Departments Measure Effectiveness of Rapid Response Vehicle Programs

By Alan M. Petrillo

Some fire departments around the country have been experimenting with running rapid response vehicles (RRVs) or alternate response vehicles (ARVs) on emergency medical service (EMS) runs instead of putting a pumper or ladder truck on the road.

Two departments in different parts of the country-one in Tennessee and the other in Oregon-are reporting success with their programs thus far, although they had to overcome several hurdles to make the plans work effectively.

ARV Program

Memphis (TN) Fire Services currently staffs eight ARVs: Ford F-350 pickup trucks with crew cabs and long-bed wheelbases, powered by Ford V8 diesel engines. Michael Putt, deputy director for Memphis Fire Services, says the F-350’s bed is enclosed with a cap that rises to the top of the truck cab and covers the entire bed. Access to the area under the cap is from the rear, and there are compartments on either side.

RRVs-a GMC Yukon with the back seat removed to carry medical equipment and gear for two firefighters.

Portland (OR) Fire Department Lieutenant Rich Chatman stands in
front of one of the department’s RRVs-a GMC Yukon with the
back seat removed to carry medical equipment and gear for two
firefighters. [Photo courtesy of the Portland (OR) Fire


“The long-wheelbase Ford F-350 holds more than what we needed to carry,” Putt says. “But at the time we bought the vehicles, we needed the long wheelbase to carry a spine board because we couldn’t find a good, collapsible spine board to use. Good collapsible boards are available now, so we could go with a shorter wheelbase on future ARVs-either one-ton or ¾-ton vehicles on short wheelbases.”

Memphis Fire Services took delivery of all eight vehicles within two months of each other and put them in service in June 2010. “Like everyone else in the country, we were tight on money but had set funds aside to buy these ARVs,” Putt points out. “We haven’t purchased any more of them yet and would have to do so through capital improvement planning bonds.”

Ford F-350 long-wheelbase crew cab vehicle with equipment bays in the covered truck bed

Memphis (TN) Fire Services staffs eight ARVs like this Ford F-
350 long-wheelbase crew cab vehicle with equipment bays in the
covered truck bed. [Photos 2-4 courtesy of Memphis (TN) Fire


Putt says the biggest challenge when starting the program was firefighters’ concern that they should have control in determining whether to respond to an EMS call in an ARV or in a pumper. “Because the ARV only carries medical gear, there was some worry that if the crew was in the ARV for an EMS call, it wouldn’t have the necessary equipment to fight a fire if it was alerted to a fire call,” he says. “So, we gave the crews total control on whether to take the ARV or the pumper on an EMS call. The firefighters liked having that measure of control and also liked how easy it was to get around in traffic in the ARV. It is faster and more maneuverable than a pumper.”

Putt points out that department policy states if a pumper is out on an EMS call, the crew must tend to that person’s medical event, even if a fire call comes in during the EMS call. “It’s the same with EMS calls where the crew responds in the ARV,” he says. “They can’t accept a fire call until they are back at the pumper.”

RRV Program

At the Portland (OR) Fire Department, Lieutenant Rich Chatman, public information officer, says the department’s RRV program is six months old and under study to determine its effectiveness. “We experienced the same budget issues other cities around the country are dealing with, so the mayor and city commissioners encouraged the bureaus to analyze their operations and find more efficient models to do business,” Chatman says. “A couple of commissioners noted we don’t respond to as many fires as we used to and challenged us to find a way to adapt to that new reality.”

Chatman says the department wasn’t going to as many fire calls, but its total call volume was up. “We identified the calls we were running and their acuity,” he says, “taking a close look at how to respond to low-acuity calls where a patient was not in imminent danger of dying. In a case like that, we might not need four firefighters responding on a truck.”

The department decided that a two-person rescue response would make sense for those low-acuity EMS calls. “The plan was that by doing so, we could create more efficient response times with the other pumpers and trucks because they wouldn’t be tied up with the low-acuity calls,” Chatman observes. “We had to cut two engine companies to create our four rescues (RRVs), but the firefighters from the engines staffed the four new RRVs.”

