The economic recession is playing a significant role in practically every aspect of modern life, including fire apparatus.

Manufacturers report sharply decreased orders and a trend that might be called getting back to the basics. Departments are cutting back on wish lists for the latest bells and whistles, as well as some options, such as compressed air foam systems (CAFS), that have been gaining acceptance. Some safety options are still being specified, but airbags is not one of them. The result is that manufacturers are trying to find ways to reduce costs and add value while fire departments are moving toward smaller, handier apparatus that can serve multiple functions.

Peter Guile, president of E-ONE, Inc. in Ocala, Fla., said a large number of customers are returning to form and function.

“The general trend we’re seeing is the expectation on the part of the fire department or the municipality to get as much value out of the dollars spent as possible,” Guile said. “That includes multiple uses of vehicles being purchased.”

George Logan, E-ONE’s vice president of dealer operations, said the evolving roles of firefighters are affecting the design and purchase of apparatus.

“We’re seeing changes in applications from the days when the rig in the station was there to fight fires only,” he said. “In today’s world, we see a lot more medical and rescue calls compared to fire calls. And with fire departments taking on new jobs, such as [emergency medical service], the rigs that are showing up at the scene are changed in appearance.”

Logan noted that his company has seen trends toward more rescue-pumpers, pumper-tankers, quints and rescue EMS vehicles.

Donley Frederickson, national sales manager for Rosenbauer America in Lyons, S.D., said fire departments are looking to do more with less.

“They’re looking for a smaller truck with a shorter wheelbase, but they don’t want to give up performance or storage space,” he said. “So we’re bidding on a lot more pumper-rescue trucks and tanker-pumpers than before, and also are doing a lot more non-walk-ins.”

A Learning Curve

Harold Boer, Rosenbauer’s president, noted that while fire officials at many departments develop plans to buy lower-cost, more economical trucks, they often don’t follow through.

“They might talk about it, and even put some of it in their specifications, but what they eventually come up with are the features of bigger trucks,” he said. “There’s a learning curve for departments deciding what they want to give up to get the lower cost truck that they can afford.”

Phil Gerace, director of sales and marketing for KME Fire Apparatus in Nesquehoning, Pa., has seen dual trends in apparatus purchases recently.

“We’re seeing some departments looking for units with less horsepower and also with lower price points,” he said. “It’s all due to budget constraints. Where departments were looking for highly-customized units before, now they want something in the mid range, like a 9-liter engine.”

Another way departments are making money go further, Gerace noted, is ordering apparatus designed for heavy, severe use, which lowers maintenance costs and prolongs the life of the unit.

“We’re seeing increased demand for multi-function apparatus,” he said, “like pumper-rescue units and trucks capable of fighting wildland fires and also over-the-road applications.”

Recession Reduces Orders

While demand may be increasing for more versatile apparatus, manufacturers report the impact of the recession on municipal government budgets has reduced overall orders significantly from recent years.

“We normally expect around 5,500 trucks to be sold in the marketplace in a year,” said Kevin Crump, president of Crimson Fire in Brandon, S.D. “But based on the latest data, projections indicate we could see 2,000 fewer vehicles built this year.”

Crump noted that 50 percent of fire apparatus in service today are more than 15 years old. Those trucks, he said, are far out of compliance with the latest safety provisions of the National Fire Protection Association’s 1901 apparatus standard, which was revised in 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2009.

“Those are compelling reasons why fire departments should be buying new apparatus,” he said. “But in some areas, it’s not politically correct to buy a new fire truck now because of the economic stress on the municipality.”

Departments that do have money, he said, are leaning toward multi-purpose vehicles, rather than specialized ones. “So the trucks have pump and rescue capabilities,” he said, “so they can carry as much different equipment to the scene as possible.”

In some cases, Crump said, departments retiring two vehicles are replacing them with a single, multi-purpose vehicle.

Staffing levels have also affected the kinds of apparatus fire departments are ordering, according to E-ONE’s Guile. 

“The larger city budgets have been impacted in manpower and personnel costs, so the more you can do with the shift in place, the more efficient the department becomes,” he said. “Those budgetary pressures are making departments think more about how best to cover all the kinds of calls they have with the personnel they have.”

In addition, he said, many volunteer fire departments continue to have difficulty recruiting new firefighters, which leads them to specify multi-purpose rigs instead of trucks that perform a single function.

Bryan Smeal, regional sales director for Smeal Fire Apparatus Co. in Snyder, Neb., said many fire departments are eliminating options they would have included in specifications.

“A department that has to replace an older truck usually will want the same exact truck until they see the sticker price,” he said, “and then they scale back on things.”

