FA Viewpoints: December 2020

2020 has been a year unlike any other. Although we came up with this question in the beginning of the year, no one could have foreseen the direction 2020 has gone. Nonetheless, the fire service industry continues to move forward. So, we stuck with the question, “What was the most significant apparatus innovation/design/news during 2020 from your perspective?”

COVID-19, Acquisition Dominate 2020

The number one news item from 2020 is COVID-19 and its detrimental impact on all aspects of emergency services. However, providing emergency services is a topic for later discussion. Not being disrespectful or uncaring for those whose livelihoods, health, and lives may have been affected, the following only refers to fire apparatus sales. COVID-19 dwarfs all innovations and designs. The pandemic has detrimentally impacted the apparatus industry to a level that, in my opinion, has not reached its pinnacle. Unfortunately, the worse may be yet to come. I hope I am wrong.

APPARATUS ACQUISITION

A primary concern for fire departments is securing financing to purchase apparatus. Volunteer entities whose major income is from socially oriented gatherings such as carnivals, chicken barbecues, and bingos have seen an almost immediate cessation in revenues. An extended shutdown of the economy will see their annual fund drives, another large source of income, take a beating.

Career departments supported by political subdivisions in areas hard hit by the shutdown may suffer major financial cutbacks. Diminishing to zero tax revenues might affect more than just new purchases. Regrettably, wages and employment may be in jeopardy. So-called affluent areas may not be immune to the loss of most of their tax revenues.

Municipal budgeting is based on anticipated income. Nobody knows when the economy will rebound to the point that major capital purchases can be budgeted. Lean times might be ahead for apparatus manufacturers as well as their component parts suppliers. Apparatus dealers and sales staffs whose primary income is new apparatus sales should anticipate belt tightening.

I dislike being a harbinger predicting bad news. However, future new apparatus sales may reflect what was experienced during the Great Depression when many fire departments could not purchase new apparatus for more than a decade. I hope I am wrong again.

The caption for Photo #50 in a Providence Journal historical photo gallery about the Providence (RI) Fire Department (https://bit.ly/33A1itr) says: “Providence Gets Itself A New Ladder Truck on Oct. 26, 1937. A new ladder truck with an 85-foot aerial ladder was unloaded for the Providence Fire Department in the freight yards in back of the Union Station. The truck will be assigned to Ladder 1 at the headquarters on Richmond Street, and the present Ladder 1 will become Ladder 10. The truck was the first new piece of equipment the department has purchased since 1927.” Underlining is mine for emphasis.

Fire apparatus refurbishing, rebuilding, and repair facilities should weather the storm. The value of used fire apparatus should increase dramatically.

INNOVATIONS AND DESIGNS

This column was written in the beginning of October, so 2020’s “best” innovations may be yet to come. Some innovations have been made, but nothing has jumped out saying it is the best thing to hit the fire service since the steam engine or motorized apparatus. COVID-19 has obscured most innovations and product improvements. One notable highlight is the advances in electronics—from controlling pump operations to actually propelling the apparatus. Many apparatus manufacturers—large and small—have made enhancements to their individual lines.

MANUFACTURERS

Mergers, consolidations, and amalgamations are a continuing industry development. It is debatable if they all are advantageous to the fire service. In day-to-day life, some people regret the demise of “Main Street” and the closure of “mom and pop” stores. It’s the same in the fire truck world. Purchasers may be forced into doing business with the larger so-called box stores (not a derogatory statement). Prices might be lower, but choices and “service availability” might be limited and may be not as personal as at your local hardware store. In the past few decades, numerous small builders have been acquired or merged, and many were closed.

The nine “major” apparatus manufacturers left are Pierce, Rosenbauer, Sutphen, Seagrave, HME-Ahrens Fox, Spartan ER, KME, Ferrara, and E-ONE. The latter four are all part of the REV Group. I define a major player as one that builds its own custom chassis, body, and aerial device. Being a major player is NOT necessarily an indication of a level of quality, design, engineering, and workmanship. Smaller apparatus manufacturers can have similar attributes.

One way consolidation may not necessarily be beneficial for fire departments is in custom cab and chassis availability for those apparatus manufacturers that do not build their own. Years ago, smaller manufacturers had the opportunity to build on four separate custom cabs and chassis—Pemfab, Duplex, International for a while, and Spartan. Just one is left today that regularly makes its cabs available to smaller OEMs.

DEALERS

A newsworthy item seldom addressed is the declining number of local apparatus vendors. Merging and consolidating have not only limited the number of manufacturers on the market but have lessened the number of dealers—the people who actually knock on firehouse doors and spend time with purchasing committees. Dealers representing one manufacturer are generally very knowledgeable of, and loyal to, that product line. Those possibly carrying multiple lines might be hard pressed to explain which may be the best value for a fire department.

Unfortunately, and similar to COVID-19, consolidation may weed out some weak dealers. Equally unfortunate is that some of the smaller ones may succumb too—regardless of how healthy they are.

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.

Innovation Continues Despite COVID-19

There has not been much good news out of 2020. With trade show cancellations and manufacturers working diligently to ensure production at their plants during this pandemic, it has certainly been a disappointing year for the fire truck world. Even with all the manufacturers have been dealing with, their hard work and moving forward attitude have helped with some good things in the apparatus industry in 2020. And, we all can hopefully look to 2021 for even better ideas and designs and to be able to see them in person!

