Getting the apparatus appropriate for your department can be a big undertaking. Other than constructing a fire station, it is most likely the largest purchase that you will make, regardless of the size of your department. Whether you are purchasing one vehicle or many, you want to get the best apparatus that you can within the price range that you can afford. Sounds relatively straight forward and simple – doesn’t it?
The whole process starts with gaining approval from the policy making board of your community. These are the elected or appointed officials responsible for the ultimate budget approval and expenditure of public funds. If you are part of a department that does not report to a controlling body, then you obviously do not need to consider this step. But, even in these cases, someone must approve of the decision.
The process begins by doing what is necessary to gain support. It is as much about the politics of your community as it is about using logic and reason to educate elected officials of your needs.
It can be as simple as submitting your plan because of the credibility and trust that exists. Of course this takes work to get to the point where there is near blind trust. It is where you hope to be, but remember that as apparatus get more expensive, there can be more scrutiny of your process.
Preparation is very important. It includes the needs you have, the type of vehicle you desire, and the funding source. You should have a replacement schedule for existing apparatus, and it must be published so those needing to see it have easy access. If the purchase is not a replacement but a new addition to your fleet, you must be prepared to defend your request. Know all of the details and over prepare so you are not caught in a position where you are uncomfortable answering questions
Depending upon your circumstances, you may have been working on parallel tracks – as you gain authorization to proceed, you are getting your materials ready. In some cases, work such as this cannot begin until authorization is granted. Regardless, now the real work must begin. What exactly to you want? This is determined by what it is you want to accomplish with the apparatus.
Is it a rescue? If so, what is its function and what will need to be carried on the vehicle. For a pumper or an engine, you also need to know what functions need to be performed and the specific equipment that will be carried.
You also need to know your operational procedures. While procedures can be changed, it may not be easy if you have an existing fleet operating a particular way. Obviously, similar questions need to be answered for every type of vehicle. Be aware that your needs may be different than neighboring departments, but you may also find great similarities.
Whether or not you choose to “benchmark” with other departments in your region, there may be those in the hierarchy who will want to. You may be asked why your vehicle costs more or has “extra” features compared to fire departments in your region. If your vehicle is significantly different, you will need to explain why.
Often, the selection of a manufacturer and the various components on a vehicle are a personal decision based upon individual preferences. For example, think about purchasing an automobile. There are many choices. The simple purpose of it is transportation. Individuals select options based upon their desires and their budgets.
Quite simply, all cars can get you from point A to point B. Likewise, fire engines can get you to the fire, carry equipment, and deliver water. If they couldn’t, the company would not be in business very long. So, the preferences of your department and those that have been empowered to make the decision are important in the process. Each manufacturer does its best to distinguish its brand and offer a competitive advantage. You need to know what is important to you and your organization.
Apparatus committees are strongly suggested. The fire chief should not be the only one determining specifications for apparatus. Members of your department with interest and talent need to be included. There needs to be a strong-minded chair to keep the process moving. Don’t forget to include representatives from your repair shop and purchasing department, if applicable. This will help with the acquisition before and after you receive delivery. Buy-in from everyone with a stake in the outcome is imperative for a successful purchase.
Selecting the chassis is important. Some prefer custom, while others are satisfied with commercial. The choice only matters to your organization because there are examples of both operating in the fire service today.
Your choice can be based upon cost, longevity, and possibly service. The materials – such as aluminum or stainless steel – are also part of your choices. You will also want to consider warranty and the interaction between the manufacturer of the chassis and the fire truck builder. You do not want to have them “pointing fingers” at each other when something on your apparatus is not working correctly.
Some of the other considerations are the engine, transmission, fire pumps, compartments, hose beds, water tanks, and equipment. As with most everything else on the truck, the choice most often is based upon personal preference. For example, Waterous, Hale and Darley make reliable pumps. They would not still be in business if they didn’t. They each have features that distinguish them, but in the end, all are very capable of delivering water. Therefore the choice is yours based upon other apparatus that you may have on the front line.
Keeping components the same will be beneficial for training and maintenance. As for the mechanical parts, a good suggestion is to rely on your experts – the people who need to make repairs and keep the trucks on the road. For example, Detroit Diesel, International, Ford, Cummins and Caterpillar all have good engines. Why does it matter to you which one is under the hood? While you may have a personal preference, deferring to those who do the work is a wise choice. You will get better service and performance. Of course, you need to provide input as to service and reliability from your perspective. Ultimately the “buck” stops with the chief.
As for all the other parts of the vehicle, get what works for you. With that said, you should also consider what others are doing with their apparatus. While you may not get exactly what you want when working with another department, you can get what you need. In these cases you need to decide what is important and what is not negotiable. If there are other options, then there can be a chance for consensus. Money can be saved when more than one vehicle of the same type is purchase at the same time with the same components. If you and other fire departments can agree, all will pay less.
Acquiring apparatus involves a few steps – establishing the need, gaining the financial resources, developing the specifications or guidelines, letting the bid, awarding the bid, and the delivery. All parts are important. In most cases there are options. They are often based upon personal or departmental preference.
Decide what elements would be considered “show stoppers” and the other items where there are more choices that are acceptable. Good preparation and planning can get you the best possible truck for the price you are able to pay.
Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department, a position he’s held since 1984. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999 he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.