Being in the fire truck industry today is many things – exciting, interesting, and definitely challenging. It is exciting in that many new ideas, concepts, and products are being introduced. It is interesting to listen to fire chiefs talk about how to stretch their budgets for new apparatus. Some are delaying purchases while others are looking at different types of apparatus, possibly lower-cost, smaller units or multifunction units. It becomes challenging to produce a reliable, affordable unit when the fire apparatus market is down by more than 35 percent and when new standards and federal emission regulations have added tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a new truck over the past 10 years.
While we are still manufacturing the mega pumpers, tankers, rescues, and aerials, we are seeing some interest in smaller, less expensive units, and we are seeing departments replace them sooner. The idea is that they are less expensive to buy and maintain, plus it allows a fleet to keep up with the latest technology. The department is not forced to continue to use a large expensive unit that may be outdated long before its useful life is over. Some major European cities have adopted this concept and find it to be quite effective.
Another challenge is the maintenance required with today’s high-tech trucks and the cost associated with them – or maybe the cost of not maintaining these units. Gone are the days of replacing a $35 vernier cable when the throttle doesn’t work. Now you connect a computer, check all the settings, check voltage at all points, and then replace a module, which can cost $2,000 or more. Multiplexing has also greatly enhanced today’s fire trucks, but without the proper tools and training, they can be difficult to service. Most foam systems and generators also have onboard computers, and, again, without proper tools and training, they are difficult to service. With these issues in mind, it is important for fire departments to look for manufacturers and dealers who can support and service the apparatus they purchase. In many cases, the local mechanic is not capable of doing service work on today’s fire trucks.
Although today’s trucks are much safer than those of 10 or 20 years ago, I have to wonder if we are outpacing the ability to pay for the improvements, especially in today’s economic times. Are we forcing underfunded departments to keep older units in service far longer than they should, simply because they do not have adequate funds to buy new apparatus?
I believe that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) apparatus standard should be reviewed to be sure that each item is still relevant and that the intended benefit has been realized and the cost is justified.
One example of a good change to the NFPA standard is the requirement for retention devices for hose loads. These devices will prevent hose from coming off a truck and injuring people. Another good change is taking firefighters off the tailboard and putting everyone in an enclosed cab behind doors. This clearly keeps firefighters from being thrown from vehicles.
This past week, we were talking to an apparatus chief of a major department about some new pumpers. He stated that in the past year his pumpers that had the rear chevron striping were involved in three rear-end collisions while the older pumpers without the striping had no rear-end collisions. He was wondering if it was money well spent.
In my opinion, if it cannot be documented that an item is beneficial, make it a recommended option and let the chief or the department decide if they want it based on their local conditions.
As a fire chief with a brother who was a career firefighter for more than 20 years and two sons who are volunteer firefighters, I am a strong proponent of safety. In 2006, we conducted a seat-belt awareness campaign in which we gave away more than 30,000 red seat-belt wraps with the message “Everyone Goes Home” to remind firefighters to buckle up.
I truly believe that with an objective review of the standard, we can reduce the cost of fire apparatus without compromising safety.
I hope the economy changes soon and that all departments will be funded at the levels they deserve for them to have the safest equipment and vehicles possible, so everyone can go home.
Editor’s Note: In addition to being president of Rosenbauer America, Harold Boer is chief executive officer of Central States Fire Apparatus, a position he has held for 27 years. Central States is a division of Rosenbauer America. He is also chief of the Lyons (S.D.) Fire Department, a post he has held for 32 years; vice president of the Minnehaha County (S.D.) Fire Chiefs Association; and secretary of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA).