In last month’s column, I covered reasons why the fire service might start using smaller apparatus. The underlying premise was our current economic environment. In this month’s column, I will cover alternative vehicles as a means of cost containment, as well as reasons why smaller apparatus might NOT work.
The larger apparatus found in North America could well remain approximately the same size they have been for several more decades. But, there could be fewer of them. One idea being tossed about for larger departments is a model that has about one in every three pumpers as a full-size pumper. The other two would be smaller, quick attack-type vehicles. The ratio of that model is similar to the model of ladders per engine. The premise for this position is based on the following questions: Out of every 100 calls, how many times is the pump engaged? And, of the times the pump is engaged, how often is high/continuous water flow required? The counter argument is that you never take a knife to a gunfight.
For ladder trucks, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department has used an alternative vehicle for several years. It is called a ladder tender. The ladder tender is housed with the ladder truck, and it contains all the equipment carried on a ladder truck except for the aerial device and ground ladders. Neither the ladder nor the ladder tender has a pump or booster tank. When the ladder company is dispatched, the company officer decides which unit to take. The company does not respond as a two-piece company.
This concept requires duplication of equipment and more bay space, but the lower costs of operating the tenders (on commercial chassis) and extended life of the ladder truck are obvious benefits. In addition, the ladder tenders are more “nimble” in their response. A few other departments have adopted variations of this model. The ladder tender model might gain more traction if we start to see European-style aerials in North America.
Outside North America, aerial units have always been smaller. The exception is the Bronto unit. Often on single-axle chassis, European aerials consist only of a cab, a chassis, and an elevated platform—no pump, no tank, no hosebed, and minimal (if any) compartments. With their “envelope of safety” operational range, they are able to be mounted on much smaller chassis. The envelope of safety means their safe horizontal extension is much shorter than their safe vertical extension.
Yet another idea that may gain traction is the use of SUVs or four-door pickup trucks (with bed covers) for EMS calls. The Memphis (TN) Fire Department is currently employing this model for certain EMS calls in a year-long pilot project. The department believes it will realize significant savings in fuel. The concept has met opposition from the Memphis Fire Department Union.
And, in the San Diego (CA) Fire Department, a consultant study has recommended that it use smaller vehicles staffed with two people (one a paramedic) to cover areas that may not justify a fire station. These are seam areas where response times need improvement. The smaller vehicles are being referred to as “fast-response units.” Chief Javier Mainar says the department is thinking about a unit on a chassis like a Ford F550. It would have a small pump, a small booster tank, and maybe patient transport capability. These units exist today but have not been widely adopted.
Admittedly, the use of smaller vehicles has worked in a few smaller fire departments. As I asked last month: How do we respond when questioned about why we 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- 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?
Perhaps the larger issue to address is that the fire service has emerged as an all-hazards response agency. Does it even make sense to use smaller vehicles when the response issues are broader than ever? In the 1960s, it was fire only. In the 1970s, we added EMS. In the 1980s, we added hazmat, and at the turn of the century we got involved in major natural and man-made large-scale disasters. Should the first-out unit not have some capability of handling any of these response demands? Is that possible with a mini pumper? As we expand our service delivery capabilities, it seems the larger vehicle makes sense.
There are other reasons we may not see smaller apparatus. For example, until we find a way to compress water, tankers will likely remain large. I doubt there is a business model to develop a mini tanker. Though not likely, the economy could make a quicker and stronger recovery than predicted and the cost of fuel could go down. This would take a lot of the wind out of the sails to look at smaller apparatus. Following a recession, the pent-up demand for new apparatus may be so strong that departments won’t consider alternatives.
Changing the overall nature of apparatus creates other demands on organizations. New policies and procedures will need to be developed. New training issues will emerge, and there could be compatibility issues with the existing fleet and with loose equipment.
Manufacturers will be reluctant to adapt to a change to smaller apparatus. It could put a huge dent in the demand for custom chassis, for example. When Ford quit making the C8000 cab, it was a tremendous boon for the custom chassis apparatus manufacturers. Now, 20 years later, there is still no viable cab-over/cab-forward commercial chassis cab design to replace the C8000.
Justify the Need
Another reason we may not see larger apparatus is testosterone. I don’t think this aspect can be underestimated. Big rigs are a staple of the North American fire service. They make us “King of the Road.” In the fire service, size matters. Alhough we may be reluctant to admit it, our big rigs motivate firefighters—especially in the volunteer ranks.
From a safety point of view, when major crashes occur, the larger the vehicle, the safer the occupants—if they are seated and belted. Larger vehicles also are more conspicuous, and the driver typically has a better view of traffic.
In the end, energy may be the ultimate driver. If (and it is a big if) we develop an alternative to the internal combustion engine, will it take up the real estate on an apparatus that today’s diesel engines require? Could batteries be nested along the inside of the frame rails and eliminate the need for the engine housing?
If large apparatus remain the primary vehicle of the fire service, the fire service must be able to justify their need. We do not need the politicians determining our needs. Remember when they forced many municipalities to cross-train and combine police and fire departments to save money? How did that work?
Ten or 15 years from now, will we be in smaller apparatus? I don’t think anyone knows with any degree of certainty. My guess is yes for some departments, no for some departments. For those that adopt it, it will not be for the entire fleet.
ROBERT TUTTEROW is safety coor-dinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Depart-ment. 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.).