Are Two-Piece Engine Companies Still Viable?

By Bill Adams

Motorization facilitated combining the horse-drawn hose wagon and steamer into one rig. However, two-piece engine companies remained popular in major cities. The depression, World War II, and the Korean conflict created shortages of money, apparatus and manpower, forcing the use of single piece companies.

Bill Adams Two-Piece Engine Companies Pumpers
Photo 1

Unwittingly in the 1930s, one New England town saw a brief rebirth of the two-piece engine company concept. Seven volunteer stations each ran a 500- or 750-gpm Class A custom pumper with an open cab and small booster tank (photo 1). Population growth and expansion into undeveloped areas necessitated larger tanks. Stations supplemented their pumpers with commercial rigs with enclosed cabs, 300- to 500-gallon tanks (big in those days), twin booster reels and small-capacity PTO, or front-mounted pumps (photo 2). They were called “hose” trucks. Like today, they were much less expensive than custom pumpers. Don’t confuse them with actual hose wagons carrying plenty of supply line and deck gun(s) or with the wagon of two-piece companies comprising two Class A’s.

Bill Adams Two-Piece Engine Companies Pumpers
Photo 2

As the town evolved into a city, “hose” functions and design changed accordingly. Preconnected 60-gpm 1½-inch attack lines were added. Ancillary equipment such as generators, portable lights, and “Scotts” (self-contained breathing apparatus) resulted in full-width bodies with extra compartmentation. Compliant ground ladders were carried on top or in the rear of the body. One station combined hose truck functions with its rescue truck, calling it a Squad (photo 3).

The hose (“attack”) rig responded first followed by the pumper (supply) unit. On box alarms and structure fires, two stations responded, with the second-due station rolling its pumper first in case the first-due station couldn’t staff its pumper. Although never officially characterized as such, it was a “two-piece” company concept. It worked for them. In 1942, the city hired a career driver for each station, guaranteeing both “pieces” would respond.

Bill Adams Two-Piece Engine Companies Pumpers
Photo 3

In the early 1950s, by adding supply line and specifying a minimum 500-gpm pump, the Board of Fire Underwriters classified new purchases as Class A pumpers (photo 4). Consolidated as a city fire department in 1956, the career entity inherited seven custom and three commercial pumpers (the upgraded hose), four hose trucks, and the squad. Only the custom pumpers were staffed. Hoses were special called for brush fires only and as they aged, they were not replaced.

The minipumper craze, starting in the 1970s, could have—or should have—been another rebirth of the two-piece company. I believe the minipumper was misused by departments who replaced Class A’s with minis. That didn’t work well. Whether the concept was ill-conceived or wrongly implemented is immaterial—but could be a topic for a later dissertation.

Bill Adams Two-Piece Engine Companies Pumpers
Photo 4

Today’s economy is dismal; new apparatus sales are off by almost half. Municipalities can’t afford to replace big ticket apparatus just because the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says it’s time to. The NFPA’s recommended replacement schedules may become irrelevant. Rigs will have to last longer regardless of their mileage. Could two-piece companies still work in career or volunteer departments? Today’s smaller four-door commercial chassis increases crew carrying capacity. The concept might be doable. Run the “cheap” rig first-out and send the “real” one back if it’s not needed. Or, depending on staffing, keep an operator and the pumper back and send the smaller piece to non-structure related calls. Would a four-door mini with a big pump, foam, and 300-gallon tank work?

Call it a hose, mini, midi, squad, attack or the wagon. What about a Chevy Suburban-type vehicle for medical calls? Why wear out a half-million-dollar pumper carting band aids up and down Main Street? For the record, I personally dislike minipumpers, Suburbans and EMS calls, and do not embrace the two-piece concept. But, going to a two-piece company could be a viable financial option for making aging apparatus last longer. What do you think? Agree, disagree or any comments? Keep it clean. Discuss this at our new community site. The thread is located here:

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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