Apparatus Purchasing: Stock, Standard, or Demo? Part 1

In “The New Normal” (Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, October 2012), Paul C. Darley, president and CEO of W.S. Darley & Company, expressed his views on the state of the fire apparatus industry, the municipal financial crisis, and the fire service becoming one of the most affected departments in some communities.

He said, “The days of fire departments being treated as sacred cows in their communities are coming to an end.” He was spot on. Except for those in the emergency services, the ultimate sacrifice of 343 firefighters on 9/11 is sadly becoming a forgotten memory of the past.

1 Engine 8, from St. Bernard Parrish, Louisiana, is one of three 2015 1,500-gpm pumpers. The department’s roster shows KMEs were also purchased in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Its pumpers have a standardized configuration. (Photo courtesy of KME
1 Engine 8, from St. Bernard Parrish, Louisiana, is one of three 2015 1,500-gpm pumpers. The department’s roster shows KMEs were also purchased in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Its pumpers have a standardized configuration. (Photo courtesy of KME.)

Except for the few wealthy and affluent fire departments, most make due with whatever limited resources taxpayers are willing to provide. Career departments understandably place monetary emphasis on retaining personnel and fulfilling contractual labor agreements. Budget constraints are forcing volunteers in suburban and nonaffluent areas to become financially astute. Fire departments in economically distressed political subdivisions and rural communities are, by necessity, becoming frugal, miserly, and miserable. When a decision must be made to adequately fund staffing for a career department or to purchase a replacement rig, the rig comes in second place. If the local fire company must decide whether to replace an obsolete rig or replace the broken furnace and repair the leaky roof on the firehouse, the new rig loses again.

When vote-sensitive politicians become vocal in fire department finances, a purchase as expensive as a fire truck becomes an easy and a tempting target. Politicos often unmercifully harangue an apparatus purchasing committee (APC) to write specifications wisely for an economical purchase. In most instances, the APC starts off with that intent. It’s usually lost after the first meeting. It doesn’t have to be.

The Marketplace

Several years back, I recall reading a post in an online forum from a UK firefighter asking why the American fire service builds so many customized rigs instead of standardized ones. Paraphrasing him, he was amazed by the way American apparatus are purchased and questioned why so many are built as one-of-a-kind. While acknowledging conditions vary in each community, he hit the nail on the head when commenting that the American fire service could save money if it left the 19th century behind and followed the example of Henry Ford, using an assembly line with standardized parts. He said the American fire service would benefit by getting less expensive vehicles. That statement might have merit.

2 These two photos depict very basic rigs: a side-mount and a top-mount. Mike Watts, Toyne national sales manager, says the body design is very similar on stock pumpers mounted on commercial cabs and chassis. (Photos courtesy of Toyne, Inc
2 These two photos depict very basic rigs: a side-mount and a top-mount. Mike Watts, Toyne national sales manager, says the body design is very similar on stock pumpers mounted on commercial cabs and chassis. (Photos courtesy of Toyne, Inc.)

In November 2014, H.J. Haynes and G.P. Steves co-authored the U.S. Fire Department Profile 2013 for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Analysis and Research Division. It states that from 2011 to 2013 there were, among all the apparatus in service, between 69,850 and 72,150 pumpers in the United States. Referring back to Paul Darley’s 2012 article, Darley stated, “The U.S. fire market was at about 6,000 vehicles a year before the recession, whereas last year it was at about 3,500 vehicles. Once everything sorts itself out and we find the new normal, we’ll probably be looking at about 4,300 to 4,500 new vehicles per year.”

The Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) has figures for new apparatus builds and booked orders each year, but they’re held tight to the vest by FAMA members. So, I will speculate. Not knowing if the industry has “sorted itself out yet,” I’ll use Darley’s figure of 3,500 apparatus per year and make a guesstimate that about one half or around 1,700 are pumpers. Again guessing, if around 1,700 pumpers a year have been sold for the past five years, about 8,000 new pumpers have entered the fire service during that timeframe. That’s a respectable number, and undoubtedly they range from simple rigs to never-seen-before wombats-a term often used by Alan Saulsbury to describe the highly complex and one-of-a-kind apparatus that the former Saulsbury Fire Apparatus was known to manufacture.