Memphis ARV

The rear of this Memphis ARV carries a slide-out tray for easy
access to the unit’s medical gear.


The department purchased four GMC Yukon SUVs, the same rigs that it already had spec’d for its battalion chiefs’ vehicles. “We modified the vehicles so they had no back seats where the firefighters carry the medical equipment and their firefighting gear,” Chatman says. “The RRV carries all the medical gear that was on the engine except for a backboard.”

Specifications on the GMC Yukons include 355-hp, 5.3-liter V8 gasoline engines, 116-inch wheelbases, 202-inch overall lengths, and 76.9-inch overall heights.

Programs’ Effectiveness

Both departments are still evaluating how successful each program has been, comparing various data including savings in fuel and maintenance costs and response times.

“We’re crunching the data on how the program has been going,” Chatman points out. “We’ve looked at the cost savings of not sending engines and trucks to low-acuity calls, saving the wear and tear on the vehicles, fuel, and maintenance. We found the cost savings to be minimal-approximately $2,000 over six months.”

However, Chatman notes that response time reliability was the important element in the data. “We want to be at a scene at under six minutes from being called and shoot to hit that target 80 percent of the time,” he says. “Some of the pumpers and trucks were getting there 70 to 75 percent of the time, but with the [RRVs], we are seeing a 10 to 11 percent increase in response time reliability.”

Chatman says all four of the RRVs are in service at the same time and can cover most of Portland. “An advantage of the RRV program is the vehicles give us a lot of flexibility,” he remarks. “By identifying the low-acuity calls and sending the two-person RRV, it guarantees that a pumper or truck is available when a more serious call comes in.”

On the other hand, Chatman says, there could be a disadvantage to the program. “Our primary concern would be that we might end up losing more engines or trucks if the program is expanded,” he says.

Putt notes that the Memphis Fire Services ARV program has produced a major savings in fuel over the years it has been running. “An engine gets about three miles per gallon in fuel mileage, while the Ford F-350 gets between 9 and 11 miles per gallon,” he says. “So, that’s a big savings in fuel. We have not had any major breakdowns on the ARVs. We do routine maintenance on them and have not had any problems at all.”

Putt notes that a pumper will wear out a set of brakes after 15,000 to 17,000 miles and a bit more in mileage for a set of tires. “We haven’t replaced the brakes or tires on our ARVs yet,” he notes.

Steven Chastain, a Memphis Fire Services lieutenant, says he takes a four-person crew when an ARV run comes in because there are times when extra sets of hands are needed to handle a patient. “Dispatch will send us as Squad 17 or Engine 17, depending on what they determine the call is,” Chastain says, “but I have the discretion of taking the squad or the engine.”

Memphis ARVs

Memphis ARVs also carry forcible entry and other hand tools in
case they are needed to force a door or otherwise gain access for
EMS crews.


There are calls where Chastain prefers to take the engine but only about 10 percent of the time. “For example, if I were taking the rig to a six-lane road, I would take the pumper instead of the squad because it’s larger and more visible and can protect the scene better,” he notes.

Advantages of taking the squad are maneuverability, accessibility, and the ease in which it gets into tight spaces, Chastain says. “I have not heard anything negative from firefighters about the way the department has been using the ARV,” he says. “It has been a positive experience for everyone.”

Frank Busby, a lieutenant with Memphis Fire Services, concurs. “The program is doing exactly what they intended it to do,” he says. “The six firefighters in my station agree that we have quicker response times, the vehicle has better maneuverability, it gets better fuel mileage, it’s a much more comfortable ride, and it’s easy to get the equipment off of it.”

Busby says he initially was against the idea because firefighters don’t take firefighting gear or self-contained breathing apparatus on the ARVs, meaning they can’t respond to a fire call with the rig. But, he says he came around to the ARV program idea pretty quickly. “On our shift, it has only happened once in two years where we had a fire call when we were out on the ARV,” he says.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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