FA Viewpoints: Walking the Trade Show Floor

Every year, FDIC International kicks off the trade show season. This month, we asked Editorial Advisory Board members Bill Adams (left) and Ricky Riley (right) to discuss what firefighters should look for when they walk a trade show floor.

Not “What” But “How” to Look at Rigs on the Show Floor

Probably a better way to ask this question is HOW should people be looking at rigs on the show floor? Two types of exhibit attendees are purchasers who are evaluating and comparing and tire kickers who are looking at new ideas and concepts for a possible purchase down the road. Both are very important to vendors. Pundits and commentators shouldn’t tell either what to look at; however, they can help in showing them how to look.

Apparatus purchasing committees (APCs) knowing exactly what they want to purchase use the trade shows to finesse their decisions. National and larger regional trade shows are excellent forums to observe and evaluate multiple apparatus manufacturers all under one roof. Larger shows can easily have more than 100 rigs on display.

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Bill Peters, author of Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook, devotes a chapter to final inspections in which he advocates bringing a tape measure, a set of specifications, and a set of coveralls to do factory inspections. Coveralls may not be appropriate for a trade show, however, the tape measure is. Bring a pencil; a notebook; a printed wish list; and, most importantly, a PLAN. Time is invaluable at trade shows, and there really isn’t much of it.


Exhibits are usually open from 14 to 18 hours over a 2½-day period. Sleeping in and long lunch breaks reduce your time on the floor. It’s going to be crowded; be patient. There can be hundreds if not thousands upon thousands of prospective purchasers vying for the same manufacturers’ attention. You might have a half-million-dollar-plus budget for a fire truck, but the two people in front of you might be buying a half dozen rigs each. Expect to stand in line. And, most of the factory big wigs leave before the end of the show.

APCs should establish objectives before hitting the exhibit floor. If your anticipated purchase is a pumper-tanker on a commercial chassis, don’t spend the majority of your time sitting in the front seat of a custom cab of an aerial platform drooling on yourself and dreaming of the day you can purchase one.

Trade shows are excellent forums to evaluate OEMs’ workmanship, attention to detail, access for maintenance, and making use of available space. There is no better place to “look around” and “get some ideas” for your next rig. Larger shows might have ideas and innovations from fire departments across the nation.

Vendors only have so much time for each prospective customer. Attendees purchasing an aerial ladder within six months may get more attention than someone saying they are just looking around to see what’s on the market. That’s not being disrespectful; that’s smart business. Be fair to the vendors. They have the same 14 to 18 hours to spend with all the customers who come into their booths.


Have a plan of action for what you want to purchase. Print up a very basic data sheet to give to vendors that could include your department’s name, mailing or e-mail address, chief and contact persons, when the purchase might take place, and a brief description of what is being considered such as a 1,500-gallon-per-minute single-stage pump, largest tank possible on a single-axle six-seat custom cab and chassis, the maximum overall length and height, no generator, roll-up doors, etc. The more specific the outline, the more attention it may draw. Vendors appreciate prospective customers who do their homework. A budget price would be extremely helpful.

Vendors may not have time to discuss in depth all of a rig’s features and answer every single question asked. Lay the groundwork for a possible later meeting. Be fair. Extend the courtesy to vendors that you expect in return. Mutual respect goes a long way.

Departments often bring large contingents to trade shows. When on the exhibit floor, don’t travel in a herd. Too many people are hard to control; there’s too much going on to pay attention to the vendor. In crowded display areas, it’ll be hard for a vendor to make eye contact with each member let alone hear what is being said.

One department split its attendees into teams with specific goals such as evaluating generators, body materials, scene lighting, cab seats, foam systems, generators, warning lights, pump manufacturers, etc. Having two per team prevents single-person “bias” when meeting later. More may be accomplished.


There are several items trade show attendees can’t determine. Accessing, sitting in, and egressing an apparatus cab when wearing cut-offs, tennis shoes, and a polo shirt is not realistic. Wait for a local trade show or a demo rig brought to your station and try it in full turnout gear—if your department allows wearing turnouts in the cab. The same is applicable for storing and donning self-contained breathing apparatus in the cab.

Just as important is accessing the hosebed to pull and deploy hoselines—also in full gear. Ditto for loading supply line and repacking crosslays and speedlays. Well-lit exhibit halls don’t reflect fireground reality. A demo at your own station may be more realistic. Three things:

  • The best prime rib in town has no bearing on the quality of the fire truck of the vendor who is buying dinner.
  • The size of the jumbo shrimp cocktail is not indicative of the durability of a particular type of body construction or the reliability of the pump manufacturer.
  • Free polo shirts, pens, pencils, and ball caps are not indicative of any product’s warranty service.

The attention a purchasing committee receives from vendors is based on how the committee presents itself. Regional and local shows may show more of the type of apparatus common in your territory. Regional and local vendors may be more attuned to what does and does not work in your response area. Local vendors have more of a financial interest in working with a local department. And the vice president of paper clip accountability at the Big Fire Truck Manufacturing Company who is attending the show may not be as up to speed as your local representative is on engine torque, pressure governors, and hose loads.


How many of these rigs have you built?

Can you provide a list of 10 departments near us that have this type aerial device in service?

Go for the jugular—what type of warranty claims have you had on this chassis?

Does any department near ours have one that’s been in service for four or five years?

What’s changed on your rig since the last one we purchased?

You offer three manufacturers of fire pumps—which do you prefer and why?

You have galvanneal, stainless, and aluminum bodies—which do you recommend and why? Is there a difference in warranties for each material?

