FA Viewpoints: Does the Rig Dictate Tactics, or Do Tactics Dictate the Rig?

Editor’s Note: How do you design and spec your apparatus—according to your tactics or does the resultant rig dictate how you operate on the fireground? This month, Editorial Advisory Board members Bill Adams and Ricky Riley comment on which it should be and how fire departments might unknowingly go one way or the other.

Does the Rig Dictate Tactics, or Do Tactics Dictate the Rig?


Asking if the rig purchased dictates fireground tactics or if the tactics dictate the rig to purchase is combining two open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. There are too many variables. Any answer requires an explanation similar to the military axiom answering a hard question: “It depends on the weather and terrain.”

The word wittingly could have been added to both questions (i.e., wittingly dictates). Wittingly means the end result is purposefully intended. Conversely, if a purchase results in an unwanted outcome, it was done unknowingly or unwittingly. The end result was not on purpose. It was one of those, “Ooops—we didn’t think about that,” situations.

Either way, the fire department has to live with the purchasing outcome for the life of the apparatus. Purchasers should be cognizant of the actual lifespan of their apparatus purchases. Irrespective of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines and standards, some apparatus might realistically be in front-line service for more than 25 years. Look down the road objectively.


Established and proven firematic tactics should determine the specifications for apparatus purchases. By the nature of the experience and permanency of fully staffed career departments, changes in their tactics are probably more thoroughly investigated and evaluated than in the volunteer sector. In larger career departments, fireground operational procedures (tactics) have a degree of consistency. However, there still may be some career entities so steeped in traditionalism that they believe in the “if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it” axiom.

When progressive, well-trained, well-educated, and well-funded fire departments operate like finely tuned and well-oiled machines, their apparatus purchases are made to maintain the status quo. Changes are gradual in the career sector, usually after careful investigation, analysis, and deliberation by experienced individuals. When evaluated and adopted, changes in tactics will play an instrumental role in dictating the apparatus to be purchased. Kudos to all forward-looking departments that purposefully strive to improve and enhance fireground efficiency with their apparatus purchases.


Volunteer, more so than career, departments are more apt to unwittingly impact fireground operations with apparatus purchases. In the all-volunteer sector, firematic officers are usually elected on a yearly basis. Fireground operational know-how, leadership, and experiences can be extinguished at an annual election meeting. In many independent volunteer companies, the administrative officers are also elected yearly. That can have a profound effect on the business end of specification writing and apparatus purchasing. A fire department’s entire regime can change in a heartbeat, as can its tactics and the types of apparatus purchased to support them.

Elections can be double-edged swords in purchasing apparatus. It’s possible died-in-the-wool traditionalists could be holding back a fire department to the point that it is detrimental to the department’s efficiency and firefighter safety. Sometimes a purge is necessary. In that scenario, a new apparatus purchase and new tactics are introduced together.

New apparatus purchases that could inadvertently affect tactics could be a result of aggressive marketing by apparatus manufacturers, a desire to “one-up” neighboring departments, trying to emulate larger departments, an emergency purchase, and the personal whims of the purchasers. The first three are self-explanatory. Two examples of the latter follow.

  • A department’s only aerial device, a 100-foot straight ladder truck, is suddenly and permanently placed out of service. Mutual aid and mutual assistance are not available, and hazards in the response area necessitate an immediate purchase. The only type of apparatus available is a quint with the same size aerial. However, because of the pump house and tank, the new rig is longer and higher than the existing one, and the wheelbase is longer. It has less compartment space and only half the ground ladders desired. Tactics will certainly change.
  • An apparatus purchasing committee (APC) is enamored with one particular manufacturer’s sales representative and believes as gospel everything the rep says. What has historically worked well for the department has been ignored, neutered, or distorted to favor the favored representative and his most profitable apparatus. The new rig has a smaller capacity pump, fewer preconnects, a lower horsepower motor, and a smaller hosebed. All can drastically change fireground tactics.

