Fire Industry Outlook 2021: Complacency Is the Enemy

By Chris Mc Loone

There isn’t a whole lot more that can be said about 2020 that hasn’t already been said.

Simply put, it has been a lousy year on multiple fronts. But, as with many things, it is always helpful to take a look at where you’ve been to help guide you in future decisions. Although it was a rough year, fire service suppliers adapted to ensure there would be no interruption in their service to fire departments nationwide. As we look back at how industry suppliers adjusted, we also look ahead as we enter 2021, albeit with some uncertainty.

2020 … A RARE YEAR

Although 2020 has been difficult across the board, industry suppliers took the challenges as opportunities to evolve. “2020 has undoubtedly been an interesting year, and yet we were all faced with the fact that fires and emergencies continue to happen,” says Lisa Barwick, senior director of marketing, fire and emergency for Pierce Manufacturing. “Our team was well aware that our customers must press on and adapt. We met many challenges this year to keep production running at the highest level possible. However, we discvovered just as many opportunities and silver linings amidst the clouds of challenge we faced each day. We’ve used 2020 as a year of reflection to challenge and push ourselves, and we believe we are now a better company because of it.”

Amidst challenges, W.S. Darley & Co. found successes also. “It was a trying year for our country, and this was no exception for most of our customers and employees,” says Paul Darley, president and CEO of W.S. Darley & Co. “Through service to them, our business is up about 30%, which is being driven largely by providing high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) to our municipal and federal customers. We are seeing a slowdown in our traditional municipal fire-related businesses, which will account for about 20% of our estimated $600 million in sales in 2020. We continue to reinvent our company with roughly 50% of our orders this year coming from products that we did not offer just two years ago. Much of this has been equipment to address the changing needs of today’s fire service.”

Kent Tyler, president, REV Fire Group, which includes E-ONE, Ferrara, KME, and Spartan ER, says that 2020 brought a greater focus on people—whether it be associates’ health and safety; fire service personnel and their challenges; or channel partners (dealers) as they managed their businesses, many of which are family businesses. “There was not a playbook for this past year,” he says, “and certainly there have been prior years or periods with even greater challenges and consequences. We learn to adapt and work together and most importantly be even stronger on the other side. Like many organizations, we have dealt with a lot, but through adaptation and prioritization, we are confident we have, in fact, grown more resilient and better during 2020.”

One thing to be aware of as 2020 comes to an end is economic uncertainty. Prior to the pandemic, some financial experts predicted that the country would be heading into a recession. “In 2019, most experts predicted a recession by the third quarter of 2020,” Darley comments. “Prior to March 2020, a recession looked imminent, and COVID-19 certainly hastened its arrival and cast us into a recession.”

At P.L. Custom Body and Equipment Co., Inc. (PLCB), which is heading into its 75th anniversary of continuous private ownership, Chad Newsome, national sales manager, states that all three of its operating divisions—PL Custom Emergency Vehicles, Rescue 1, and New Jersey Emergency Vehicles—are seeing an increase in sales activity, purchases, and deliveries. But, it wasn’t like that all year. “Even before the arrival of COVID-19, we had seen a slowdown in purchases by our customers,” Newsome says. “They specifically cited their overall unease with the economy, and many were deciding to hold off on capital expenditures.” He adds that once COVID-19 hit, the pancake effect of shutdowns and product and component shortages coupled with the challenges in meeting with customers did hasten a slowdown. “However, as the year winds down, we are seeing strong order activity across the board,” Newsome adds. “Ambulances, rescues, remounts, and special projects are all busy, and the increased production backlog is always a welcome problem for manufacturing companies.”

THE COVID-19 EFFECT

COVID-19’s effect on fire service suppliers is undeniable. Changes to day-to-day workflows to ensure the health and safety of all employees have been paramount. The employee walk through the front door en route to a desk or station on the factory floor has been interrupted by daily temperature checks in many places.

For example, PLCB is located in New Jersey, an epicenter on the East Coast for the pandemic. Customers, vendors, and many other businesses closed their doors in March, April, and May. On March 23, Newsome says the company chose to hit the “pause button” on overall production for the safety of its personnel. “This was the right and responsible thing to do,” he says. “The pause continued for six weeks, but during that time, we were still able to complete in-process rescues and ambulances for our valued customers. We were also able to continue design work, order materials, and preplan for our reopening. With considerations of product shortages and long lead times, we proactively set the state for a ramp-up. The company was back to full operational strength in early May and has maintained a 100% healthy workforce.”

