel costs are negatively impacting fire department budgets everywhere. It just might be the elephant in the room in many cases. Fuel costs have risen so rapidly that “pony” engines are now a viable option to power the electrical system of apparatus while idling–unless the pump is engaged. Lighter vehicles also help extend brake and tire life. One has to wonder if the mini-pumper was slightly ahead of its time.
Smaller apparatus are less likely to be involved in sideswipes–the number one type of accidents involving fire trucks. Though these accidents usually result in property damage only, they create a cost burden for repair of the apparatus and the repair of other sideswiped vehicles. In addition, there is the overhead cost of processing the claims and needing reserve apparatus available while damaged apparatus are being repaired. Smaller apparatus are also less likely to be involved in backing accidents because the perimeter of smaller vehicles is visually less restrictive. Finally, if the vehicle is totaled in a crash, the budget looks a lot better if the apparatus is not a $400,000+ vehicle.
Smaller apparatus typically reduce the chances of firefighter injury as they operate around the vehicle. Entrance and egress are not as extreme, and equipment access is usually not as high off the ground. This leads to fewer slips, strains, and sprains–the number one type of firefighter injury.
Can modern day apparatus be downsized and still accomplish the mission? There are certainly opportunities available today that were not available a few years ago. For example, pump panels no longer require the real estate–i.e. wheelbase–required in traditional designs. The day of electronic pump panels is probably just around the corner. The U.S. fire service has experimented with electric controls for more than two decades without widespread acceptance. However, the technology has matured and become more robust. And, today’s younger firefighters are far more receptive to electronics than us old geezers.
Surely, the techno geeks can design a reliable and user-friendly touch-pad tablet for wireless pump operation. This capability will allow the pump operator to be positioned at an optimal location for the incident rather than “tethered” to the fixed pump panel. Keep in mind that almost every pump panel on apparatus being displayed at last year’s Interschutz show in Germany had an electronic pump panel–no tablet but panels. They require very little real estate.
Other size reduction opportunities include the standard use of class A foam to reduce booster tank size. However, historically, we have thought in terms of class A foam as a way to increase the effectiveness of existing tank sizes rather than a way to reduce tank size. And, some pumps can provide effective firefighting capabilities while being much smaller than the traditional mid-ship mounted pumps.
Other “real estate hogs” on an apparatus are booster reels. They are handy but not an effective fire attack tool, nor are they especially essential. I recently saw an apparatus that was equipped with a very small hose reel loaded with industrial grade 5⁄8-inch garden hose and a garden nozzle. I was told that it was primarily used to wash off turnout gear and equipment at the scene. It was much easier to use than one-inch booster hose, cost only a fraction of a fire service booster reel, and requires considerably less storage space.
The North American fire service has also gotten a lot smarter about its equipment storage. Several years ago, if one opened a compartment door, the compartment floor would be full but the available cubic space was often less than 50 percent used. Today we have taken advantage of adjustable and pull-out shelving, slide-out tool- and equipment-mounting panels, and vertically hinged swing-out tool/equipment-mounting panels. Maximizing cubic space can reduce the amount of storage space needed.
A challenge to the “loose equipment” manufacturers is designing equipment that requires less storage space and weighs less. One possibility on the horizon is the low-profile SCBA. Although the new cylinder configuration may use as much cubic space, it may be a design that better uses the space. Anything that is cylindrical in design creates wasted space. Items that are more rectangular in design are the opposite.
In next month’s column, I will discuss why switching to smaller apparatus might not happen and examine alternative service delivery vehicles. Regardless, hard questions are being asked of the fire service to justify its current business model, especially as it relates to the size and cost of our apparatus. How do we respond to this question? Why do you send a $400,000+ truck with 500 gallons of water, a 1,500-gpm pump, 1,200 feet of five-inch hose, hundreds of feet of 1¾-inch and 2½-inch hose, extension ladders, roof ladders, and compartments full of firefighting equipment to take care of Mrs. Smith when she has chest pains?
It’s an issue the fire service should address rather than the politicians. Remember when they forced many municipalities to cross train and combine police and fire departments to save money? How did that work?
ROBERT TUTTEROW is safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active with the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).