3 These two photos depict very basic rigs: a side-mount and a top-mount. Mike Watts, Toyne national sales manager, says the body design is very similar on stock pumpers mounted on commercial cabs and chassis. (Photos courtesy of Toyne, Inc
3 These two photos depict very basic rigs: a side-mount and a top-mount. Mike Watts, Toyne national sales manager, says the body design is very similar on stock pumpers mounted on commercial cabs and chassis. (Photos courtesy of Toyne, Inc.)

Some purchases might be simplified if a fire department in the market for a new pumper could-or would-review the repertoires of manufacturers’ built rigs and just pick one out. It’s too simple; I doubt it will work. Why not? It’s not the way of the American fire service. Historically, American fire departments in general and individual APCs in particular have to “have it my way.” Career departments can be just as culpable as volunteer departments.

Disclaimer

I embraced the “have-it-my-way” philosophy when serving on numerous APCs and admit that, as a dealer, I benefited from selling to those who demanded customization. It should be pointed out that many if not the majority of changes in apparatus design are purchaser-driven. The dynamics of fiscal constraints, inadequate staffing, consolidation of job-specific apparatus, and the physical demographics of some response districts can necessitate changes in apparatus design. In some instances, customizing apparatus is justifiable. Most OEMs will customize their rigs. Just remember that the “first of anything” can be costly. And, manufacturing one of something is more expensive than building a lot of the same thing.

4 Two of Pittsburgh’s 13 Spencer 2,000-gpm pumpers that were delivered on two orders. These rigs are only 28 feet long-a size many cities only wish to standardize on. (Photos by Spencer Manufacturing
4 Two of Pittsburgh’s 13 Spencer 2,000-gpm pumpers that were delivered on two orders. These rigs are only 28 feet long-a size many cities only wish to standardize on. (Photos by Spencer Manufacturing.)

Many smaller OEMs still use the stall-built method of building one rig at a time and do so successfully. Even midsize and large manufacturers using assembly lines may pull wombats off the line to complete in separate areas-just to keep the production line flowing smoothly and efficiently.

I believe it is possible for many departments in the market for a pumper to find a workable match in the approximately 8,000 pumpers designed, built, and delivered within the previous few years. Many apparatus vendors don’t openly advertise the concept, and most fire departments refuse to even consider it. Vendors like to promote that, “We’ll custom build a rig exactly the way YOU want.” Purchasers like to hear that; it is agreeable to their egos. Others demand to individualize their rigs as if it were a God-given right. Taxpayers may not agree. While pride is commendable, narcissism can reek of arrogance. Both attributes can be very expensive. It may be financially advantageous and firematically feasible to purchase a demonstrator apparatus or a standardized apparatus.

Terminology

OEMs and dealers have their own interpretations of what I call noncustomized fire apparatus. They can weigh in later. In this narration, I use my own definitions. An in-stock rig is one already built; it’s on the lot and is ready to roll. It could be one where an order was canceled because a purchaser’s financing fell through, or it could have been rejected for any number of reasons such as being painted the wrong color-that’s happened. The October 14, 2015, issue of The Herald News, from Fall River, Massachusetts, said that the fire chief appeared before the city council to secure funding for one new pumper for $457,000. The city council wanted the mayor to seek funding for six pumpers because the apparatus manufacturer had seven trucks available at that price-a savings of about $50,000 per truck. The fire chief said the apparatus were built for a department that subsequently canceled the order, and Fall River needed new ones as six of the city’s front-line trucks were more than 10 years old and needed to be replaced.

5 Two of Pittsburgh’s 13 Spencer 2,000-gpm pumpers that were delivered on two orders. These rigs are only 28 feet long-a size many cities only wish to standardize on. (Photos by Spencer Manufacturing
5 Two of Pittsburgh’s 13 Spencer 2,000-gpm pumpers that were delivered on two orders. These rigs are only 28 feet long-a size many cities only wish to standardize on. (Photos by Spencer Manufacturing.)

Some OEMs schedule popular apparatus in their production slots anticipating selling them off the line before they’re finished. If they don’t, the rigs become stock. There’s nothing wrong with them. Some dealers will order, or may be required to order, a stock rig. They are usually spec’d similar to apparatus commonly sold in their marketing area. Dealers also hope to sell them before they’re built. If not, they too become stock rigs. There’s no stigma in purchasing one except for the perceived embarrassment of not “having it my way.” Vanity might have a value politicians may not want to fund. Specification writers should beware of the unsolicited optional bid for a stock rig or may consider actively seeking one.

