Quality Apparatus and Equipment

Richard Marinucci   Richard Marinucci

The fire service is asked to provide great service on every incident. To do this requires talented people, ongoing training, leadership, and the right tools for the job.

All of these must be in alignment to deliver on the promise of the best possible service after each and every request. While a breakdown in any does not necessarily mean failure, it does mean that a department will not meet the optimum goal. To put it another way, if you want to have a championship team, you need talent to start, coaching and practice, and the latest equipment. How successful would a team be playing with sports equipment that it had been using for 20 years? What would the results be if the equipment were not maintained to the highest standard? I am sure the team would not be competing for championships and most likely would not even be close.

There are a few things to consider regarding apparatus and equipment. They include age and serviceability, ongoing maintenance, affordability, space considerations, new products, and matching apparatus and equipment to the other resources, including personnel. To put it another way, not every sports player uses the same equipment as everyone else. There are choices to make and various options to evaluate to work toward optimal performance. Those in the highest level of any sport know that it could be little things that make the difference between winning it all and being an also-ran. In situations that require quick action and flawless performance such as a critical rescue, it may be the “little” things that determine the outcome.

Apparatus Replacement

One thing many departments struggle with is determining when to replace apparatus. They are looking for some clear method so they can work with their policymakers on funding replacements. The simple answer is that apparatus should be replaced when they need to be replaced. While this is obvious, the considerations should be when the apparatus cannot perform as expected because of limitations. This could be while operating, and it could also be the amount of down time an organization is experiencing. If the vehicle is in the shop too much, it can’t be available as often as necessary. If parts are becoming a challenge to find, it may be time to replace. Ultimately, it comes down to evaluating the level of service expected. The bigger your expectations, the greater the need for newer, more reliable apparatus.

Equipment Replacement

A similar thought process needs to go into equipment replacement. When do you replace and when do you repair the various equipment you carry? It is the same answer as above-when it no longer functions to the optimum required. But, organizations receive more assistance with some equipment through National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requirements, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, and the like. For example self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and bottles have an established shelf life and require periodic testing. Departments should replace helmets and other personal protective equipment (PPE) in accordance with the most applicable standard.

But with much of the equipment, things are not quite that simple. First, departments must maintain all equipment in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations. Some of these will suggest times to replace as opposed to repairing something. There may be other reasons to replace that individual departments establish. It can be when repairs become more difficult or parts are harder to obtain. In some instances, departments may look to getting newer versions that are easier to use and simpler to maintain. One example is extrication tools. They have become much lighter and more flexible and operate from battery power, so there are fewer things to get in the way. Those wishing to provide better service because certain tools and equipment have been improved should continually evaluate products as they get better. Even though an older piece may still be functional, it might not offer the optimal usage.

The Money Factor

Affordability drives most purchases. It may be the most important piece of the decision-making process and is often policymakers’ (who must approve such purchases) only consideration. Yet, one could make the argument that quality and functionality should have equal billing and that a “low-bid” purchase could cost more money in the long run. This could include maintenance and the inability to provide the best possible service. What would the cost be if the proper tool was not available, an inferior tool slowed the operation, or the vehicle had limited capabilities during an emergency? Every community should make a conscious decision as to what level of service it would like to deliver and follow through with the appropriate apparatus and equipment.

This discussion is not to discount the expense of apparatus and equipment and the ability of a community to pay. However, departments need to establish the level of service to provide and include the importance of quality tools and vehicles. They need to do their best to educate and inform policymakers of what the value and contribution to the quality of life an outstanding organization can be. As an example, departments that provide emergency medical services should be operating with the best and latest medical equipment. While many emergencies can be handled with outdated or substandard equipment, it is those where a true difference can be made that distinguish the good from the great. You are not spending money just because. You are doing it to elevate the quality of service and deliver outstanding quality.

The apparatus and equipment in the fire service are constantly being upgraded and improved. My hat’s off to the manufacturers who always look for ways to make their products better. These improvements have done much to improve fire departments’ capabilities. Making vehicles easier to operate speeds response and deployment. Lighter equipment extends firefighters’ work periods. There are many other advantages. The entrepreneurs and product developers must also be commended. Tools such as thermal imaging cameras have given departments more options and better capabilities.

Stay Current

The point of this discussion is that organizations need to continually monitor the developments in their industry. They can do this through various means. They need to regularly and routinely monitor the trade journals. They need to attend vendor shows-locally and nationally if possible. They need a good network in the fire service so they can learn of the successes and failures of others in the industry. They also need relationships with vendors and manufacturers. They are part of the fire service industry and are vital when considering continual improvement. They have expertise that can help an organization make the proper decision.

Other considerations for apparatus and equipment are that they should match your capabilities, including staffing and the ability to devote the time needed to train. There is no point in acquiring equipment that requires more personnel to operate than what you typically use for response. You should also avoid complex pieces of apparatus and equipment if you are not willing to devote the necessary time to become proficient in using them. Again, there should be an honest assessment so that all the components match-people, equipment, and training.

