Rescue Truck Designs Reflect Multipurpose Trends

Alan M. Petrillo

Not many firefighters agree on the perfect design for a rescue truck, chiefly because the design depends on a fire department’s particular needs. Thus, manufacturers are turning out a wide variety of rescue truck styles, from traditional walk-around rescues that serve as huge toolboxes to walk-in rescues that offer interior access, to combination units and rescue-pumpers. In effect, a rescue truck design these days is up to the imagination of the department and its vehicle manufacturer.

tandem-axle combination walk-in and walk-around heavy rescue truck

(1) Pierce Manufacturing built this tandem-axle combination
walk-in and walk-around heavy rescue truck for the Bound
Brook (NJ) Rescue Squad. (Photo courtesy of Pierce



Eddie L. Smith, director of the emergency vehicles group at VT Hackney, says that the economy and technological changes in the past few years have affected the design and definition of a traditional rescue truck. “Not many decades ago, a rescue truck was an anomaly in fire departments except in large city departments,” Smith says. “Many fire departments didn’t do auto extrication, technical rescue, or hazardous materials work. But as they started doing those activities, we saw rescues go from a squad that was a small truck carrying some tools and first-aid equipment to today’s heavy rescues where sometimes manufacturers are hard pressed to get all the equipment on the truck that the department wants.”

Smith thinks that tight budgets and staffing cuts have caused a transition from heavy rescues to rescue-pumpers and combination vehicles. “I don’t think heavy rescues will go away any time soon but believe we’ll see more of their use with regional response teams.”

walk-around rescue truck that includes a Burner Fire Control stored energy compressed air foam system

(2) The Jessup (PA) Hose Co. turned to KME to build this
walk-around rescue truck that includes a Burner Fire Control
stored energy compressed air foam system (CAFS). (Photo
courtesy of KME.)


As an example of a traditional heavy rescue still being in favor, Smith points out a heavy rescue Hackney recently built for the Ayden (NC) Fire Department, a small bedroom community that also protects a large DuPont industrial plant. “That rescue is on a Spartan MetroStar chassis and carries a cascade air system, rehab equipment, air bags, hydraulic rescue tools, a full ground ladder complement, a 25-kW Harrison hydraulic generator, a light tower, and high-amp cord reels to extend their lighting well beyond the truck. That vehicle is ready for anything.”

Smaller Options

On the flip side of rescue truck design, some departments are opting for smaller and lighter rigs. Todd Nix, apparatus consultant for Unruh Fire, says that when the economy tanked in 2008, a lot of fire departments moved toward smaller chassis rescues. “They turned to Fords and Dodges, particularly the Ford F-550 chassis with a crew cab,” Nix says. “Many of those trucks carry a medium-duty Hale HBX 200 or Darley 2BE 200- to 250-gpm pump on them and around 300 gallons of water. With a 10-foot rescue box, we can still get all the extrication and medical equipment on the vehicle so that it becomes a multipurpose unit for the department.”

Nix says that the smaller rescues are being purchased by fire departments representing the spectrum of coverage-both volunteer and paid districts in city, suburban, and urban departments.

Freightliner tractor and a Hackney-made custom rescue trailer.

(3) A number of St. Louis (MO) area fire departments participate in the St. Louis
Area Regional Response System (STARRS), which includes a fleet of six rescue
trailers, such as this one, with a Freightliner tractor and a Hackney-made custom
rescue trailer. (Photo courtesy of Hackney.)


“We have sold some straight rescues dedicated to one type of activity, such as extrication or trench rescue and collapse,” Nix notes, “but the biggest demand we’ve seen has been for the dual-purpose quick-response vehicle that can take care of just about anything when it’s filled with a variety of equipment.”


David Rider, North American sales manager for Sutphen Corp., says, “We learned a long time ago that we can’t be everything to everybody, so in heavy rescues, we have a joint venture with SVI Trucks where we build the custom chassis and cab of the unit and they put together the box that holds all the equipment.”

Rider says Sutphen recently built a hazardous materials vehicle for Onondaga County, New York-a 26-foot walk-around with the front half of the vehicle as a command area with a slide-out section. “Nine months later they needed a heavy rescue and came to us, so we sat down with them and SVI to design another 26-footer, but this time a walk-through rescue,” Rider notes. “It’s built with two- by six-inch stainless steel box tubing on 16-inch centers and the floor alone weighs three tons. There’s a door in the back and you can walk through the vehicle to the cab, while the outside compartments hold the equipment. This is a true heavy rescue with no water and no pump on it.”

rescue built by E-ONE for the South Plattsburg (NY) Fire Department

(4) Walk-in rescue trucks continue to have a following among
fire departments, evidenced by this rescue built by E-ONE for
the South Plattsburg (NY) Fire Department. (Photo courtesy of


Size Deceiving

Bob Sorensen, vice president of SVI Trucks, says he always thought rescue trucks would get smaller, sleeker, and easier to maneuver, but that hasn’t happened yet. “A small truck now is one with an 18-foot body,” Sorenson observes, “and we’re also selling a lot of tandem-axle 26-foot-plus rescues.”

Sorensen believes the trend toward bigger rescues is because fire departments want to be able to do a lot of different functions with a single vehicle. “We recently built a rescue for Coquitlam Fire Department, near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada,” he says. “They wanted to keep the wheelbase to a minimum and on a single axle, so we put on a shorter cab and a 22-foot rescue body. But, the vehicle also carries a 1,250-gpm pump, a 400-gallon water tank, breathing air support, rehab abilities, and lots of floodlighting capability in a walk-around style rescue truck.”

