Everybody knows that fire apparatus are made up of many parts and components. There are usually many choices to be made when purchasing apparatus, as the truck manufacturers don’t provide the components; they rely on other suppliers for the parts.
Departments can request their favorite engine, pump, tank (i.e., material and size), warning lights and many other vehicle parts. The question is, “Do these things matter?” The answer is both yes and no.
Anyone who has been in the fire service for any length of time knows that stations take great pride in their apparatus, and your department wants to get the best, most reliable vehicle possible within budget.
One of the biggest decisions is that of the engine. We can assume that Detroit Diesel, Cummins and Navistar all make quality engines, or they would no longer be in business. (It is worth noting that new emission standards will soon limit engine options.) Each engine is capable of providing the necessary power and all can be made specifically to fit almost any apparatus.
Choosing An Engine
When it comes to choosing an engine, personal preference often outweighs functionality. The influence of personal preference is also seen when fire personnel select a vehicle for personal use. Arguments can be made for most engines regarding which is the best—statistics may even be available favoring one manufacturer over another.
Ultimately, a person selects a Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Nissan, Toyota or some other brand based on a combination of factors including present circumstances and personal preference. This is also true when it comes to selecting fire truck engines.
As you look at other components, similar arguments can be made regarding use and reliability. For example, the truck’s pump is a very important piece, and Darley, Hale and Waterous all make good products.
Each manufacturer’s pump delivers water, and each has proven reliable. All are in many first-due pieces on the streets and in fire stations today. If they didn’t work well, word would spread quickly and the companies would be unable to operate. Due to this quality invariance, past purchasing practices tend to influence this choice more than logic or need. Too often we continue to buy what we always have without shopping around for a better product or an equivalent one that is more cost-effective.
So, what does this mean? There are a couple of ways to look at it. You can accept the fact that most of these parts and components are adequate and will do what you need them to. This increases the options during the bid process, allowing truck manufacturers to work toward the best possible price.
All other things being equal, price would naturally dictate your choice. You also do not restrict the number of potential bidders to manufacturers who use only one supplierbased on practices of certain suppliers. This decision is unique to the needs of each department and must be evaluated individually.
For example, if you specified which tires, engine and transmission you wanted on your next personal vehicle, how do you think that would affect the cost? If money were no object, you wouldn’t care. If you are like most departments and have financial limitations, allowing for more options should get you a better price.
The entire product cost must be analyzed, not just the purchase price. This includes all costs incurred during the product’s expected life. After all costs are analyzed, if all other things are relatively equal based on your research, you would then accept the lowest-price bid.
Another view is to consider the advantages of specifying the major or significant components. There are reasons to do this. Some considerations are future repairs, parts, repairperson and firefighter training and operation consistency. You may even consider local vendors or salespeople and the service they provide post-vehicle delivery and throughout its service life. Past experience should also be considered—both good and bad, as well as the supplier’s reputation.
If specifying particular components is a consideration, you must find out what the advantages and disadvantages are on every area of the product—cost, ease of use, reliability, parts availability, repair options, training needed and anything else you can think of.
Take, for example, the warning lights. Do they meet the existing standards? Do they fit on your apparatus? How difficult will repairs be if they break? How often are they likely to fail? Additional considerations are parts availability and whether a specialist is needed to change a bulb.
There are truck parts that are more about personal preference than about functionality or reliability. Allowing for some generic components—that is considering more than one specific brand—can reduce the overall apparatus cost. You should look at everything that goes into a vehicle and decide which components are essential and need-specific, and which are flexible.
It must be stressed here that there are often legitimate reasons to specify brands or models. Training on the same component is much easier, and standardizing your parts can offer big benefits.
If you have your own repair shop, sticking with the same components can keep your mechanics from having to learn the additional nuances that come with diversifying.
Even the comfort and confidence that you have with vendors and repair shops are legitimate reasons to stick with what you have. If you have a supplier with a good track record, by all means continue (provided this is within your organization’s purchasing guidelines). Knowing that you will get quick, competent service at a reasonable cost is important and should be considered a vital evaluation factor.
Evaluate Your Options
Regardless of how you proceed, the message is that evaluating your options is critical. The economic realities of today’s world warrant due diligence when apparatus investing.
Because things have always been a certain way is not a valid reason to continue that way. Decide what is important and what may have more flexibility. That is for you to choose, but put effort into evaluating your processes so you get the best bang for your buck.
Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Northville Township (Mich.) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999 he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.