By Alan M. Petrillo
Many fire departments around the country are moving toward smaller fire apparatus to handle emergency medical services (EMS) runs and nonstructure fire calls to lighten the load that’s been placed on first-due engine and truck companies.
Ford F-550-chassis-sized vehicles are becoming popular in that role, meaning fewer hourly operating costs, reduced maintenance costs, and savings in wear and tear on the larger fire apparatus.
Joe Messmer, president of Summit Fire Apparatus, says that when fire departments go to a smaller chassis vehicle, “It’s mostly to lighten the load on engines and aerials that are running on EMS calls. They are having us build rescues on Ford F-550-size vehicles that can handle popping a vehicle’s door and assisting other EMS units.” Messmer notes Summit also has built such rescues on Ford F-450 chassis as well as on Dodge 4500 and 5500 chassis. “With squads, we build an enclosed utility rescue body with six compartments that can be customized for the application the department wants, whether more rescue or more medical.”
Jeff Morris, president of Alexis Fire Equipment Company, points out that economics can be a driving factor when a department chooses a small-chassis vehicle. “The economy is still having an effect on budgets,” Morris observes, “and with the cost of running big rigs out on every call, many departments are looking toward smaller vehicles, which cost less and are easier to maneuver. Departments are comparing $185,000 to $210,000 for a smaller chassis vehicle to a Type 1 custom pumper that costs between $450,000 and $600,000.”
Todd Nix, apparatus consultant for Unruh Fire, echoes the issue of budget restraints having an effect on cities and fire departments. “Many of them are making changes to enhance their response while trimming their budget and lowering operating costs,” Nix says. “That’s where the smaller apparatus come in, which is basically our bread and butter. And, staffing is definitely a part of the trend where across the country volunteer fire departments are seeing fewer firefighters show up. They don’t want one or two firefighters on a full-size pumper to an EMS call when they can jump into a smaller vehicle and do it safely.”
Small Vehicles and Staffing
Brian Connely, account manager for Spartan ER, points out that many departments are trying to squeeze all the equipment from a traditional pumper into a smaller unit. “They want a rig that can be used for an EMS squad, at a motor vehicle accident (MVA) rescue, and for wildland fires,” Connely says. “The cost of ownership is one of the reasons, both for the initial cost and the cost of operation, as well as because of staffing issues. We’ve seen this happen all over the country, very often in rural volunteer departments, but also with some career departments too.”
Mark Brenneman, engineer for 4 Guys Fire Trucks, concurs that the expense to purchase and maintain smaller chassis vehicles is less than their larger cousins. “The smaller rigs also are less intimidating to volunteers, who are not necessarily truck drivers,” Brenneman says. “They have the feel and size similar to a pickup truck but are much heavier and take longer to stop. And, there’s a shorter learning curve in learning to drive the smaller trucks.”
Michael Cox, vice president of sales for Emergency Vehicles Inc., says EVI has seen a resurgence in the use of the squad-type vehicle for medical assistance, as small rescue rigs, and as utility vehicles. “We’ve built a lot on Ford chassis with four doors and crew cabs with a 14-foot body,” Cox says. “A gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 19,500 pounds is more than sufficient for a squad-type vehicle because they are carrying about 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of equipment but no water, pump, or hose.” If a department wants a pump and water tank on a smaller rig, EVI bumps the chassis up to a Ford F-650 or a Freightliner M2 at 25,900 GVWR.
Craig Weeks, vice president of customer relations and apparatus design for Boise Mobile Equipment (BME) and a retired fleet division chief for the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department, says LA County’s use of a squad vehicle on a small chassis “has not eliminated the first-in engine from local EMS response, but the smaller paramedic squad comes in to do follow-up work with the patient to be transported in an ambulance and is able to clear the engine from the scene much quicker. We are starting to see more departments go in the direction of a paramedic squad vehicle.”
Weeks notes that the 19,500-pound GVWRs of Ford F-550 and Dodge 5500 chassis “are ideal for wildland use, which would be considered a Type 6 vehicle, as well as squads. BME just delivered five 4×4 units to the Orange County (CA) Fire Authority in that weight rating that don’t have pumps but carry rescue and EMS response equipment. The units can be added to their urban search and rescue matrix as well.”
Jim Critchley, chief of the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department, says Tucson runs squad-sized rigs the department calls “rescue trucks” to low-acuity EMS calls and those that do not require transport to a hospital. “Their primary job is to take the call load off our engines and ladders, which ran 92,000 calls in 2016,” Critchley says. “Engines and ladders were running more than 12 calls a day each, but with the rescue trucks running, that’s dropped below 10 calls a day.”
Critchley says the rescues serve as paramedic assessment units for the department. Tucson has five rescues in service, each on a Ford F-350 chassis with an extended cab and a long bed with a slide-out tray to hold equipment. “The rescue crew also will go to fire calls,” Critchley points out, “and can be married to another task, either a ladder for ventilation or an engine for fire attack.”
Cox says that EVI recently built a custom rescue on a 2017 Ford F-550 4×4 chassis with a crew cab for the Sweetwater County (WY) Fire District No. 1. The vehicle has seven exterior rescue compartments with roll-up doors and three rooftop storage compartments, an 8-kW Smart Power hydraulic generator, a Hannay electric cord reel with 150 feet of 1/3 cable, a Will-Burt LED light tower, LED scene and warning lighting, a 15,000-pound Warn winch, and Hannay hydraulic reels for TNT hydraulic rescue tools.