Traditional Rescues

For traditional rescues, Andy Yenser, rescue product manager for KME, has seen a swing back toward walk-in rescues, although the walk-around design is still the most chosen by KME customers. “It’s all about the economy,” he says. “We haven’t fully gone back to the early 2000s when most everything was specialized-rescue, hazmat, air/light, and urban search and rescue (USAR). We’re seeing mainly custom chassis for heavy rescue that might combine any or all of those functions.”

The Syracuse (NY) Fire Department chose Sutphen to build this traditional walk-around heavy rescue

(5) The Syracuse (NY) Fire Department chose Sutphen to build this
traditional walk-around heavy rescue. (Photo courtesy of Sutphen Corp.)


With regard to traditional rescues, Shane Braun, senior sales representative for Pierce Manufacturing Inc., estimates Pierces builds about 80 percent walk-arounds to 20 percent walk-ins.

Tangi Rouse, manager of contract administration for E-ONE, says her company custom designs rescues to each department’s needs but typically builds walk-ins, walk-arounds, combination units, and rescue-pumpers. “Aside from the wide variety of upper body and storage access on rescues,” Rouse says, “one of the most interesting features is the custom designed interior, especially with regard to command centers. Designing the interior is similar to laying out an RV or a home.”

Combination Rescues

For the Columbus (OH) Fire Department, SVI built a combination rescue truck, Sorensen points out. “The front 40 percent of the vehicle is walk-in style that has a command space and additional seating, while the rear of the vehicle is a walk-around that functions as a big toolbox,” he says. “This allows the department to have the best of both worlds-the extra walk-in space for utility equipment and extra seating and the easy accessibility to equipment in outside compartments.”

walk-around style rescue truck, built by SVI Trucks for the Coquitlam Fire Department, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

(6) This walk-around style rescue truck, built by SVI Trucks for the Coquitlam Fire
Department, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, also carries a 1,250-gpm pump
and 400-gallon water tank in addition to all its rescue equipment. (Photo courtesy of
SVI Trucks.)


Braun says his company has seen an increase in combination rescue trucks over the past couple of years-partial walk-ins with walk-around functionality in the back. “Where the crew cab would be in the front is turned into a command area that has an entry either from the cab or a side door, which is a great place for the department to store sensitive equipment.” Braun says. “The rear of the vehicle usually is a typical walk-around. About 10 percent of the rescues we build now are that configuration.”

Combination rescues-part walk-in and part walk-around-also are part of the rescue mix at KME, Yenser says. “We’ve built them mostly with the walk-in section at the front, but we sometimes are asked to put the walk-in at the rear, which reconfigures the storage options on the vehicle,” he points out. “But, our body design allows us to be flexible and to focus on the customer so we can set the truck up to be the most functional for them.”


Besides traditional rescues, Pierce also has a robust business building rescue-pumpers, Braun says. “We’ll build a rescue on our PUC pumper that has a 1,500-gpm pump and carries 500 gallons of water but still can accommodate all the rescue equipment needed to make it a rescue,” Braun says. “The vehicle has the same capability as a first-out engine plus all the capabilities of a rescue truck.”

Yenser says rescue-pumpers, which KME also calls “wet rescues,” are still in favor for those departments trying to combine two types of operations into a single vehicle. “We’re also seeing a lot of rescues outfitted with small pumps to provide a handline operation,” he says. “We’re usually asked to build them with either midship or PTO-driven pumps that are enough to supply a handline’s worth of protection at an accident scene.”

Unruh Fire built a medium rescue on a Ford F-550 chassis with a rear-mounted CAFS system

(7) Unruh Fire built a medium rescue on a Ford F-550 chassis with a rear-
mounted CAFS system for Ledyard (CT) Fire District No. 1. (Photo
courtesy of Unruh Fire.)


Smith sees a rescue-pumper’s capability to respond to technical rescue calls as limited when compared with a traditional rescue. “Rescue-pumpers don’t have the capability to respond to technical rescue calls because they can’t carry all the rescue equipment that might be needed as well as carry their large hose load, pump, and water tank.”

Sutphen also builds rescue-pumpers, Rider points out, typically with full height and depth compartments, a 1,500-gpm pump, a 500-gallon water tank, and 30 gallons of Class A or B foam. “Usually the front bumper is dedicated entirely to extrication,” Rider says. “These vehicles usually also carry a light tower and coffin compartments on both sides of the upper deck.”

Rouse believes departments continue to fixate on multipurpose apparatus. “Apparatus is being designed to contain heavy rescue tools as well as pumper capabilities,” she says. “We deliver rescue-pumpers that look so much like a rescue unit that you have to open compartment doors to see whether the truck is a rescue or a pumper.”

Other Trends

Braun points out that customers are doing a much better job of identifying the equipment they need to carry on a rescue and also are helping to strategically place equipment on the vehicles so that every square inch of the body is used in some way. “They are using a lot of slide-out tool boards and drop-down and slide-out trays to hold equipment,” he says. “Departments have gotten very conscientious about placing gear that is seldom used in places that are less accessible than the equipment used regularly.”

Rouse says that E-ONE has seen an increase in the use of technology in rescues, with departments requesting weather radar, Wi-Fi, camera systems, and other on-board diagnostics.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is 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.

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