OEMs build two types of demonstrator rigs. One is to introduce new products, designs, or product improvements such as a new cab, a redesigned body style, or even to show off a very specialized presold rig. They’re commonly found at trade shows. The second type follows the dictionary’s definition of demonstrate, meaning to show how something works, putting something through its paces, and to operate. It’s more of a practical “touchy feely” rig rather than a showpiece. Let’s pump it, fly it, and drive it. Like it? Sign the check, and we’ll leave it. As long as it’s been used and not abused, a demo rig may be a good value.

6 A demonstrator Multi Vocational Pumper (MVP). Demo rigs packed with equipment at trade shows usually draw big crowds showing the true potential of a rig’s carrying capacity. (Photos courtesy of Ferrara Fire Apparatus
6 A demonstrator Multi Vocational Pumper (MVP). Demo rigs packed with equipment at trade shows usually draw big crowds showing the true potential of a rig’s carrying capacity. (Photos courtesy of Ferrara Fire Apparatus.)

The dictionary defines standard as identical, or alike, or comparable to. Some manufacturers build rigs called “program” trucks. Firefighters cringe at the thought of purchasing anything that is standard-apparatus included. Even if a standard rig fits a department’s requirements 100 percent, it usually manages to find something to change. It thinks it’s its obligation to do so.

There is an unfounded connotation that program apparatus are nothing more than el-cheapo reproductions of real fire trucks costing next to nothing that only belong in third-world, undeveloped countries. You’ve got to read between the lines. Hearken back to the 1970s and 1980s when the real American La France (ALF) had program trucks called “sales cars.” Billy Shoemaker, of William Shoemaker Associates, an ALF sales representative from 1976 to 1985, says, “ALF scheduled a given number in their production schedule. They were well-appointed custom rigs with big engines, 1,500 gallon-per-minute pumps, 160- or 180-inch wheelbases, and two body styles and predetermined tank sizes. They were priced right, and dealers sold them off the production schedule. There were certain options that were available contingent upon where the rig was in the production schedule.” A like program could give purchasers a degree of flexibility in purchasing a standardized rig. OEMs may have similar programs like that today. Ask.

Standardization

I do not propose that one standard pumper design can fulfill the needs of the more than 30,000 fire departments in the United States. Nor do I believe a basic pumper just meeting the minimum requirements of NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, will meet them either. NFPA 1901 is about as much standardization as I personally want to see. Let the NFPA make the rig safe-don’t tell fire departments what to put on it and how to use it.

7 A demonstrator Multi Vocational Pumper (MVP). Demo rigs packed with equipment at trade shows usually draw big crowds showing the true potential of a rig’s carrying capacity. (Photos courtesy of Ferrara Fire Apparatus
7 A demonstrator Multi Vocational Pumper (MVP). Demo rigs packed with equipment at trade shows usually draw big crowds showing the true potential of a rig’s carrying capacity. (Photos courtesy of Ferrara Fire Apparatus.)

One self-ascribed definition of a standard rig includes one that has been built before-regardless of quantity. I believe some fire departments can purchase an exact replica of one of the 8,000 pumpers delivered in the past five years for a lot less money than custom designing a comparable lookalike today. Why reinvent the same wheel?

Except for mandatory product updates and NFPA and governmental requirements, when I say a replica, I mean the exact same rig sans lettering. No changes in color, light bar, adding lights, deleting discharges-nothing. Letter it when you get it home. It’s like buying a new car off the lot. It may not have everything you want, but the price could be very attractive. Out of 8,000 rigs, many fire departments ought to find one that’ll work.

8 This is a typical stock pumper offered by Ferrara Fire Apparatus. (Photo courtesy of Ferrara Fire Apparatus
8 This is a typical stock pumper offered by Ferrara Fire Apparatus. (Photo courtesy of Ferrara Fire Apparatus.)

A demo, program, standard, or stock rig may be cost-efficient. At the least, fire departments should be informed of those opportunities. In Part 2, I will ask OEMs to give their definitions, input, and advice on stock, standard, program, and demo rigs. They may be more acceptable than you think.

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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