How Well Do Fire Departments Use Their Compartment Space?

Editor’s Note: There is more to compartmentation on a new rig than picking compartment sizes and picturing where equipment will go. Often, once you mount the equipment, you discover you don’t have as much space as you thought. Editorial Advisory Board members Bill Adams and Ricky Riley draw on their experiences specing rigs and offer their thoughts on using compartment space wisely.


How Well Do Fire Departments Use Their Compartment Space?

By Bill Adams

A politically correct response to this question is that most fire departments do a good job in using compartment space while others do an outstanding job. It would be wrong. This is a “gotcha” trap question that most levelheaded apparatus manufacturers and vendors might not honestly answer because potential sales can be at stake. Consultants and for-hire specification writers will be equally cautious when responding. Future income may depend on their answers. Pundits, commentators, and observers have more leeway in expressing biased opinions—usually on the positive side. There can be pessimistic viewpoints. As an example, my perspective on laying out any apparatus has always been: If you have to climb onto your rig to reach a primary piece of equipment, you did a lousy job in designing it. That gets a lot of people upset.

I’ve never read an article where the writer states such-and-such fire department did a horrendous job in laying out its compartments. You’ll never read that an equipment layout is inefficient, that it’s a waste of space, that they put heavy equipment on top and light equipment on the bottom, and that they don’t have a clue about fire trucks. Like other media, the commentators in this magazine and on its Web site always do positive stories about apparatus with photographs showing compartment layouts. In particular, Mike Ciampo’s “Compartment Corner” series shows compartment layouts on many different types and manufacturers of in-service apparatus. He does not pass judgment, which allows readers to make their own determinations in how comparable layouts might work in their department. Vendors should demonstrate similar judiciousness when dealing with purchasing committees. Likewise, purchasers should be made aware of some pitfalls when writing specifications for compartmentation. Some personal observations on using compartment space follow.


Regardless of the type of apparatus, any compartment will appear to be well organized and well thought out when the door is opened and all the equipment is stowed in an orderly and structured layout, every cubic inch of space is put to good use, and there is no wasted space. What may be overlooked is there is no room for future expansion if everything just fits.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, advocates planning for the future when specifying compartmentation. The intention is praiseworthy but realistically, with the increased use of multifunction apparatus such as pumper-rescues and quints, departments are lucky to get all the equipment carried on its two rigs to fit onto a single new one let alone leave room for expansion.

However, inventories including proposed future purchases are excellent tools for long-term planning. They can and should help influence the size and configurations of future apparatus purchases. Why? It’s conceivable that a department could have replaced a heavy rescue with a pumper-rescue and later replaced a straight ladder truck with a popular single-axle quint—and then wondered what to do with all the equipment left on the apparatus bay floor that it used to carry. Look down the road objectively.


Prefabricated cubbies and modules designed to hold specific pieces of equipment appear efficient—for today. If of welded construction, they’ll likely stay that size forever. Replacing or adding equipment of different dimensional sizes may be impossible with welded sized-to-fit modules. Another consideration when specifying custom-built modules is bolting the modules in place. Doing so enables the possibility of relocating them from one compartment to another in the future.

It is customary, but not always cast in concrete, that compartment sizes on the curb side of a rig have to dimensionally mirror those on the road side. As an example, a rig might have two 40-inch-wide compartments ahead of the rear wheels on each side. It might be possible to have one side sized 30 inches wide and one 50 inches wide. The downside is perhaps losing flexibility in relocating equipment. With like-sized compartmentation, if equipment and components such as slide-out trays and tool boards, swing-out tool boards, and shelving fit in one compartment, they will fit in all of them. This allows flexibility in fireground operations.


One dislike is the aforementioned “If you have to climb onto your rig to reach a primary piece of equipment, you did a lousy job in designing it.” Don’t create a hazard and potential injury to a firefighter just to get equipment off the rig.

Another dislike: Permanently “floor-mounted” booster reels; electric rewind cord, hydraulic, and air reels; generators; and compressors are a waste of compartment space. Chances are some of the largest compartments on a rig are used for something that will never be moved. Even raising the equipment up a foot or so above the floor might enable storage underneath for heavy equipment.

A third dislike: Electrical panels, onboard generator circuit breakers, and control panels that are mounted on the back walls of a compartment may negate storage in front of them.


It’s advisable to have lips on trays and shelves to prevent equipment from sliding out or into roll-up doors. A downside is that they reduce the overall usable height of a compartment when equipment must be lifted up over the lip to remove it. Visualize a 66-inch-high compartment with a slide-out tray on the bottom and three shelves above it—all with two-inch lips. Eight inches of height is lost. Some manufacturers use hat sections on the bottom of shelving to reinforce them. Some are an inch or more deep. Consider going to thicker material for the shelf—perhaps ¼ inch in lieu of an under-the-shelf hat section. Slide trays can have the slide mechanisms on the side or bottom. Bottom slides reduce the usable height in the compartment, and side-mounted slides reduce the usable width of the tray. Which is more important?


Recently, I was checking out what I thought was the pump operator’s compartment on a traditional midship pumper—located aft of the pump house ahead of the rear wheels. There weren’t any spare nozzles, adapters, cellar pipe, spanners, hose clamps, short stubby lengths of large-diameter or three-inch hose, or spare rolled hose—nothing to do with water in or water out. The compartment was used for some emergency medical service equipment, toolboxes, and portable lights—equipment used daily. I asked the firefighter on duty what kind of pump operator’s compartment it was. He said it wasn’t, because they only use the pump once in a blue moon and if they do it’s usually just a single preconnect. Standard pump operator’s equipment was spread out all over the rig—actually wherever it would fit. These people thought outside the box. They didn’t lay out equipment because they’ve always done it that way. Equipment the pump operator uses all the time is stored where it is easily accessible. He was on the purchasing committee.


One department purchased a heavy rescue with little effort put into the equipment layout because its limited compartmentation was predetermined by the rig’s maximum allowable length, height, wheelbase, and cab size. On each side, there were two compartments ahead of the rear wheels, one over the rear wheels and one behind them. The purchasing committee spec’d a couple of floor-mounted slide-out trays and two adjustable shelves in each compartment. They would mount the equipment when it was delivered. When it was, it looked like the equipment was hurled in wherever it would fit—something like projectile vomiting. Ten years later, it looked the same.


Verbiage describing compartmentation does not necessarily have to follow the same format of the specification document itself. Formats include proprietary, performance, and open and are self-explanatory. The time and effort in deciding and detailing exactly how equipment is to be mounted will directly affect fireground operations and efficiency. Naysayers who claim it doesn’t matter and “a compartment is just a compartment” should be aware that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander is not necessarily applicable to the fire service. If that were true, the curbside compartment behind the rear wheels on every engine company in every fire department would be carrying the exact same equipment. The same goes for heavy rescues, ladders, and quints.

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.

Ricky Riley’s Viewpoint: Compartmentation

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