Cantankerous Wisdom: Custom Chassis Availability

Photo courtesy of Jim Burlingame

By Bill Adams

The most hazardous place to be when interacting with Raisin Squad members is between the front of a buffet line and a hungry raisin with a full set of choppers–store-bought or not. The next most hazardous place is having morning coffee with one who possesses enough computer literacy to be dangerous. They like to “read up” on topics to impress other raisins or to specifically bait one. Sometimes they inadvertently make sense.

At one morning coffee, a white hair (The Agitator) commented that the economy in Carbon County (PA) would be taking a major hit the following year. Why’s that? He said the KME (Kovatch Mobile Equipment) plant located in Nesquehoning is in Carbon County and it will be permanently closing in early 2022. So what? He tried to impress us by saying a Channel 69 News website ran an article in September about the closing of it and a second KME facility in Virginia.

What’s that got to do with the cost of eggs? Well, he said: “KME originally started as a local garage by Sonny Kovatch in the late 1940s. They started building fire trucks in the 1980s. They’re a player in the market.” What’s your point? He continued, saying a quote in the Channel 69 article said: “It wasn’t supposed to go this way when John Kovatch sold the 70-year-old, family-owned business to Rev [REV Fire Group aka REV] in 2016. At the time Kovatch said he expected the deal to create hundreds of jobs.” The Agitator kept it up: “It just ain’t right that three or four hundred people are losing their jobs.” We were amazed this old geezer remembered everything he read on his computer; he usually can’t remember what he had for supper two days ago.

He baited me knowing I would have a comeback the next morning–which I did. I mentioned that REV also owns Emergency One, Ferrara, and Spartan, and if the KME moniker remains or is phased out is anyone’s guess. The Agitator kept it up saying it could be like American La France buying up a half-dozen smaller companies when they tried getting back into business the last time. He might be right. Those manufacturers all ended up in the dustbin of irrelevance.

Valid Points

The geezer’s babbling brought up a valid point about the availability of “custom cabs and chassis” for the fire service. In this narration, a custom cab and chassis is one specifically designed for the fire service. It is immaterial if it is entirely fabricated by a single manufacturer or parts and pieces are outsourced. Not that many years ago, there were four manufacturers of just the custom cab and chassis portion of a fire truck that was available to smaller manufacturers that did not manufacture their own.

KME manufactures (or manufactured) their own cab and chassis. One can only speculate if their chassis or the name brand itself will be available in the future. That decision rests with REV, which also oversees (controls) chassis availability from Emergency One, Ferrara, and Spartan. Other manufacturers of custom cabs and chassis include Pierce, Rosenbauer, Sutphen, Seagrave, and HME-Ahrens Fox.

Looking at the figures from a bean counter’s perspective, REV controls more than one-third of custom cab and chassis availability. That figure does not reflect nor have anything to do with the actual number of custom cabs and chassis produced. I am talking about the number of sources available to small apparatus manufacturers to purchase one. The three-dozen-plus small apparatus manufacturers that do not manufacture their own custom chassis will have to purchase them from their larger competitors—one of which controls a third of the sources. The smaller manufacturers may find themselves between a rock and a hard place, or, more plainly put, they could be squeezed, squashed, or put out of business.

Using job-specific custom cabs and chassis for fire apparatus is unique to the domestic market. Elsewhere, the world’s fire service looks at a fire truck’s cab and chassis as a utility vehicle—similar to a dump truck, box truck, or a commercial hauler. One white hair said if 99% of the garbage truck chassis are commercials such as Mack, Cornbinder (aka International Harvester), and Freightliner, why can’t apparatus manufacturers use them? Another said: “Yeah and they’re cheaper, too.”

Just when we thought we had solved the world’s cabs and chassis problems, one of the young guys wandered in and added his two cents worth: “You guys don’t know what you’re talking about. A lot of big-city departments tried running commercial chassis and they didn’t work out.” One geezer said not every fire department runs the wheels off their rigs. “It doesn’t matter–the repair bills will kill them.” It was a no-win argument.

Despite not being old enough to collect social security, he brought up another point worth noting. He said most custom cabs designed specifically for the fire service have optional interior finishes and accoutrements available that address today’s popular “clean cab” protocols. He added they’re not all available on commercial chassis. Imagine telling the local Freightliner dealer their standard flooring material doesn’t cut the mustard and they have to use some off-the-wall flooring for maybe a couple hundred trucks a year. According to Statistica.com, Freightliner built almost 72,000 Class 8 trucks (over 33,000-lb GVWR) in 2020; that’s about 275 each workday. It would be like informing International Harvester they can’t use their standard material for a cab’s headliner. Good luck telling the Mack dealer to replace the iconic Bulldog ornament with a French Poodle. Doing that kind of stuff to a limited number of commercial chassis may well be cost prohibitive. It would certainly lessen the price disparity between a custom and a commercial.

One of the old timers said real fire trucks didn’t have roofs, doors, or windshields. The biggest concern driving one of those sleds was picking the bugs out of your teeth—like riding a motorcycle without a face shield. The young guy said providing the fire service with a commercial chassis not equipped with acceptable or recommended safety features is doing an injustice to that fire department and its firefighters. He said firefighters should not be treated as second-class citizens.

That sounded too much like politics, and we don’t talk politics in the fire station. Besides, it was almost nap time. On the way out of the door, The Agitator said laid-off workers in Carbon County might have to go back to mining anthracite coal. That was cruel.

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