|Perhaps all-terrain vehicle-based fire apparatus is the answer to provide access to hard to get to areas. (Fire Apparatus Photo by Bob Barraclough)|
|A Plastisol pumper body on a 4×4 GMC chassis can carry four firefighters, 300 gallons of water and equipment on a small chassis.|
One of the 2008 presidential candidates has a slogan of “change,” and that’s exactly what’s happening with the fire service. We are all about to see major changes in our standard operating procedures, our apparatus and in general the way we do business.
Back in the mid-1960s, the standard apparatus was either a custom from Mack, Seagrave, American LaFrance, Maxim, Pirsch, Ward LaFrance or a Ford tilt cab from FMC, Howe, Van Pelt or Hahn, just to mention a few builders. And, if you can believe it, the base price for the Ford was $20,000. No need to show a comparison to today’s prices as we all know how they have gone up. But, so has the price of bananas, bread, and butter.
The $20,000 Ford came with either a 534 gas engine or a Cat 3208, both providing ample power to drive a 1,000-gpm pump and tote a 500-to-1,000-gallon tank with three to five firefighters on board. If you think about it, the 1,000-gpm pump and 1,000 gallons of water can handle probably 99 percent of fires we face today. But oh, has the cost of doing business skyrocketed.
Higher horsepower engines are now sometimes necessary, as are pumps in the 2,000-to-3,000-gpm range. Vehicles with higher gross vehicle weights are needed to carry all the “stuff” we seem to think we need “just in case.” It is not uncommon to see pumpers with over 300 cubic feet of compartment space compared to 40 to 50 cubic feet that was the standard in the ’60s.
Dual 300-amp alternators were needed in the ’80s to power the vehicle, and the sets of light bars sometimes consumed over 200 amps alone. Fortunately, with the increased availability and popularity of LED warning lights, the amp draw problem has virtually disappeared, as did the need for dual alternators.
There’s no question that training has improved too, but the complexity of the hazards – think ethanol for one – has changed the way we do business.
Again, speaking of change, today it is fairly typical to hear that medical calls amount to 70 to 80 percent of a department’s runs. Compare this to the ’60s or ’70s when fire departments rarely were dispatched to Band-Aid calls or motor vehicle accidents. Back then, highway safety was a non-issue because of the low number of fire department responses.
I could go on, but I’m sure you are beginning to get the picture that we have seen many changes over the last 40 years. Fortunately, most of them have given us a better understanding of the problems firefighters face, as well as better equipment to mitigate the situations we are asked to handle.
But who would have ever thought we would have a crisis in our cities and be faced with 10-to-20-percent budget cuts in one year? It’s happening in your town or a city near you.
Sure, we can and do postpone apparatus purchases for a year or two in the hopes that our budgets will be restored to previous levels. And sometimes we do not fill those positions that are vacant because of retirements to save a bit of money too.
The question is, are these temporary cutbacks? I don’t think so. In case you are completely out of touch, oil prices are at an all-time high, the stock market is tanking, many apparatus builders are losing ground (think money) as metal prices alone are up some 50 percent in 2008, local sales tax revenues are down and consequently, municipal budgets are shrinking faster than a cheap T-shirt.
Is the fire service ready to make the required adjustments? I hope so, but it will take some real creative thinking by the departments and their suppliers. There are some options fire departments can consider to make the necessary adjustments.
Caution On Prepayments
If you are buying a new rig and intend to go through the specification and bidding process, a performance bond is a must. Make sure it is with a U.S.-based company and have the bond company checked out by your department or city lawyer. There was a recent case with a now defunct manufacturer issuing its own bonds through a parent company. You can guess what happened to the bonds when the company went out of business.
Be cautious about prepayments too. There are many departments that have lost some or all of their monies when a builder has gone out of business.
When the proposals come in and all are within three to five percent of each other, you have a good set of bids. If one builder is much lower than all the others, be wary as there is no magic here. If the price looks too good to be true, it probably is. Stay away.
Consider apparatus that meets your minimum – not maximum – requirements. Is it necessary that every station have a huge pumper with all the bells, whistles and Roto Rays? Maybe it is time to think about a smaller, more maneuverable, less expensive midi-pumper in every station and a big, full-capability pumper in every third station. If the truth were known, the vast majority of today’s fires can be handled with a 125-gpm attack line with a little Class A foam to keep it out, which the midi can easily handle.
SOPs for responses need periodic scrutiny. In a community with 12 major pumpers, does it make sense to send a quint to a grass fire? If the brush rig is not available, how about the next closest pumper? An $800,000 quint may get the job done, but at what cost? And sending a $400,000 engine or an aerial to the hospital to pick up staff is certainly a questionable use of equipment and personnel. How about sending a $25,000 mini-van with a driver on light duty instead?
And when it comes to buying apparatus, if you are thinking of buying in the next two years, buy now. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) apparatus standard changes, including a vehicle data recorder, will increase the price of any units contracted after Jan. 1, 2009.
In 2010 new federal EPA Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) emissions requirements will increase the cost of a truck an additional $10,000 to $15,000. Lease or buy before January 2009 and avoid the price increases.