Great organizations, regardless of their industry, will embrace continual improvement. They understand that they must strive to get better or they will lose ground. To do so, they must look at all aspects of their work and understand how they all impact the end product. As such, fire departments that truly accept this concept will evaluate their tools-the apparatus and equipment-that make the work possible. They will understand that they need the best possible apparatus and equipment to deliver the best possible service. This will make a difference on the calls that are really a challenge.

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.

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Quality Apparatus and Equipment

Richard Marinucci

Chiefs and firefighters worth their salt do not strive for mediocrity. They know that the public requires outstanding performance every time. They are also a competitive bunch who want to be the best. Given a choice of earning an A, B, or C grade for their service, they choose A as the obvious answer. When providing service, there is an expectation that those responding are really good at what they do. But as we should have learned in school, attaining an A takes work.

There are many elements necessary to provide quality service. It obviously takes talented, properly trained, and supervised people. In addition, it takes the right apparatus and equipment. One would not expect a performer at Carnegie Hall to use an inferior instrument. World-class athletes use the best equipment available. NASCAR drivers don’t race around a track without a finely tuned machine. Hence, any organization that strives to be the best can only do so with the proper apparatus and equipment.

Evaluate Needs

Departments must evaluate their needs. They must know the expected service levels and the types of emergencies they are likely to encounter. They must know the hazards and risks present in their communities. The policymakers must be clear in their expectations, and the employees must know the level of performance expected of them. If everyone is on the same page, it becomes easier to justify the need for the right equipment and apparatus.

Too often, especially in today’s world, cost is the driving factor when selecting apparatus and equipment. It also comes into play when evaluating preventive maintenance and repairs. However, departments must understand the risks they take when the proper equipment is not available and reliable. There is a difference between doing something to an average level and doing something outstanding. If an organization is not willing to provide the quality necessary to deliver grade A service, then it should not be a surprise if the end product is not up to the expected standards.

Departments must establish a reasonable replacement schedule for all equipment and apparatus based on their normal life expectancy, not on how long they can continue making repairs. There is a reliability factor, and at some point the risks of a breakdown are too great. Also, equipment and apparatus that are in the shop more than they should be are not available to respond.

More Than Cost to Consider

When evaluating apparatus and equipment, consider advances that improve their capabilities. Changes can make the apparatus or equipment more versatile, more efficient, and more effective. There is also the issue of compliance with recognized standards. Replacement must be about more than the cost. Service levels and capabilities must get equal treatment in the discussion. After all factors have been weighed, if a department or community decides not to make the investment, then at least it should have been informed of the risks and potential effects on service levels.

Maintenance and repairs are equally important in ensuring the highest possible reliability. Read the owner’s manuals and see what the recommended schedules are for routine maintenance. Keep your equipment and apparatus up to the manufacturer’s standards so you can be confident in their reliability. There are many more tools from which to choose, and many are more technically complicated. This requires effort to maintain the apparatus and equipment to their peak condition for optimal performance. Your organization cannot earn an A if vital equipment fails at the scene of an emergency.

Specialized apparatus and equipment with specialized components require special knowledge to perform repairs properly. Departments have a few choices: rely on specialists from the manufacturer, use a specialty repair shop, or train personnel with that responsibility. Just as many “backyard mechanics” can no longer work on their newer cars, firefighters without specific training cannot complete repairs on newer equipment and apparatus. If you choose to continue using your staff for maintenance and repairs, you will need to invest in their training. As the old adage goes, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” Using personnel who are not prepared for the latest versions is just asking for trouble.

Quality Is Essential

Obtaining the best to provide grade A service is not just about getting the most expensive. To meet your needs, you will need to do some research. It is not just about what sounds the best or what might appear to be the latest technology. It is just as important to consider reliability. Sometimes newer technology can promise to expand your capabilities. But without reliability, it may not be available when you need it. Unfortunately, emergency services have not figured out a way to schedule emergencies. The incidents, especially the most challenging, have a tendency to occur at the most inopportune times. Keeping apparatus and equipment in service is probably more important than having additional options if reliability is compromised to the point that the risk is too great.

I often hear that fire departments are forced to extend the service life of equipment or apparatus beyond what is reasonable. This is always the result of a lack of funding. At some point, departments must realize that the risks being taken are unacceptable. Those that appropriate funds must understand that there is a cost of doing business, especially if they wish to deliver high-quality service. Think about what would happen if the construction industry operated with outdated tools. Not only would projects take much longer to complete, but their quality would most likely suffer. Comparing that to emergency work, one might ask how efficient and effective a fire department would be at auto extrication if it only had hand tools. Eventually, you could extricate the patient, but the results would not be what you wanted.

Quality tools, equipment, and apparatus are absolutely essential if the goal of your organization is to provide grade A or A+ service. We would not expect professional musicians to play world-class music without world-class instruments. Neither should we expect our firefighters to provide super service without commensurate tools to do the job, regardless of their talents and preparation. I would not expect a golfer to show up at Augusta National for the Master’s Tournament with 1980s vintage clubs and golf balls. There is zero chance he would make the cut, let alone win.

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.

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