Some purchasers make the mistake of specifying tomorrow’s apparatus for yesterday’s fires. As mentioned earlier, some rigs—especially in smaller and less active departments—may be in service for decades. APCs should anticipate the future. As a response district’s infrastructure changes, so should fireground tactics and the apparatus purchased to support them.

As an example, declining staffing in a volunteer sector could justify a six-person cab capacity in lieu of a 10-person cab. Apparatus designs can be focused on accomplishing fireground tactics with limited personnel.

Another example could be a department replacing an aging 65-foot aerial ladder that served its community well with a longer device because of long-term community plans to build multistory buildings within five years.

A rural fire district response area is rapidly turning from rural to suburban with increasing municipal water service each year—especially in developing areas. Apparatus with extraordinarily large booster tanks may no longer be necessary. Some apparatus purchases can be geared more toward the commercial, urban townhouse, and condominium firefighting tactics supported by an ample domestic water system.

It may be advantageous to develop and regularly update short-term (five-year) and long-term (10-year) plans for the fire department. They should be coordinated with similar development plans for the political subdivisions they protect. Having eyes into the future and anticipating the fireground tactics needed might make apparatus purchasing easier and more cost-effective.

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.

Does the Rig Dictate Tactics, or Do Tactics Dictate the Rig?


What a topic to comment on for this month’s viewpoint! This topic has so many layers and opinions that it will be difficult to capture them all here in this column.


Purchasing and designing apparatus is certainly one of the things that I really like to do. The design part is always a challenge when you are balancing mechanical reliability, ease of operation, repairability, and operational needs and wants. If your department has an open check book for all these items, then you are probably in a more envious position than most organizations. Most of us have to work within the confines of a set budget number for a particular apparatus and usually have to make compromises to best achieve the goal of trying to meet all the needs and wants of the firefighters who operate the rig each day and the mechanical reliability and ease of repair for the mechanics.

How departments operate on any fireground, regardless of their chosen tactics, should not be dictated by the apparatus that they are riding. Even if the rig is not a custom-designed apparatus but a stock truck, the apparatus should not be a factor in a tactical decision unless, of course, we are making a tactical decision on the amount of water being carried by the apparatus. This will have a lot to do with decision making. If we show up with a plan to use tank water for the fire, and the apparatus does not have sufficient capacity, this could be a design failure by specifying too small a water tank for the response area or an out-of-area apparatus showing up that normally does not run that area and has too small a water tank for the size of the fire it is confronted with.


The other side of the coin is to design the rig for the community you serve, regardless of whether it is your primary response area or not. In our current state of diminished volunteers and staffing issues with career departments, apparatus cannot just be designed for one specific community. It should be designed to serve the response area as a whole and be prepared to function in a number of areas that might require additional water and additional equipment to meet the demands of a particular incident. You cannot design a rig for each particular address in your area. You have to choose the right options for what will work for the majority of the area, then have plans for those special buildings or neighborhoods.

The many options that are available for apparatus that are tactics-based are endless. The number of firefighters who have come up with these ideas is just as many. The balance comes in ensuring you can meet the tactical decisions that occur within your department and then to be able to balance them with all the other items that need to come together for your apparatus. It still needs to have lights, pump, compartments, and seating. Do not become so immersed in solving all the tactical problems through designs and options for your new rig that you start to infringe on other areas of the apparatus. An example would be to cut corners on firefighter safety items and good ergonomic designs.

Look at fire apparatus from across the country, not just in your geographic area. Contact those departments, and have the discussion on why they chose an option and how it enhances the operational performance of that rig. Keep your mind open and take your fire department blinders off. You might just find that next great tactical option from some of the most unlikely places. No one department has all the correct options and designs—see what can work for you and your response area, then include them in the next rig.

To sum it all up, I fully agree that tactics drive the design of the rig. We just have to be smart and logical about those decisions.

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 is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board.

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