REV Fire Group recognizes that its team’s continued health and safety is paramount to delivering for its customers. The company’s COVID taskforce worked across the group’s brands to ensure all precautionary measures and processes were in place to protect its team. “This priority to protect extended to our dealers, and we supported them to safely manage servicing, new vehicle inspections, and deliveries,” says Tyler. “Operationally, another key group is our suppliers, and we worked closely with them through multiple supply chain challenges—especially in the early stages of the pandemic.” Tyler adds that through the year, the company leveraged technology and its IT infrastructure to stay connected and also executed industry-leading events with virtual product showcases and training to stay close to the market without adding unnecessary risk to its people’s, dealers’, and customers’ safety.

Pierce recognizes that at any given time, there are many customers at various states of fire apparatus ordering and production processes. Communication, according to Barwick, is the most important aspect of the process, and in recent months, the company faced many limitations to its methods of communication that required it to adapt quickly, creatively, and effectively. “Customers could no longer drive or fly in to meet with Pierce representatives who were working on their fire apparatus,” Barwick says. “We couldn’t walk customers down the production line and point out all of the intricate details and answer questions to help them get acquainted with their investment. Our team played an urgent and pivotal role in creating solutions that would replicate essential experiences.” Nearly all communication became virtually based, according to Barwick, with the use of tablets to facilitate fire apparatus walk-arounds, design discussions, production updates, and final inspections.

For W.S. Darley & Co., the company has seen federal government customer budgets increase, but many municipal capital budgets are in flux, according to Darley. “In May 2020, most pundits predicted a 25% to 30% downturn in fire department spending for the balance of 2020 and well into 2021—and perhaps 2022,” he says. Except for some major cities, he cites real estate values holding their own or even increasing in many suburban areas coupled with people spending again as reasons to hope that municipal and fire department budgets will see a V-shape recovery. “I am cautiously optimistic that this recovery will happen, but we have definitely seen many of our fire department customers delay purchases or make fewer capital purchases than they originally planned at the start of the year.”

W.S. Darley & Co. was directly impacted by COVID-19 in January 2020, when it learned that six fire trucks it built for Wuhan, China, could not ship to the country based on a “strange, highly contagious flu” that had closed banks and government offices. “As a result, we moved to remote working early on for those employees who could work remotely and began making safety changes within our company for those essential employees who could not work remotely,” says Darley. He adds that the company has had only a handful of positive COVID cases but continues to not let its guard down. “We continue to place our employee safety as our number one priority, followed by meeting the needs of our first responder customers.”

Zach Rudy, director of sales and marketing at Sutphen, says that every company has faced a unique set of challenges throughout the pandemic, but the safety and well-being of its employees and customers were, and continue to be, paramount. “We were able to implement safety measurers across the board at the beginning of the pandemic, and it has paid off throughout 2020,” Rudy says. “Without our employees, we would not be able to serve our customers and those who rely on us for lifesaving apparatus.”

EMERGING FROM THE PANDEMIC

2021 will hopefully see an emergence from the pandemic and life on and off the job will become stable once again—hopefully we won’t be turning around to go home to pick up the masks we forgot! That said, the companies that serve the fire service as well as the fire service itself must prepare for the coming year.

Tyler states, “Every year brings uncertainties and opportunities. We work diligently to look around corners and anticipate the future based on numerous observations. Our top priority will always be to focus on people—our employees, dealers, and customers. This focus ensures we seize the best opportunities and minimize the risks that we will face in 2021 and beyond.” REV Fire Group is implementing operational excellence through every discipline, “which not only makes us resilient but even stronger for a sustainable future,” he adds. Additionally, REV Fire Group has introduced new technologies such as active air purification systems to help customers as well as investing in future products to address the needs around customized requirements, budget constraints, and critical delivery needs.

Newsome predicts one of three scenarios will occur:

  1. Stimulus packages and other governmental subsidy programs will likely be curtailed significantly. There will be a strong desire to tighten the fiscal belts and curb planned capital expenditures. This will cause manufacturers to build more stocking inventory to meet unplanned immediate replacement needs.
  2. COVID-19 increases and continues to impact already burdened operational costs and drains the financial reserves for purchasing and funding authorities. More emphasis will be placed on maintaining existing fleets as opposed to undertaking planned new product acquisitions.
  3. COVID-19 ends, the social and political upheavals dissipate, and the economy grows in quantum leaps.

Newsome states that even if the third scenario were to occur—and he states this scenario is the hardest to imagine—the financial impacts from 2020 would still impact growth opportunities in 2021.

Darley says his company metaphorically refers to the pandemic as a baseball game and that we are currently in the top of the fourth inning. “I think many people aren’t planning for the long haul on this, and I would encourage them to read about the Stockdale Paradox—Learning How Confronting Reality Is Vital to Success,” he says. “Looking back at the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, history tells us that we really need to be mindful of the potential second and third waves of the pandemic—especially as we head into the colder season. I predict the overall trend will be encouraging and improving, but we can’t get cavalier.”

Darley adds that most large fire apparatus builders still have long backlogs, so those companies should be able to survive and do fairly well in 2021. “Most seem to be more worried about 2022 as their backlogs shrink. The question really becomes, when the market returns to pre-COVID, will buying patterns? There will be some pent-up demand, but this recovery will take some time.”

Barwick says, “As budgets are tightened and access to funding may be limited for some fire departments, alternative ways of obtaining or maintaining reliable fire apparatus will be a critical focus. Financing and leasing are two ways for fire departments to manage fleet replacement effectively. Maintaining and repairing existing fire truck fleets will be another essential focus as fire departments look to further extend the lives of their apparatus and equipment.” She adds that 2021 will see an expanded focus on decontamination and carcinogen reduction and awareness to exposure; technology that supports firefighter safety and efficiency; environmentally conscious fire truck features that reduce emissions, minimize fuel, and produce less noise; and smaller, lighter, more maneuverable fire apparatus that offer performance and reliability.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOUR DEPARTMENT?

The holidays come and go, and it’s January 16, 2021. Your department is beginning to look for a rig. What can you expect? The overriding sentiment from those interviewed is that you will be served as you’re accustomed. “For departments looking to purchase from us, there is no change in how we operate—unless local protocols dictate otherwise,” says Newsome. “Our dealers and their sales personnel would respond to and meet with prospective customers at their department. Demos would be held, and proposals would be generated that reflect the needs of the customer.”

Josh Plichta, marketing and communications manager for Sutphen, says, “The department can expect a Sutphen experience that the fire industry has grown to know as one of a kind. While that experience may look a little different than what we’re used to, we have integrated technology and various safety measures to ensure that our employees, dealers, and customers feel safe, welcomed, and a part of our family.”

“First, they can expect that we listen,” says Tyler. “We realize each fire department has unique needs and circumstances. We do not assume what works well for one department may work well for another. Next, we utilize our expertise with technologies, products, services, parts, and operations to tailor and deliver the best overall solution for each given customer situation. It is a collaborative partnership to accomplish not only shared goals but a shared mission to serve.”

Unique needs and circumstances—that is key. Municipal budget delays or cuts are one thing, but what about the hundreds of fire departments around the country that rely on fundraisers to raise the money they need to make capital purchases like a new or used rig? Because of social gathering restrictions, many of these fundraisers have been canceled. Darley says, “What can be done in terms of things that are safe to do? It could be digital marketing campaigns. Just like companies are pivoting to all these digital marketing campaigns, there are things that volunteer fire departments can do to raise those funds.” Darley says that in many cases, the departments will not need to make as much money to cover the costs of the fundraisers—for example, chicken barbecues. Reinvent your fundraising campaigns to address current times.

The bottom line is that fire service vendors are open and ready for business in 2021. “While 2020 has certainly forced us to find innovative and alternative ways to conduct business, we are certainly a better company today and thankful for the experience and challenges,” says Barwick. “Our team at Pierce remains focused on continuing to build relationships and loyalty among our customer base by providing the most customized experience possible and the highest quality fire apparatus.”

Rudy adds, “Our first responders and all frontline workers jumped into the unknown and into danger because their communities needed them, and we cannot thank them enough. Throughout 2021, we plan to continue paying tribute and saying thank you to all of our first responders and frontline workers.”

Tyler comments, “We know communities and their citizens need the services offered by our customers. We always strive to grow above market and for 2021, we will take the lessons learned from 2020 and continue to provide the best solutions to help our customers and the communities they serve.”


CHRIS Mc LOONE, senior editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 27-year veteran of the fire service currently serving as a safety officer and is a former assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has served on past apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years.

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