Options being dropped or modified include foam, which he has seen being changed from complete CAFS to less expensive systems. “There’s a pretty sizeable [price] difference,” he said.
While some manufacturers are seeing options like foam being affected by the economic downturn, that’s not the case for W.S. Darley & Co. in Itasca, Ill., a builder of custom apparatus on commercial and other chassis. Chief Operating Officer Peter Darley said his firm builds more types of compressed air foam systems on trucks than any other manufacturer.

“With more and more trucks going to foam and CAFS,” he said, “manufacturers have to produce simple-to-operate yet affordable systems, and also provide the right training to use them.”

Darley believes the trend toward foam on most trucks is one that is ready to take off. “The draft proposal for the NFPA 1906 standard on wildland vehicles calls for each truck to have some form of foam capability,” he noted. “That’s a big message to the industry that foam is a good thing.”

Darley agrees the recession has had a big impact on the manufacture of apparatus this year. “When more and more fire departments don’t get what they want in terms of grants or money from their city to purchase apparatus, they will settle for less,” he said. “For some departments, buying a program truck would be the natural result.”

He defines a program truck as one that’s built with a limited selection of options and ready for near-immediate delivery, but he believes most trucks today are still built to custom specifications written by fire departments.

Kevin Creese, director of sales and marketing for Sutphen Fire Trucks in Dublin, Ohio, said he has seen a “lot of movement toward program trucks where it’s becoming one of the largest selling parts of our business.” At the same time, he said, sales of custom trucks remains steady.

“Manufacturers are trying to find ways to add value and reduce costs,” he said, “while pushing for safety and functionality. That’s what we’re working on in our program trucks.”

Smart Engineering

Creese noted Sutphen program trucks are limited to four body styles and 65 options. “If you can live within that framework, you can save a significant amount of money,” he said.

Crimson Fire’s Crump said the definition of a program truck is changing. It used to mean a barebones, few-choices, and ultra-low-cost vehicle.

“But with our Legend series,” he said, “we have a product that uses lean manufacturing principles and smart engineering up front to take the cost out of the product and increase value to the customer. For us, the program truck continues to mean no customization, but broader options.”

Gerace said KME Fire Apparatus also builds program trucks with many features preconfigured, which makes it easier to write the specifications and shortens the time needed to build the truck.

Smeal Fire Apparatus sells quite a few program trucks; however, Bryan Smeal said, “It always seems like we’re making tweaks on our program trucks to customize them for the customers.”

At Rosenbauer, the mix between custom and program trucks “hasn’t changed much,” according to Frederickson, who said program trucks average “about 10 percent of our business.”

As for safety options on fire trucks, most manufacturers agree they aren’t attracting a lot of attention from departments at this point, mostly because of the cost.

“The seat belt alarms, chevrons for visibility and digital data recorder are NFPA standards,” E-ONE’s Logan noted. “But there are other options, such as stability control, anti-roll systems and airbags.”

Stability Control

He said his company offers those three options on its custom chassis, but isn’t installing many airbags, either due to tight fire department budgets “or because we believe we have one of the strongest cabs in the industry.”

Peter Darley said stability control is the safety feature most often ordered with custom-built trucks, but that “we probably will see more airbags in trucks in the future.”

Bryan Smeal said his company offers roll stability control systems and airbags on its trucks and stressed that building ergonomically correct vehicles is just as important.

“We invented the ergonomic hose load in the 1990s,” he said, “and we are always looking at making tasks easier for the firefighters using the apparatus. It’s important to have everything at a nice, reachable height.”

Besides making access easier where possible, he said other safety considerations include installing an adequate number of handholds and grab handles and having step heights comply with NFPA standards.

Improving Safety

Rosenbauer has seen some interest in side airbags in its trucks, according to Boer, but not a big call for frontal airbags. “Some of the things we’re doing to improve safety,” he said, “include yellow grab handles instead of silver or chrome to improve visibility, better access ladders to get to the truck’s hose bed, and designing power hose beds on aerials that bring the hose bed down to ground level for loading.”

Sutphen offers side roll airbags, Creese said, but not a lot of departments put them in. As for frontal airbags, he said, “it’s an extraordinary cost to put them in a truck, but we’re exploring it.”

2010 Emission Standards

Gerace at KME Fire Apparatus said some departments specify rollover protection systems, as well as rear view cameras on their apparatus, but he sees a different kind of dark cloud on the horizon for manufacturers.

“There’s a huge change facing fire apparatus manufacturers and that’s because of the 2010 emission standards that will drastically reduce engine emissions,” he said. “We’ll see a lot of change in a short period of time.”

He said new engines with selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology “will affect plumbing, cab configurations, body configurations, wheelbases and turning radiuses.” The new rules, he said, “will absolutely make our job more complex in putting together a new truck.”

Meeting the new federal emission standards will also make fire apparatus more expensive.

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