Aerial Replacement Becomes Challenging

The current state of the economy and the duration of the downturn have certainly affected the ability of many fire departments to provide service.

Anything that is perceived to be less than essential has been eliminated in virtually every organization. One could argue that cuts in staffing, apparatus and equipment have gone so far that service is greatly impacted.

There is no question that the “toys” that are needed to provide fire protection are very expensive. The costs continue to rise for a variety of reasons – inflation, cost of materials, more stringent standards for safety and other legitimate reasons. Today, an aerial apparatus can cost from around $600,000 to over a million dollars.

If you are faced with declining revenues and a shrinking budget, purchasing a replacement vehicle or adding one to your fleet presents a great challenge and may not even be feasible. Replacing vehicles used to be fairly routine. You had a schedule and when a vehicle was due, a process was started. Rarely were there questions about the value of aerials. Now everything is questioned.

Striving For Perfection

To do the job of firefighting properly you need adequate staffing and the appropriate apparatus and equipment for the hazards present in your community. If you are striving for perfection, which we should all be doing, it is difficult to attain your goals without the resources. We know that there are certain jobs that need to be done at a structure fire. Without the correct tools and the people to use them, service and safety are compromised.

Often we in the fire service continue to do things the way we have always done them. Depending upon your perspective, you can view the budget reality of your organization as a very difficult situation or an opportunity to evaluate if you are being as efficient and effective as possible. More than likely your organization has changed significantly in the past 20 years, mostly to adjust to the changing world. Financial conditions are accelerating change, forcing departments to consider alternatives.

So, suppose the time is right for your organization to look at acquiring an aerial truck. There are a host of questions that need to be asked, and the answers will help to determine if now is the time.

There is no question that the fire service is labor intensive and requires sufficient personnel to perform the functions necessary to safely and efficiently protect lives and property. It is also known that tools are needed, including apparatus such as aerial devices. The number of trained personnel must match the intended function of the apparatus. Therefore, the first question that needs to be asked is what is the intended use of the aerial apparatus?

If your community has no high-rise or mid-rise buildings, do you need a vehicle with aerial capabilities? This is not to imply that there is not a use, but organizations need to ask this question about their circumstances and situation.

Aerial trucks offer advantages and disadvantages. You should review them, even write them down so you are better able to determine how they relate to your situation.

Aerial Advantages

Aerials offer advantages for rescue, protection of firefighters, and the potential for better-elevated streams. They may offer a better opportunity to get firefighters to roofs and balconies with fewer personnel. For example, it may take four people to place a 35- or 40-foot ladder to a roof, window, or balcony. The aerial can do the same with just an operator. It is probably even faster than manually placing ladders, speeding rescue operations.

Depending upon the site and its access, aerials may not be functional in all situations. If you need a ladder to get to the rear of the building and there is no roadway, ground ladders are your only option.

If you currently have an aerial and are trying to decide on replacement, take the time to review your history with the vehicle. This would include the frequency of its use (specifically when it was the only piece that could have been used), personnel training required, maintenance costs and operational costs. Quite simply, is it needed or is it nice to have?

If your system supports the need, then you have some options. There are bare-bones vehicles with only the essentials, and there are vehicles that offer many options that can raise the price significantly. Your needs assessment should tell you what core functions are required.

Should you buy new or used? Used vehicles can be very functional, but they have their limitations. You may not be able to get the type of vehicle that matches the jobs that you want done. For example, you may get a truck with an aerial, but you may sacrifice compartments, hose carrying capabilities or the ground ladders than you need. Though you may be saving significant money by buying used, you may also be getting a vehicle that has more limitations than you want.

Deciding what you need and the type of vehicle that you want may be the easiest part. There are two challenges – convincing the policy makers to appropriate the funds and addressing the perception of your firefighters that a purchase of an aerial should not replace funding for personnel.

In both cases you need to be well prepared with all the right selling points. You will need an extraordinary effort to convince everyone that spending a large amount of money in difficult economic times is the right thing to do. The fallout may also come from the citizens or even other municipal employees who won’t understand how a seldom-used vehicle warrants such a large expenditure. Everyone is cutting back, so make sure your purchases do not in any way appear extravagant.

Even if you can justify the need for an aerial device, you may wish to defer a purchase for a short time to support your position as a team player, one who understands the difficulties in balancing a budget. You may pursue other options such as grants, loans or financing, short-term repairs, or better mutual aid from neighbors.

The fire service today is like no other time in recent memory. Declining budgets affect personnel, apparatus and equipment. All are part of the needs of a fire department. Finding the appropriate balance for your community is as challenging as it has ever been.

Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Northville Township (Mich.) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had 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.

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