Apparatus Purchasing: Can’t Afford a Real Ladder Truck, Part 1


A recent interview discussing trends in aerial ladder sales transformed into reevaluating the value of the quad—a once popular pumper style with a notoriously long wheelbase equipped with lots of ground ladders.

Dave Perkins, East Coast aerial sales manager for E-ONE, a REV Group brand, says the current economic shutdown may result in fire departments delaying purchasing high-ticket items such as apparatus with aerial devices.

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Our mutual observation was, even before today’s economic uncertainty, that many smaller communities throughout the United States simply could not afford to purchase an aerial device. An aerial device is inclusive of aerial ladders, ladder platforms, elevating platforms, tower ladders, ladder towers, quints, or whatever moniker you choose.

From both a firematic operational viewpoint and a manufacturer’s viewpoint, we hotly debated how smaller departments can adequately perform ladder company (aka truck company) operations without an aerial device. We concurred that in some instances a nonaerial-equipped combination apparatus similar to a pumper-rescue or a pumper-tanker could be a solution. The sales trend interview ended, and we decided to design a rig, calling it a pumper-ladder (PL)—a new name for a recycled apparatus style.

We approached the venture as if we were an apparatus purchasing committee (APC). Challenging ourselves, desirable but not always achievable fireground safety features were added. Attempting to make everything work resulted in an interesting story worth sharing.

The open-cab quad was a very popular unit in small towns and cities throughout the United States. The quad with an enclosed crew cab and a side-to-side through walkway is a rarity. It shows an already long apparatus made longer.
Having ground ladders extended out the back is a hazard for apparatus of any era.

1, 2 The open-cab quad was a very popular unit in small towns and cities throughout the United States. The quad with an enclosed crew cab and a side-to-side through walkway is a rarity. It shows an already long apparatus made longer. Having ground ladders extended out the back is a hazard for apparatus of any era. (Photos 1-2 courtesy of Harvey Eckart.)


National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, does not recognize a quad. Among the NFPA’s formal apparatus classifications are pumpers, aerials, and quints. A quad or our PL could be recognized as a pumper. It could also be recognized as a “special service fire apparatus” if that classification’s requirements are met.

Many fire departments currently operate special service fire apparatus, although some don’t realize they do, and some don’t know why they should. The Insurance Services Office (ISO) gives credit (points) for a special service fire apparatus, calling it a “Service Company.” The ISO document ( states that in addition to pumpers, “The standard response on the initial alarm to fires in structures consists of a minimum of one ladder or service company. The responding fire departments must provide enough ladder and/or service companies to ensure the response of at least one ladder or service company to all alarms for structure fires.”

The ISO uses NFPA 1901 as a basis for its apparatus and equipment requirements, although the ISO is stricter in some areas. It is unknown if the ISO allows extra credit if a pumper carries most of the equipment and all the ground ladders that a ladder or service company would carry. Check with your local ISO office. It might help the fire department’s ISO rating—if it matters.


Our conclusions are a consensus of diverse and biased opinions and some very heated discussions. I am a retired fire truck salesman—a former volunteer considered a dinosaur for not being an advocate of quints or quads, preferring a “real ladder truck” with an aerial, numerous ground ladders, and plenty of firefighters to staff it. Perkins, employed in the fire truck business and still an active volunteer, is more attuned to current purchasing trends and fire department operations. We both have served as chiefs in our divergent volunteer departments and have served on numerous APCs.

Our goal was to design a pumper that can fulfill the duties of and carry much of the equipment required of an NFPA 1901-compliant ladder truck sans the aerial device. We developed individual wish lists prioritizing “must have” and “would like to have” features. Unlike many APCs, we agreed beforehand to amicably compromise on each item. It was difficult.


