Aerial trucks provide a core function for fire departments. Whether you have a straight stick, ladder tower, bucket, ladder truck, or whatever you use to provide for the traditional jobs associated with these vehicles, you may be questioned as to their need-not because of the functionality but because of the cost.
As the number and severity of fires in many communities decline, policymakers and bean counters look at these vehicles as luxuries they cannot afford anymore. If they are successful in defunding such apparatus, departments will be challenged to provide the services necessary on many fire scenes as well as other related emergencies. Organizations are best positioned when they continually evaluate their needs and can clearly articulate benefits.
Anyone who has been around for any length of time realizes that many of the emergencies to which departments respond can be handled with fewer personnel than those who respond on the first alarm. Of course, when the 911 center receives the call, it almost always starts as a true emergency to those placing the call. This requires an adequate response to deliver the best possible service. In many cases, resolving the problem does not require all the units initially dispatched. But, departments must prepare and respond as if each case will require the necessary number of personnel and the corresponding apparatus and equipment. Departments cannot allow complacency to set in, and a failure to be ready could result in disaster if the emergency is such that it requires the full response.
It is here where emergency service personnel differ in their approach from politicians (policymakers) and finance people (bean counters). True fire service professionals know that you need to front load resources to achieve a desired outcome. It is better to turn around responding companies if you don’t need them than to be short in cases where a situation clearly warrants full service. The right number of people needs to arrive in the moments that matter. Even in ideal circumstances, this may not always be possible because of multiple incidents occurring at the same time, inadequate staffing (for whatever reason), or vehicles out of service for repair. Yet, the policymakers and bean counters put a price on public safety when they apportion funding to the fire service.
This is where the fire service needs to really understand its mission and role in the community and be capable of explaining how things work. Justifying an expensive piece of apparatus is a challenge and probably the second most difficult thing to do other than convincing those in charge of the resources required to provide more-some would say adequate or minimal-staffing. With the cost of ladder trucks approaching or exceeding $1 million, there should be no surprise when those with the financial responsibility in the community begin to ask questions. Stating that you need something without good justification will most likely lead to failure. You need to be prepared to validate your reasons.
Start by asking yourself the questions those outside the profession are going to ask: Why do you need such an expensive piece? What exactly does it do? Isn’t there another, more inexpensive, way to provide the functionality? View this from their perspective and look for ways to translate answers into terms that a layperson could understand better. To many in the public, a fire truck is a fire truck. They don’t know the difference, or they recall a hook and ladder from the children’s books they remember or have read to their children. They equate a vehicle with a ladder to tall buildings and don’t get the idea of access when setbacks or parking lots create challenges.
Tailor discussions with policymakers, finance workers, or the public to the message’s recipients. They will make judgements based on their knowledge base, not yours. Talk to those you trust outside of the fire service and ask what may resonate with them. Their honest opinion can help you formulate your justification. Tie it back into the department’s mission and the desire to provide quality service that citizens should expect. Also make sure your organization understands this perspective so that everyone is offering the same reasoning. Varying opinions can damage organizational credibility.
Many organizations continue to add responsibilities to ladder trucks. There is certainly an advantage to those who can provide multiple uses. These vehicles do more than just carry a crew who provides traditional truck company functions at structure fires or access beyond ground ladders. They carry support equipment for various rescue scenarios. They can assist in medical emergencies in hard-to-reach places like roofs and below grade. They can provide better lighting on virtually any incident requiring better sight. The list goes on. Know this so that you can recite it when the situation calls for it. Make sure others are just as capable. Continue to look for additional advantages, and use specific examples when the vehicle proved invaluable. For example, remember when the ladder truck was able to rescue the construction worker who had a heart attack while roofing a dwelling?
Some departments struggle with staffing for ladder trucks. They may only have a driver to get the vehicle to the scene. This, in itself, presents challenges as it does not take full advantage of the capabilities of the piece. In these cases, departments may need to develop alternative justification as some may question the need to purchase such expensive apparatus when there is no one to operate it. Again, departments should not be surprised by any of the questions that can arise. They should anticipate and be prepared to answer and defend their needs.
Along the same lines, some may suggest using mutual aid-let your neighbor spend the money and just borrow the truck when you need it. Be wary of this approach. Your neighbor may be using the vehicle more than you think, and it may not be available when you need it. This apparatus is not used as frequently as an engine, but there is no doubt that you will require one in the most trying times. This is a challenge with the mutual-aid approach in that you may not get the vehicle quickly enough to make a difference. On a side note, I know of some communities that have entered into an agreement solely to address their Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating. In my opinion, this is disingenuous and not done in either the spirit of service, mutual aid, or the intent of ISO.
In many communities, trucks are vital to providing quality service. While they don’t get used as often as engines, they are valuable when needed. With the cost of a truck approaching $1 million or more, departments are hard pressed to convince policymakers that the expense is justified. To further complicate the issue, staffing in many departments is inadequate to realize the full value of the vehicles. Organizations need to evaluate their needs and work on added justification if they wish to continue to receive funding for this important part of their fleets. No one said it would be easy. Do your homework, and be prepared for serious discussion.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. 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.