Troy Carothers, AutoCAFS manager for W.S. Darley & Co., says Darley builds squads on Ford F-550 chassis with 6.7-liter diesel engines and six-speed automatic transmissions. “We take out the factory console and cup holders, and replace them with a custom switch module that has recessed radios and controls multiplexed into the truck’s system,” Carothers points out. “We have a 120-volt inverter outlet in the cab and also in the rear of the cab, plus 12-volt outlets.”
Carothers says Darley built a squad for the Anson (WI) Fire Department that has a cascade breathing air system in a compartment holding three 6,000-pound-per-square inch (psi) air bottles that feed to a dual-bottle refill station in the rear of the vehicle. The Anson squad also has a dual backboard storage rack and a transverse slide-out tool board and carries seven self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) air packs and 10 spare SCBA bottles.
Mike Mildner, rescue sales specialist for E-ONE, says E-ONE has built light rescues on smaller chassis platforms, typically for EMS first response. “The Ocala (FL) Fire Department is running a number of these kinds of trucks,” Mildner points out. “We’ve also built the same type of units for fire and law enforcement, where instead of running an engine or an aerial to the scene, they run the small unit to assess the situation because it carries a small complement of rescue equipment. Running the small rig frees up staffing and equipment and lowers the cost of operation.”
The Sheldon (TX) Fire and Rescue District is in a southeastern suburb of Houston, one that’s seen explosive growth—both residential and industrial, says Neal Brooks, national sales manager of the apparatus division of W.S. Darley & Co. One such expansion is Generation Park, a 4,000-acre master-planned commercial district with many parking garages like those on one 173-acre campus. “The district had a need for a quick-attack that could easily transverse the seven-foot overhead limit on entry, so Darley designed a quick-attack with a 1,500-gallon-per-minute (gpm) pump, 300 gallons of water, a 30-gallon foam cell, and a Darley AutoCAFS [system],” Brooks points out. “The unit also has ladders and portable hydraulic rescue equipment and responds to structure fires and high-impact MVAs within the 96-square-mile response area of the department.”
Jeffrey Scott, deputy chief for the Johnson County (KS) Consolidated Fire District #2, says his coverage area includes a section called Mission Hills that has 28 old, narrow bridges built in the 1950s and 1960s. “The bridges are not rated, so we won’t take an engine or aerial over them,” Scott says. “We have to hand lay in to structures.” So, Johnson County went to Unruh Fire and had it build a quick-attack truck on a Ford F-550 4×4 chassis with a 360-gpm pump and 300-gallon water tank. “We use it to start an interior attack while lines are being laid to it,” Scott notes, “and then use it as a water manifold.”
Glenn Baley, of BME, says the company is building a lot of Type 6 vehicles on Ford F-550 and Dodge 5500 chassis, usually with four-door cabs and four-wheel drive. “Departments are using them for day-to-day operations around town and as first-in on grass or car fires,” Baley says. “We try to limit our Type 6s to carry 300 gallons of water and 20 gallons of foam on those chassis because we want the brakes to work going downhill. Type 6s have hydraulic brakes, not air brakes.”
Mike Watts, national sales manager for Toyne, says that many departments are returning to the mini pumper concept. “This can be due to staffing, traffic conditions, narrow roads and alleyways, or other considerations,” Watts says. He points out the 1,250-gpm pump on a Ford F-550 chassis is the most popular on a mini pumper, which can get into narrow spaces that a larger engine can’t but still attack a fire. “The limitation and challenge for many departments,” Watts observes, “is that the smaller truck, while having a rated pump, simply cannot carry the full pumper load of equipment and is limited in onboard water and foam.”
Carothers notes that most quick-attack trucks his company is building are on Ford F-550 chassis with four-door cabs set up with a PolyBilt™ body and integral 300-gallon water tank and 25-gallon foam tank. The rigs carry Darley’s PSMC 1,500-gpm pump and a Darley AutoCAFS system rated at 120 cubic feet per minute (cfm) at 125 psi.
Grady North, product manager for E-ONE, says his company has built initial attack vehicles with 1,250-gpm pumps and 200 to 300 gallons of water for a number of departments. “Sometimes they also will be set up as light rescues if they are toting electric powered hydraulic tools,” North says.
Trapper Meadors, sales engineer for Precision Fire Apparatus, believes there has been “an uptick in the use of smaller vehicles, which is developing into a popular trend because smaller trucks are cheaper and less costly to repair, and departments can get more life out of their big pumpers by running smaller ones.” Besides Ford F-550-size quick-attack vehicles and wildland trucks, Precision has built a small rapid intervention team (RIT) rig on a Ford F-550 for the Pleasant Hills (PA) Fire Department, Meadors says. “It serves primarily in a RIT role; has lots of LED lighting; a Stokes; saws; a large slide-out tray in the back with SCBAs, flashlights, and thermal imaging cameras for each of its five firefighters; and no pump or tank.”
Fire Police Truck
Joe Keenan, firefighter and chairman of the board of fire commissioners for the Coldenham (NY) Fire District, says his department bought a small-chassis vehicle from Unruh Fire that became a dedicated fire police vehicle. “It’s on a Ford F-450 chassis because we don’t have to put a lot of weight on it,” Keenan says. “It carries 100 traffic cones, six road closure barriers, three pink-purple hazard signs with interchangeable messages, a three- by seven-foot electronic sign board, a bank of five portable radios, Pelican box lights, wand lights, strobe flares, a halligan, an ax, and a series of vests for nondedicated staff. The truck is dedicated for traffic and safety control.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.