To establish specific objectives for the PL to meet, a fictitious fire department and community were established. The department is any small career, combination, or volunteer entity with limited staffing—common today and probably more so in the future. The district is predominantly a noncongested residential area void of high-rise structures. Residences include 1½- and two-story homes, some older large 2½-story homes, and a few two-story garden-style townhouses. Farms and barns are disappearing. Large residential lots are common, with most structures set well back from the roads. Many are down long driveways typical of rural areas that have slowly morphed into suburbia prior to overdevelopment and rigid zoning.

A few commercial buildings pose individual hazards because of their total square footage and particular occupancies. Some structures are close together in a small, but congested, village. All are two-story and can be reached with a 35-foot extension ladder. The district is 99 percent hydranted. An automatic first alarm mutual assistance response of an aerial device is not available.

Regardless if the department is replacing an aging ladder truck or wants to add ladder company capabilities, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) says it can’t afford a million dollars plus for an aerial ladder. They said: “You’re already looking to purchase a new pumper; put some longer ladders on it.” The PL design is based on that scenario.


Our methodology in designing the PL is akin to a well-organized APC purchasing any new apparatus. First is acknowledging a district’s current and potential hazards as well as investigating actual and anticipated long-range planning (i.e., proposed high-rise buildings, interstate highways, industrial parks, etc.) by the host political subdivision. Identify current and projected staffing. Research local, county, and regional mutual aid and mutual assistance agreements with their applicable apparatus requirements. Such accumulated data are factual and not subject to debate. It is the environment where the new rig will have to operate.

Our PL’s primary mission is to be a first-due pumper capable of making an aggressive initial attack and sustaining a high-volume operation if conditions warrant. The secondary mission is to carry sufficient ground ladders to reach a roof in two places and a second-floor window on all sides of a typical structure in the district. A third is the ability to perform as a supply pumper if another rig arrives on scene first.

Determining a maximum overall “apparatus size” is the starting point for any new apparatus purchase. It is the foundation. Included is the overall length (OAL), wheelbase (WB), and overall height (OAH). Depending on the fire station’s physical limitations and the district’s geography, those maximums may be nonnegotiable. A result may be an APC trying to load 10 pounds of fire equipment into a five-pound bag.

It was challenging to consolidate two individual wish lists into one acceptable to both. Kudos to any APC with a half dozen plus opinionated members that can successfully do the same without creating animosity and hostility within the ranks. After developing the single list, the task became ensuring everything fit. This is where most APCs must interact with vendors. We did it ourselves and still had to defer to industry experts in several areas.


When purchasing specifications are developed for the PL, or for any apparatus purchase, they should avoid generalities. Samples of generalities include ease of operation and firefighter safety—terminology coinciding with verbiage such as easily accessible and reachable from ground level. Those terms are sales and marketing catchwords used to make people “comfortable” while enticing them to purchase a product. Everyone knows what they mean, but they can’t conclusively be compared, evaluated, or proven.

Requirements should be definitive, allowing comparisons between manufacturers and to confirm compliance with the specifications. Some examples are specifying a maximum distance from ground level to a certain piece of equipment; requiring a minimum walkway width in the hosebed; eliminating hose connections in certain areas; and mandating exactly how and where equipment is to be stored. Our PL design subscribes to that philosophy. More importantly, our design and layout are not proprietary to any specific apparatus manufacturer.


To fairly evaluate the PL design, it was compared with a quint that is very popular in residential areas: a 75-foot rear-mount mounted on a single rear axle. As a challenge to ourselves, we opted to design the PL with a shorter WB, a lower OAH, a shorter OAL, more ground ladders, more compartmentation, more preconnects, a larger hose capacity, and a larger booster tank than most quints of that style. It wasn’t easy.

Purchasers should be aware that the PL similar to a quad has inherent shortcomings. Quints have the advantage of a much greater vertical reach. Most have an elevated master stream. And, if properly positioned on the fireground, the quint might be capable of accessing the roof and two sides of a structure and perhaps accomplishing horizontal hydraulic ventilation with a single firefighter.

Part 2 will detail the specific equipment carried, why it was chosen, and how we wanted it carried.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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