There are not too many opportunities for apparatus purchasing committees to compare multiple manufacturers of fire apparatus under one roof and ask manufacturers questions. When just looking around, or considering to purchase, or actually purchasing a new rig, the benefits of attending a trade show are immeasurable. Use your time wisely.

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.

What People Should Be Looking for on the Show Floor

It is that time of the year again that a lot of us look forward to. It is time for FDIC International 2020 and all that comes with it! The beginning of the week will have great class presentations that lead up to the opening ceremony with Chief Bobby Halton. Then we are only one day away from the show floor opening. The number of vendors and manufacturers that attend this show is one of the largest in the country. There is hardly any space left to put a booth or a display at the convention center or at Lucas Oil Stadium. Heck—even the hallways are crowded with vendors of all kinds.

This is the time for someone who deals with apparatus, vehicles, or the care of them to attend. If it can go on your rig, there is a vendor at FDIC that sells it. If you want to see different types of manufacturers for a rig, there is an excellent chance that every manufacturer is there, from the largest to the smallest and all those in between. It is up to you to manage your time and see all that is important to you, along with seeing the next big thing—that being the piece of equipment or something under the cab or chassis that could make your next rig better.


During FDIC, many manufacturers choose to make big announcements or introduce new products. So, pay attention to their use of social media that usually marks the date and time they will make their big unveilings. Most of these events are rather crowded, so if you are going to want to be there, plan to get there a little early to beat the crowd. But, of course, after all the fanfare is done, the product will still be there. So, you may want to avoid the crowds and be sure to mark down to go back and see it later in the day or over the weekend.

Most vendors’ and manufacturers’ booths are fully staffed with representatives and salespersons to answer all your questions about their products. Be sure to ask them questions. Get a full explanation of their products and how they will benefit your rig and your community. Only you understand your response area and building stock, so ensuring that it will work in your area is up to you. So, ask all the questions regardless of how they might sound when said out loud. If you are the purchasing agent or make recommendations, fully understand the product you are looking at. If you have any doubts about the product, ask for a department that is currently using the product and give it a call. Get its views on the product—you’re talking firefighter to firefighter. Just because it looks like it is going to solve your problem doesn’t mean it will actually work for your department.

There are a lot of booths on the show floor that do not have flashing lights and big shiny rigs. But, they can show you a product that could make your rig more dependable once in the field. Take the time to learn about the components underneath the cab and on your chassis. These heartbeat components are crucial to keeping the rig in service and protecting your community. Understand motors, braking systems, electrical components, suspensions, and the dreaded EPA-mandated diesel exhaust systems. Knowledge about all these systems will make you, the buyer, more prepared for your next apparatus purchase.


There are a number of things that I will be looking for during this year’s show to see if manufacturers and product vendors have brought new ideas and innovations for the coming year.

Officer and crew member seating manufacturers will certainly be stops I will make. I am hoping to see seats that provide a seat belt system that allows for a variety of firefighter sizes—in and out of gear—and allow ease of donning a self-contained breathing apparatus while properly seated and belted. Making this operation easier on our firefighters needs to be addressed by the seating manufacturers so our firefighters will be able do their job en route to the call and be protected. Seat belt extenders for the female receiver so the firefighter does not have to search for it while in personal protective equipment (PPE) is another option that would be of interest. Seating material that is durable and nonporous will also be something to look at while there. Along with the seats would be to take a closer look at where manufacturers add their seat pressure sensor so that firefighters who sit on the edge of their seat while in full PPE are not activating the sensor or by a slight movement setting the alarm off while responding.

With all the talk about emergency lighting and its perceived effect on apparatus accidents, stopping at light manufacturers’ booths to see what they may be doing to react to this perceived problem might be a good stop. With the fast-moving technology of emergency lighting, making sure that we are staying on top of that technology is important to ensure that the next rig is properly designed with the best lighting package to be seen on the roads and to properly protect our firefighters. On-scene lighting will always be a stop. Properly lighting the scene and ensuring that firefighters can operate in the most illuminated scenes will only enhance safety and operations. It is easy to be impressed by the brightness of the lighting, but it is just as important to understand how the lighting is angled to better illuminate all parts of the incident scene.

One of the things I look at each year is the jack/outrigger systems on all the aerial apparatus on the floor. I am always looking to see what the engineers have done to make the footprint smaller on the fireground without lowering tip loads, looking at how that jack/outrigger system will work in my response area and building stock. Understanding your streets and alleys should be a determining factor in what aerial device you may need to look at on your next purchase. Ladder strength and abilities in these jack configurations are important. You have to know what the line firefighters are going to do and attempt with the aerial that is purchased. They will push it to its limits to do the job required on your department’s firegrounds. So, buying the right aerial with the right jack spread is crucial for your department. Remember: only you can understand your response area. Sales personnel may try to understand, but you have to determine if it will actually work regardless of the sales pitch.

Take a close look at all the rigs designed by the manufacturer or by departments that make use of ergonomic designs. I am constantly amazed at the ingenuity of both groups when designing rigs to make it easier for our firefighters to do their jobs. Take notes; take pictures; and, if they can be incorporated into your next rig, use them if they work for your department. A lot of these designs will decrease injuries, increase performance on the incident scene, and enhance safety.

Going to see what is new and improved will always be at the top of the list. It is always great to see and hear the pitch on how something is going to improve our service. But, as I always remind all of you, it will need to be proven in the field. And, that field has to be in your response area, and the product must fit the needs of your community.

FDIC will always be a great trip, and I cannot wait to see what is on the floor! I hope to see all of you in Indy. Be sure to stop me and say hello while we all look at some of the best apparatus and products made for us to serve our citizens and communities.

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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