HOSEBEDS

In looking at many manufacturer social media platforms, most of which now post a series of production photos during the builds of new rigs, a large number of customers have embraced the low hosebed concept for their apparatus. Buyers are no longer just taking what manufacturers want to sell them as it relates to the design of the apparatus. And, they are pushing their agenda for a functional hosebed and tank design that will work with their operational response areas. It used to be that most of these low hosebeds were reserved for urban engine companies with just a 500-gallon tank and deep pockets to get the design to ensure the low hosebed for easy attack and supply line deployment. Apparatus committees have challenged engineers at all the builders to put the pencil to paper and figure out how to do a low hosebed with a varying number of tank sizes—for even the rural departments that need to carry the extra water. This ergonomic low hosebed design has helped and will continue to help reduce firefighter injuries since they do not need to climb up on the tailboards or, more importantly, do not have to scale the rear of the rig to reach the attack lines or the supply lines in personal protective equipment.

There certainly are plenty of pictures on the Internet of ridiculous hosebed heights and the challenges that firefighters must overcome daily. These hosebeds usually came from committees not listening to the firefighters riding the rig each day or not challenging the builder to force it to design a rig that meets the needs of day-to-day firefighters. It is a balance for departments as they navigate water tank size, hosebed height, and a common forgotten measurement of the hosebed length.

The hosebed length on the rig can make for easier attack and supply line packing and storage without a large number of coupling issues in the hosebed or excessive height of the hose when fully loaded. An item that is now becoming more prevalent is getting the hosebed height and length you want, then figuring out how much water you can carry. We are not locked into water tank sizes in 250-gallon increments—we can order them with a custom capacity to meet our needs operationally and to meet the specs of our hosebeds.

TOWERs AND LADDERS

Another area that I have seen an increase in orders for and designs of are the towers produced by manufacturers. These rigs used to be big and bulky with extended wheelbases and large turning radii and were notorious for taking up a lot of space. Quite a few manufacturers went back to the drawing board and have worked to design smaller towers with the same capabilities as their large predecessors. The engineers have worked their magic and given departments what they have been asking for: designs that work for their communities and fires and give them the capabilities with reduced footprints in the firehouse and on the fireground. While I applaud these designs for a number of departments that previously would not have purchased a tower, there is still something to be said for the battle tested and proven designs of a number of manufacturers that build some great legacy towers for departments.

Along with towers being redesigned, even the straight ladder trucks have seen attention paid to their engineering in the past year. Engineers have crunched the numbers and redesigned ladders to reduce aerial device mass and weight. The engineering and weight reduction have allowed manufacturers to consider a single rear axle on a number of straight ladder truck designs. These rigs allow for a smaller wheelbase and better turning radius for a number of builders. The compact size allows for a maneuverable and nimble rig to get in and out of tight streets in many departments’ response areas.

Along with reducing mass and weight of the aerial, which helps us get a single axle, it also has allowed the builders to reduce the jack spread on a number of rigs. The spreads of some of these rigs is as little as 14 feet from jack outer edge to jack outer edge. This is a big deal for departments that have a small area to get jacks down or while operating in alleys. If you look at these newly designed rigs, ensure that all the features that seem so appealing are going to work in your response area and ensure the drivers understand any nuances of the jack system or aerial system that might affect them operationally on the streets. Ask your chosen manufacturer a lot of questions about any sacrifices that are made to the device’s abilities compared to a current rig that you are using. This will ensure that the firefighters on the street fully understand the unit’s capabilities and any sacrifices that might have been made to achieve the smaller wheelbase and reduced jack spread.

INSIDE THE CAB

This year has made me realize that we all need to take a look inside our cabs. As with a vast majority of departments across the nation, disinfecting apparatus cabs became a daily chore for all of us across the country. The many application techniques and disinfectant mixtures have created a problem for the interior of the cabs. I am not talking about “Clean Cab Concepts,” which were designed for cancer prevention and always a top topic of discussion with many battle lines drawn over their use. But, some of the initial concepts of the clean cab will certainly help us with properly disinfecting cab areas. What we were finding on a large number of our apparatus was the degradation, discoloring, and sometimes even failure of the plastics in the cabs caused by the many cleaning product applications. We all know that only hazmat firefighters use the proper mixture of cleaning chemicals to the correct amount of water—the rest of us guess at the measurement and then of course just add a little bit more to ensure that it kills everything. I don’t think any manufacturer could have predicted the torture these interior plastics are now taking over this past year. A few manufacturers have taken a proactive approach to eliminate a vast majority of plastic inside the cabs. This action helps with proper cleaning of the surfaces and does not discolor or degrade the material after many cleanings/disinfections. The concern for me would be how well our electrical systems inside the cabs can withstand all the spraying in and around switch panels, kick areas, and overhead. This is certainly something that I plan on challenging our manufacturers with on our next purchase. So far, it does not appear that our new way of business is going to go away any time soon, so the builders will need to address the issue head-on. The nonporous seats and wipeable seating areas from the clean cab concept are a great start, but we do have a ways to go with the rest of the cab.

I am certainly happy with what manufacturers have been doing this year to keep all of us informed about new designs and innovations with their brands. Usually we get to see all the rigs in person and talk directly to the salesperson or manufacturer about them. And even with all the progress that has been made with social media and technology to get the word out, it will be so much better to get back to the norm of in-person fire truck sales and demonstrations.

Thanks to a great year of Viewpoints with my coauthor Bill Adams and thank you to our Editor Chris Mc Loone for all the great ideas and questions that go into this column.


RICKY RILEY is the president of Traditions Training, LLC. He previously served as the operations chief for Clearwater (FL) Fire & Rescue and as a firefighter for Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue. He also currently serves as a firefighter with the Kentland (MD) Volunteer Fire Department. He also is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board.

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