Building Apparatus that Won’t Break the Budget

Chris Mc Loone

We have all heard about the trends in apparatus purchasing these days. There’s a definite move toward multipurpose apparatus that incorporate many tactical functions into one apparatus to maximize what the crew riding the rig can do once it arrives at an incident. So, we know how budget cuts have affected personnel and purchasing strategies and schedules. But, ultimately when a purchasing committee is getting together to spec out a new truck, the challenge is getting that new truck to fit into the budget the committee is working with. There are many ways to accomplish this, and they’re easier than you might think. They might cause a group to change the way it approaches the new purchase, but they are all viable ways to build an effective fire apparatus in as affordable a manner as possible.

Standard Vehicles

Scott Edens, president and CEO of Fouts Bros, espouses accepting standard specifications. He says that if a department can purchase a standard apparatus, the customization cost, which includes engineering and production costs, is dramatically reduced. “Supply agreements with the industry’s best component suppliers provide Fouts Bros with discounted pricing for all standard specifications,” he adds. “Fouts Bros incorporates brand-specific components in our standard specifications, which allows us to offer departments a best-value proposition for the standard trucks.”

Ed Smith, director emergency vehicles group, VT Hackney, Inc., states that the greatest savings a purchaser can experience is to allow the manufacturer to create a product to meet specific requirements based on an existing standard model. “Most manufacturers have numerous models that would fit that classification based on body size, horsepower requirements, maneuverability, water capacity, and so on,” he says. “Historically, standardization has been the most difficult option to sell in this industry.”

Standardization is a hard sell, according to Smith, because many departments hope to build apparatus that distinguishes them from their peers. “The result is incredible engineering hours and disruption of a production facility-hours that must be passed to the purchaser,” he says. “These and other factors result in significant cost increases to provide an apparatus that just as likely could have been served by a preengineered product.”

A “program” vehicle is another type of standard vehicle departments can consider to keep the overall cost of the purchase down. “The most cost-effective apparatus we offer is our line of preengineered trucks, commonly known as program trucks,” says Harold Boer, president of Rosenbauer America. “We negotiate with our suppliers for better pricing on larger quantities of components.”

Phil Gerace, director of sales and marketing, KME, adds, “We have program configurations that offer savings by using standardized components but still offer the flexibility to customize dozens of items like plumbing, lighting, and compartmentation. Our service department offers a number of different levels of refurbishment, and many new trucks use components transferred from the current in-service vehicle.”

“Just because it’s a program vehicle doesn’t mean that we skipped or cut corners to create a truck for a budget-conscious department,” cautions Bryan Smeal, regional sales director for Smeal Fire Apparatus. “We did the work in advance to make it simple for our employees to manufacture these products because the bodies, the accessories, and so on, are all preengineered to go together. You’re not losing the quality you have come to expect from the builder you choose.”

Smeal adds, “If you’re looking to purchase something and get a good bang for your buck, program vehicles are a very good option. Most entry-level vehicles are preengineered. There are options available, but they are limited options.” He cites his company’s two entry-level vehicles as examples. “We’ve got six different versions of this one particular model. We designed a couple of water tanks and a couple of bodies to fit around the tanks. You’ve got three different lengths of bodies. We have a varied amount of discharge options coming off a common pump manifold. So, basically we’re getting all four corners of the truck covered.”

“Pierce has six distinctly different custom chassis to fit a wide range of budgets,” says Mike Dufrae, vice president of sales at Pierce Manufacturing. The company also has many preengineered body styles to choose from, and if a department can work within these selections, the costs are lower. “Stock units are another way to buy quick-delivery units at an affordable price,” Dufrae adds. “Many stock units are preengineered and available at the factory or used as demonstrators at shows.”

Smith says, “Shop around for a body builder that has a preengineered body model that fits the designated mission requirement-it’s a guaranteed way to reduce overall procurement cost.”

Another place to look for a standard type vehicle-but one that does offer some customization-is to tag on to a large purchase. “Major apparatus manufacturers often have fleet contracts already in force that offer other departments the ability to tag on,” says Gerace. “Often, economies of scale allow single-unit purchasers to get large volume discounts.”

Define Your Truck

Change orders are not something any department wants to accumulate during the construction process. Defining the truck early on and planning it out well will ultimately reduce your costs as well.

