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.
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.
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.
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.