FAMA Forum: Customer-Supplied Chassis: Why Not?

BY DOUG KELLEY

Of the thousands of fire apparatus purchased in North America each year, about 30 to 40 percent are mounted on commercial chassis.
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“Commercial chassis” is simply the U.S. fire apparatus industry’s—and the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association’s (FAMA’s)—term to describe any truck chassis not specifically designed for emergency service use—e.g., Ford, Navistar, Freightliner, Mack, etc. Of the hundreds of thousands of truck chassis these companies build annually, only a small fraction go into the fire service. Notably, the situation is reversed in other parts of the world, where most fire apparatus are mounted on modified commercial chassis and there are few specialized fire chassis.


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If a department is going to purchase an apparatus on a commercial chassis, some departments prefer to provide their own chassis. Such departments have their own reasons, but in my experience, it usually comes down to several common preconceptions—some true and some not. I’ll discuss some of those preconceptions below. Further, every builder has different policies for using a customer-supplied chassis, so I can’t make a blanket statement for every FAMA company. However, I have found that most builders find it more difficult to use a customer-supplied chassis than to order it themselves. I’ll discuss those reasons as well.

PRECONCEPTION 1

We’ll get the finished apparatus quicker if we supply our own chassis.

The Truth: Maybe. There’s no question that the commercial chassis usually has the longest lead time of any single part of the apparatus. Depending on the chassis brand and model, the lead time could be a few months to more than a year. Can a department get a chassis quicker than the manufacturer? If the chassis is going to be built new, the actual build time will be the same, so the variable is how quickly a department can place the order. It may be able to move more quickly than the manufacturer, but it must be careful that it doesn’t overlook important details (see below). If it can find a chassis that’s already built then, of course, it can shorten the lead time. However, it’s exceedingly rare to find a chassis configured exactly the way it must be for a fire apparatus, and there are almost always modifications to be made. That takes time, coordination, and money.

Further, there are other factors that determine when a fire apparatus will get built—how quickly the manufacturer can finish the design and order the parts and how quickly the factory can slot the unit into its build plan among its existing backlog. Getting the chassis is only one piece. If the chassis comes more quickly but the design isn’t complete or there’s no build slot available, then the chassis will wait. Of course, these details vary from builder to builder, so the department must ask these questions in the beginning.

PRECONCEPTION 2

We’ll get exactly what we want if we order it ourselves.

The Truth: Unlikely. This is a tough one. There’s an old saying, “You sometimes get what you expect, but you always get what you inspect.” If you can see the chassis—either the specs or the actual truck—you obviously know what you’re getting. The real question is whether one has the experience to know what to look at. The department must understand the big details such as wheelbase and weight ratings. These can only be finalized in conjunction with the apparatus builder. Further, even though commercial chassis manufacturers do not build primarily for the emergency services, they all have option packages that tailor the chassis for use as a fire apparatus. Some are obvious and visible, for example, providing self-contained breathing apparatus seats in the cab. Some are subtle and not easily seen, for example, programming the transmission or adding roof supports for lightbars. There are options that affect warranties based on the use of the truck and options that provide National Fire Protection Association compliance. Sometimes fire-specific options are installed by an authorized aftermarket company near the chassis builder before shipment. If the department or the salesperson isn’t experienced in these things, it could lead to unpleasant surprises when the apparatus builder receives the chassis.

PRECONCEPTION 3

It will be cheaper if we buy it ourselves.

The Truth: Unlikely. Most fire apparatus builders have limited markup—if any—on the chassis itself. The simple fact is that this is a competitive industry, and builders know that if they want to win the bid, they can’t overprice a component that their competition is also going to be quoting—possibly from the same supplier. In addition, the chassis pricing system is confusing and largely hidden, kind of like cars. It starts from a common pricebook, but then discounts are applied based on volume, model, and industry. If an apparatus builder repeatedly makes purchases from the same dealer, it will likely have the highest discount available. Lastly, we can’t overlook the “oops” factor described above. If the chassis doesn’t come in exactly the way the builder needs it, it must be modified. Modifications add costs. Some builders even charge a fee for customer-supplied chassis under the expectation, and experience, that some unforeseen problems will have to be fixed.

PRECONCEPTION 4

We want to support our local businesses.

The Truth: Maybe. Some departments want to buy locally. The purchase of fire apparatus is often a community affair, and it seems right to support the people who support the department. This preconception is the hardest to validate as it depends on circumstances. First, the department must comply with its own purchasing rules. Second, though a dealership may be a local company, the manufacturer isn’t likely to be, so how much money stays in the community will vary. Finally, there may be ways to accomplish the same goal while still avoiding some of the coordination pitfalls above.

This list isn’t all-inclusive and, ultimately, it’s the department’s decision. However, consider the points above and work with your FAMA company to make sure the decision is based on facts without assumptions.

FAMA is committed to the manufacture and sale of safe, efficient emergency response vehicles and equipment. FAMA urges fire departments to evaluate the full range of safety features offered by its member companies.


DOUG KELLEY is an engineer with the REV Fire Group. He has been involved with FAMA for almost 25 years.

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