“My best advice is to clearly define your needs up front and have the manufacturers bid to that final spec,” says Gerace. “If a preconstruction meeting is held, you should ask the manufacturer if it needed to go far outside of its standard to meet any specification items because that generally adds cost. If so, inquire if there are savings available by making a minor modification to your spec item. Then when the unit goes into production, make little or no changes. This will minimize the chances that the scope and cost will grow.”

The most important thing for a purchaser struggling to keep a new apparatus within budget, according to Pat Patton, mid-Atlantic sales manager for Spartan Chassis, is to truly understand the project. “Just because the last apparatus purchased had a specific option selected doesn’t necessarily mean you need the same option on the new unit,” he says.

Wants vs. Needs

As part of the planning process, it is critically important to define what you absolutely need and what you want or would be nice to have. “Define what you want the truck to do,” says Smeal. “Define the needs of the vehicle and then the wants. If there is any money left over and the committee has some wants for that truck, then start going and checking on those wants.”

“An excellent way for purchasers to keep costs down is to have a clear understanding of the apparatus their department needs to have vs. what is nice to have,” says Dufrae. Custom manufacturers, he says, can build highly customized apparatus that help meet the needs of all types of departments and can provide many features and benefits for end users. “However, so many options and choices can also increase the overall cost of a new apparatus if there are options specified that may not truly be necessary for the department. Determine what is a ‘must have’ for an apparatus. Start with a base truck and define what the needs are. Break the truck into the chassis, pump area, and body,” he says.

“The single largest thing, in my opinion, is for a department to know what its budget is and to objectively analyze wants vs. needs,” says Boer.

According to Smith, there are options that buyers add that have questionable value in terms of completing the overall mission for which the apparatus is designed. “In this tight economic environment, the buyer really needs to evaluate whether some of the nice features are really necessary and serve a real purpose,” he says.

“My best advice for building an affordable apparatus would be to take a detailed and researched approach to the available options on your chassis,” adds Patton. “Spartan Chassis offers a tremendous number of options, but not all are needed in each scenario.” He adds that buyers should be realistic in option selections. “We tend to see a lot of funds going into optional content that may not be necessary for the apparatus being designed,” he says. “Purchasers see it listed as being an option, so they feel their apparatus needs it as well.

“Try to limit the custom options and accessories,” Edens suggests. “Evaluate smaller chassis options. Truck manufacturers continue to improve the capabilities of smaller and less expensive chassis. There are great options for smaller and more diverse pumpers. Departments may have to reduce the amount of water but can incorporate 1,000-gallon-per-minute (gpm) pumps on a variety of Class 4-6 chassis.”

Look for Solutions

A carefully thought out apparatus specification that incorporates what is truly needed for the vehicle as opposed to what a department may want for the vehicle as well as looking into program trucks will go a long way toward reducing the cost of an apparatus. But even more solutions exist when you get down to the nuts and bolts of the actual truck. And, some don’t involve the parts used at all.

“Most manufacturers can suggest components they use a lot,” says Boer. “They buy larger quantities of these for better pricing and typically know they are reliable. Also, when specing commonly used items like lights and other electronic items, manufacturers stock these and can ship replacements quickly. When specing special items, you don’t get best pricing or stock items for quick shipment for service parts.”

“One of the biggest trends we see is fire departments-both big and small-using a lease purchase program,” says Dufrae. “There are programs that offer no money down and no payments for up to a year. This allows a department to buy what it wants and budget for payments.”

Proven cooperative purchasing agencies can save a government or even volunteer department significant time and money and provide them with competitively bid contracts that allow them to choose the preferred vendor, according to Smith.

Gerace adds that many suppliers have wide ranges of solutions for fire departments with budget concerns. “Some of these items include special leasing plans, extended warranties, program trucks, and group purchasing contracts,” he says. “The key is to make sure you understand what the tradeoff is between feature and cost because you’re generally going to have the truck for many years. Because of that, make sure your supplier is reputable and can support the vehicle for its lifetime.” Another easy way to cut costs, according to Gerace, is to consider paying your own travel expenses rather than bundling them in the purchase.

The responsibility of keeping a new apparatus within its budget ultimately rests on the department and its purchasing committee. There are many ways, even with a customized apparatus, to contain costs. Engage the manufacturers and suppliers and ask them how to keep expenses on a new apparatus in line. If you don’t ask, you won’t know. And, you might end up having to answer a lot of questions from the public about why your new rig cost so much.

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 19-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.

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