Other ways to save money include engine requirements. If you live in a relatively flat area, you may want to consider if you really need that 500-hp engine which requires the largest and most expensive Allison transmission. A 300-to-350-hp diesel engine and the accompanying smaller transmission, will probably do the job and save a chunk of money on your next purchase.
The same goes for the big 2,000-gpm pump. You can save thousands of dollars by specifying the smaller pump bodies with lesser capacities. Also, consider the need for front and/or rear suctions as they are expensive.
Carefully evaluate the amount and type of equipment you want to carry. Do you really need a pumper rescue body that’s an extra $20,000 or a hydraulic ladder rack for $6,000?
A chassis to power a 1,000-gpm pump, move 750 gallons of water and a modest amount of equipment can vary from $75,000 to $200,000 or more. Maybe now is the time to downsize to an emergency medical service (EMS) vehicle that has some firefighting capability? The cost of a cab that is half the size of a Greyhound bus that can seat 10 firefighters with all their equipment has become a lot more difficult to justify.
Speaking Of Fuel
St. Louis and more recently Baltimore have instituted a selective response system which assigns engines, trucks and battalion chiefs according to a pre-determined criteria.
Is it a good use of resources to send three engines, a truck and a battalion chief, all responding code three, to a Dumpster fire? Not only is it a safety hazard, but also it typically would require three to four times as much fuel as would a single engine moving at normal speed.
Speaking of fuel, isn’t it time that the fire service puts its “oars in the water” and becomes conscious of fuel usage. A nearby community has stated they are already $250,000 over their fuel budget for the first six months of the year. Maybe we do not need two engines, two sports utility vehicles and a truck idling while the first due engine and truck do all the work. Today, our engines, batteries and electrical systems are reliable enough to be able to shut them down at the scene if there is no good reason to keep them running.
There are some thoughts on apparatus and equipment builders I’d like to share too. I wish the outlook for the industry was better. All the costs manufacturers have to build into their products are up. Some, like diesel fuel and metal, are almost double what they were last year. Builders are going out of business for a multitude of reasons including poor management.
Ours is a peculiar business that is based on relationships and trust. If you don’t believe it, look at your successful dealers across the country. Most have represented several apparatus manufacturers in their careers. When they move to a new builder, they have brought their customers with them.
For some reason, the MBA textbook writers and professors can’t grasp this concept, and as a result experienced managers are destined to failure even if they have had highly successful careers before coming to our industry.
So, what’s my point? Simply this: To manage and make money in an apparatus company, you need to take the time to understand the tradition, the people, the differences and the challenges. And this takes more than the 180 days normally allotted to new management by the holding companies. Small builders, and even some of the larger ones, have done well because they took the time to understand how business is done and made the investment in building the relationships. It’s not rocket science, it’s just common sense.
It’s also not rocket science to realize there are too many trade shows. There are new shows surfacing every year, and old ones never go away. The costs of those shows continue to rise, and it’s no secret who pays for these extravaganzas – the fire service. The cost of fuel alone to get trucks to and from shows has become astronomical. It will cost an East Coast manufacturer about $2,500 per truck just for fuel for a round trip to Denver for the Fire Rescue International show. That’s fuel only for one truck; no driver cost, no cleanup or space rental cost or travel and hotel expenses for the sales types. This situation is out of control and headed for a meltdown.
One way to make the situation more palatable is to have smaller, less expensive, more convenient displays every couple of years and then one big show every five years. Europe does this with their Interschutz show and it attracts 150,000 people from all over the world.
Program trucks with fewer options are certainly a way to keep the costs down. Custom built trucks are expensive. Let’s take a lesson from the car dealers – not that they are the best role models – and think about a parking lot full of various types of apparatus. The fire departments travel to the factories with cash in hand, find the model they want, make their little changes to personalize the unit and then drive home with their new fire truck.
A One-Day Experience
Gone is the one-year process to write the specs, performance bonds, the pre-bid or pre-construction conferences, mid-construction visits and the final inspection battles over who said what to whom and when.
Think of the money and time it would save. It could be a simple one-day experience: select your rig, check it out, pay at the gate and drive it home.
Building trucks that are unprofitable is not fun. Manufacturers should know their costs and price accordingly. A company that is losing millions each month probably will not be around to service their customers.
There’s a lot of information to digest here, but it’s important that fire departments know this. Too much information gets lost in hallway whispering, and it really needs to be shared with a wider audience in the fire service. It’s my hope that the info I’ve presented will help you be a bit more informed when it comes time for your next apparatus and equipment purchase.
Editor’s Note: Bob Barraclough is a 40-year veteran of the fire service and fire manufacturing industry. He is chief columnist for Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment magazine and a 20-year member of the NFPA 1901 Fire Apparatus Standards Committee. A principal organizer of the annual FDSOA Apparatus Specification Symposium, he is also a past president of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association. Barraclough serves as a consultant to Rosenbauer America and Akron Brass and is called upon as an expert witness in litigation involving fire industry products. His career includes executive positions at E-ONE, Hale Fire Pumps, National Foam, Span Instruments and Class 1.