Commentary: What Is a Top-of-the-Line Fire Truck?

By Bill Adams

Automobile manufacturers used to, and some still do, tag their vehicles with appealing and sometimes interesting categorizations or epithets. In the 1960s and 1970s, Chervrolet had four models of passenger cars designated the Caprice, Impala, Bel Air, and the Biscayne. They originally were the same size vehicle with the nomenclature denoting the available options and price ranges. Fire apparatus manufacturers, likewise, tag their apparatus with catchy or appealing names.

During the same era, several fire truck manufacturers introduced inexpensive apparatus on custom cabs and chassis that were priced between apparatus mounted on commercially available cabs and chassis and their premium “top-of-the-line” custom cabs and chassis. The American La France Pioneer and the Seagrave Invader series were commonly referred to as low-cost, no-frills, Plain-Jane pumpers. They were not very popular and eventually were discontinued. Two equally undistinguished low-end pumpers were the Ward La France Patriot and Vantage series—one being uglier than the other. In my opinion, all were devoid of any redeeming physical attributes. Although inexpensive, they were butt ugly and some even reflected their bargain basement pricing. Some of the bodywork materials and methods of construction were of “lesser quality” than their regular production apparatus.

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Disclaimer: There is no intent to disparage a manufacturer offering its standard fire apparatus construction on a line of rigs with limited options that are sometimes known as “program” apparatus. Program apparatus of identical construction can be a very cost-effective purchase for end users.

Fire apparatus purchasing specifications often included the statement “The purchaser will only accept pricing for a bidder’s top-of-the-line apparatus.” The statement was initiated by purchasers to ensure the “Plain Jane” rigs were not proposed and would not be considered by the purchaser. Sometimes the specifications explicitly prohibited alternate or optional pricing, also to preclude a bidder from slipping in an el-cheapo model. Often, this preclusion was at the behest of apparatus manufacturers that did not offer low-end products. They also did not want a low-end competitor upsetting the bidding process.  

Fire departments did not want to explain to cost-conscious purchasing agents why they did not want an ugly or cheap fire truck. The last thing a fire department wanted to hear was a vendor telling the mayor that the apparatus being proposed had the same capacity pump, an identical booster tank capacity, the same type of sheet metal, a comparable method of body construction, a similar sized diesel motor, an equally reputable paint manufacturer, an equivalent valve manufacturer, and that the rig being proposed had an identical warranty and costs one third less than all the other bidders. Such claims are probably why fire departments are justified in writing extremely detailed and often proprietary purchasing specifications.

Occasionally a purchasing specification today may still contain the sentence “The purchaser will only accept pricing for a bidder’s top-of-the-line apparatus.” It is probably a remnant of an in-house fire-department-generated specification. It has no quantifiable value, and it may not be easily proven. How does one define a fire truck being the top of the line? It is an ambiguous term that does not belong in a set of purchasing specifications. The same is applicable for any apparatus component part.  

It is the purchaser’s decision to decide the acceptability of a product. As one example, it should be the purchaser’s determination if a galvanized steel body, a stainless steel body, an aluminum body, or a non-metallic body, or even if several of them meet the fire department’s expectations of a level of quality desired. Claiming only one can be the “top of the line” is not in a purchaser’s purview and can open a Pandora’s Box. Don’t go there.

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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