The fire engine is the most essential and versatile apparatus for a vast majority of fire departments.
It is also a great source of pride, as it should be. Sometimes this appears to take precedence in organizations, as there is much debate about look and appearance. For years, there has been a debate on the color (red vs. green for safety reasons), color schemes, reflective striping and marking, and even the proper shade of red. There is little standardization, and changes in department administration can mean a significant change in how the apparatus looks. Obviously, this is very important and, while some of these observations are presented with tongue in cheek, it is not meant to diminish anything that a department views as important to its operation. But in the end, an engine has the basic responsibility to deliver water to the fire.
Getting Water on the Fire
Every fire department, from largest to smallest, must figure out the best way to get water on the fire. In addition to the scrutiny that some place on color schemes and markings, there must be an understanding of the capabilities of water delivery as required by individual departments. This would include how much water is needed, how quickly you would like to establish a supply, needed devices and appliances, and whether delivery is sustainable until crews extinguish the fire. In addition to the engine’s mechanical capabilities, staffing, equipment, and training will determine water delivery competence. And, departments must maintain the engines so they operate at their intended efficiency and effectiveness. An honest appraisal of this proficiency will help establish the best strategy and tactics to use.
Equipment to Carry
What is needed on an engine? That would depend on what you want it to do. Sometimes there is a tendency to overstock and overspec the vehicles with the thought that you have to be ready for any potential event. This makes sense only if all the other aspects of water delivery and other intended services match. Personnel must train and maintain their skill levels through repetition. All the components of the vehicle and carried equipment, including hose, appliances, nozzles, special rescue devices, ladders, forcible entry tools, and anything else that someone determines is essential, must be maintained so that they perform as intended when needed on an emergency. Obviously, this takes time, and organizations need to know that they will be able to perform these important functions. Equipment failures are more than embarrassing to departments – they negatively affect outcomes during emergency actions. This can contribute to injuries or worse.
Know First Dues
Departments should know the hazards in their communities and the potential fire load for any given event. A fire engine provides the basic service, but staffing must match the capabilities. Many communities lack staffing according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, and rely on mutual aid to address large incidents. Yet, their vehicles are sometimes equipped as if they have a full complement of firefighters on board. If an organization is responding with one or two people on an engine, the personnel are limited in what they will be able to do until help arrives. They should consider deck-mounted deluge guns that require minimal staffing. They should consider larger tank capacities for water, as they may not want to use the limited number of firefighters to connect to a fire hydrant. They may even consider reducing the amount of hose and equipment to lighten up the vehicle to improve its life expectancy and possibly minimize downtime because of repairs. Of course, there will always be the counter argument that some items are needed for Insurance Services Office (ISO) points or to meet NFPA standards. One could ask why it’s so important to comply with the NFPA on equipment issues but not on staffing issues. There should be a compromise between the two.
On the other side of the discussion, organizations that have adequate staffing and operate in a community with a reliable water system can minimize water tank capacity because there is less need because operations are based on fire hydrant usage. There is always a need for some redundancy but also the need for moderation and finding what actually works in an organization. Communities that respond support vehicles (ladders, rescues, squads, etc.) regularly and routinely can minimize equipment needs on the engines. Again, this can contribute to keeping the weight of the vehicle below the gross vehicle weight rating. Many pieces of fire apparatus get very close to or exceed this weight.
The ability to train and become proficient on all aspects of an engine is equally as important as the vehicle’s capabilities. If crews are not competent, they not only risk being unable to use the apparatus’s range of options but also could embarrass the organization if they appear to be incapable or inept. For example, foam is a great tool and offers solutions to certain challenges as well as improves knockdown capabilities. But if the engine operator or attack team cannot properly engage in a timely manner, the advantage is lost. Departments that have this asset must practice, which means they need to commit the time. This logic applies to all tools, equipment, and components on the vehicle. If you cannot commit the time to learn and remain proficient, consider foregoing the option.
Maintenance is another aspect that requires consideration. Organizations that do not perform required preventive maintenance run the risk of failure at the most inappropriate time. Departments must know their resources regarding repair and upkeep. Who will perform the regular and routine? Two things to consider are time and expertise. Having apparatus that are beyond the capabilities of anyone on staff will require outside help. Sometimes this takes the control away from the department. While you may think something is a priority, others who have multiple clients may not agree. If you think you have an in-house expert, make sure you assess his capabilities. Today’s apparatus are not as simple to maintain and fix as they used to be. Also, you may need to purchase tools to help with the work. This could add to the cost, and departments should consider it during the planning process.
You can’t have a fire department without fire engines. They need to be reliable, capable of multitasking, and affordable. Today’s fire service requires much more from its engines, and organizations are continually adapting to meet requirements. Added responses such as those required for EMS place additional wear and tear on the apparatus. Policymakers who approve funding are continually asking fire departments to get more years out of the apparatus. To meet the job responsibilities and abide by a political system, organizations should continually evaluate their own circumstances and acquire apparatus that meet their needs. This would include a systems approach considering the expected emergencies, training needs, maintenance, and time.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.