The economic status of many communities has created various challenges for fire departments and fire chiefs. One example is balancing the cost of apparatus with the benefits provided by the vehicles. Departments are frequently asked to justify the expense of certain apparatus in comparison with their usage. For example, why should funding be appropriated for aerial apparatus that provides limited service to a struggling community?
Those outside the fire service have very little understanding of the inner workings of the fire department and what it needs to provide the expected level of service. Elected officials, managers, policy makers, and citizens don’t have or won’t commit the time to learn specifics and operational needs. Therefore, it is imperative for fire service members to really understand their profession and be able to explain it to laypeople in terms they will understand. They also need to do it very quickly, in 30-second sound bites.
Know How to Answer
Besides adequately explaining the need for proper staffing, justifying the expense of aerial apparatus requires the most understanding and preparation. With the cost easily in excess of $500,000 and often in the range of $1 million, many policy makers are questioning the expense despite the benefit to the community. Most often this is in suburban organizations where few, if any, tall buildings exist. But, departments with high-rise structures do not always escape scrutiny. This is all related to the cost as budget stresses and strains shine a light on all expensive purchases.
Policy makers ask two questions when they consider purchasing aerial apparatus, either for the first time or as replacements. First, why is it needed when there are no tall buildings or high-rises? Second, how often is it being used? To a novice, these seem like reasonable questions. You need to understand their perspective and limited knowledge of fire service operations. They may think that their only use is to get to the roof of tall buildings. They may think that, because the apparatus may only reach the seventh story, they are not functional for high-rise buildings. They may think that the relatively few fires in larger structures do not justify the expense. Regardless, it is important for you to know how your community members, especially the elected officials, view aerial apparatus. Do they think of them as luxuries they cannot afford at this time or vital pieces of equipment that help firefighters perform their jobs to the level of service expected?
Review your operations and the various uses of your apparatus. Aerial vehicles provide more than just height. Besides potentially rescuing people above the reach of ground ladders, they provide elevated streams, horizontal reach to buildings where road access and terrain create problems, and roof access when adequate personnel are not available to hoist ground ladders. These are just a few examples. They can assist with special rescue scenarios, help with certain overhaul and salvage operations, and even help with EMS. How many departments have used aerials to remove heart attack victims from rooftops?
The more uses for a piece of equipment you have, the more valuable and less likely it can be eliminated. Although they are more expensive, aerials and their multiple capabilities offer more functionality. Although a pure, traditional ladder truck has a role, those that have a pump and carry water, hose, and a bucket will provide more options. Quint fire apparatus allow vehicles to deliver most of the functions on the fireground. Still, they may not be for everyone.
Aerial apparatus require proper training of personnel. In many large cities, firefighters can be assigned to engine or trucks, with very specific job functions. In many, if not most, suburban communities, there is inadequate staffing to follow this model. As a result, firefighters must learn the functions of all apparatus in their station. This takes more time to train on and even more time to practice on to be competent. It also requires the training officer to be better prepared. Because the apparatus isn’t used as frequently, there may not be adequate experience to pass on to firefighters. Preparation is essential.
The various uses of aerial apparatus and their limitations must also be incorporated into incident command, strategy, and tactics. Regular and routine use promotes proficiency. Minimal opportunities for use usually mean that incident commanders do not have necessary emergency experience. Training and establishing sound policies and procedures will maximize benefits.
Aerial apparatus is often used to carry special equipment not frequently used but essential in certain circumstances. Although some types of incidents are infrequent, fire departments are expected to perform with competence when called to them. This is accomplished through training but also requires having the proper equipment for the job. You need to know the types of risks in your community and the tools needed, even if the likelihood of an event is low.
On the Defensive
You should be prepared to defend your apparatus and the valuable services they provide. List every use and potential scenario. Condense answers into sound bites that can quickly be understood by outsiders. Know the questions likely to be asked. Have a sound, logical answer ready. Try not to use any emotional responses. They may not resonate the way you think they might. Know the value of having the right equipment in certain circumstances even if the frequency of some events is not high. For example, no one questions the need for firefighters to know CPR even though many will seldom have the opportunity to perform it on the job. Rarely is the cost of training firefighters in CPR questioned. Understanding the value of aerial apparatus, although used infrequently, can contribute to the greater good of the community.
Every firefighter in your organization needs to understand the value of aerial apparatus. A casual comment by a firefighter, like saying the aerial rarely leaves the station, can affect a civilian’s opinion. Not being able to explain the value could harm your argument when questioned by a policy maker. Firefighters with greater understanding are less likely to make a casual comment that sticks in the mind of someone interested in cutting expenses.
Aerial apparatus needs to be more than a parade piece that only comes out when there is a major fire. There are so many other valuable functions this versatile piece of equipment can perform. If equipment is not used often enough, it comes into question by those who don’t really understand the fire business. Although they may know about a “hook and ladder,” they will still question its need because of the big price tag. Lean budgets generally mean that everything can be questioned, especially the very expensive items. If your organization truly needs an aerial, be prepared to defend the purchase. You need to know all its uses and make sure your community is getting all the benefits from the truck.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is 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 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 three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.