Specifying Rigs in 2020: Design for Your Reality

By Chris Mc Loone

When I look back at 2019, a few things stand out as “talking points.” For the second year, the “Clean Cab Concept” had its proponents and its detractors.

There was a lot of discussion around chevron colors and whether or not fire apparatus should be painted with dark colors, specifically black. Warning lights received a lot of attention this year, all the way up to the National Fire Protection Association 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, level. Additionally, although there wasn’t as much chatter, seating was a topic. There were seating innovations on the clean cab side, but also, there are proposed changes for the next edition of NFPA 1901 that designate primary and secondary seating and the sizes of each.

It’s never easy to predict what will happen in an upcoming year. Ultimately, anything we say today about what will happen in 2020 has a 50/50 shot of coming true. But, we can take a look at trends we’ve identified and make educated guesses.

In past outlook articles, we’ve contacted fire service supplier representatives to comment on the current year and to the best of their ability on what to expect in the coming year based on their insights into the business end of things. This year, we contacted consultants who are in the trenches with fire departments as they work to create specifications for fire apparatus. They cover the nation and encounter fire departments in affluent areas as well as fire departments struggling to replace their rigs in addition to retaining their personnel. At times, their answers to questions intersected, and at other times they answered a question with completely different approaches. We talked to Bill Peters, Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board member; Jeffrey Gaskin, apparatus consultant with East West Fire Apparatus Consultants, Inc.; and Jim Lyons, owner of J. Lyons Fire Consultants, LLC.


All three of our interviewees are involved with the specification process for fire departments across the country and commented on what they expect to see in 2020 regarding apparatus specs. Staffing and fire apparatus costs dominated their answers.

“I see more of an emphasis on smaller vehicles,” says Lyons. “There will always be the need for tower platforms, aerial ladders, large water tenders, etc., but with the shrinking pool of volunteers and with many new volunteers, most have never been exposed to large vehicles prior to joining the fire service.” Lyons explains that there is a “perception issue” to overcome with larger vehicles that they are massive and more difficult to drive and operate. “The larger the vehicle, the more hesitant some are to drive and operate it,” Lyons says. “There has been a resurgence in the mini pumper, EMS squads, and smaller light-duty brush vehicles, and I believe this is going to continue into 2020.” Lyons adds that a benefit in acquiring a smaller vehicles is the lighter gross vehicle weight rating where many still do not require a commercial driver’s license to operate for most states. “They are smaller, easier to handle, easier to operate, and less expensive,” he adds. “If someone can drive a pickup truck, they feel more comfortable driving a small emergency vehicle.”

Gaskin cites operational limitations being placed on fire departments by budget restrictions, available staffing, and other factors like maintaining their service levels with less that will play into apparatus specs in 2020. “A department we worked with recently had an engine that was due for replacement,” Gaskin relates. “The department also had a medium rescue company and a tower ladder company. It made a decision based on the manpower it had been getting for emergency calls to merge the engine company and the rescue company and purchase a rescue-pumper. Kudos to them for their insight and making a difficult decision.” He adds that this is the case also when a department traditionally was able to get two rigs out on a call but now only reliably gets one. Departments are also putting more tools and equipment on apparatus. “It does not make a difference if the apparatus is an engine, a ladder, a quint, or a rescue,” he says. “Every department is trying to put more and more on their apparatus, and I expect that will continue for the foreseeable future. It is, however, creating some interesting challenges in specifying apparatus.

Peters also recognizes the fiscal constraints on fire departments. “I think that fire departments are going to be more cost-conscious when doing their specs,” he notes. “Over the past few years, the cost of apparatus has hit epic proportions. It is not uncommon to find a platform costing $1.5 million and common pumpers in the $700,000 range. Sticker shock is hitting everyone.”


Multipurpose fire apparatus have been around for many years, and Gaskin noted that based on staffing, one of his customers opted to combine an engine company and a rescue company into one unit. That is a trend Peters expects to continue. “One trend is trying to do more with a single piece of apparatus,” he says. “This is likely due to limited manpower on the volunteer side and budget reductions in career departments. We are seeing more ‘rescue-pumpers,’ which are actually pumpers with added compartment space for power saws, hydraulic rescue tools, and light towers. Another example is departments replacing a pumper and truck with a quint that can be used in either capacity or both.”

Lyons sees a growing trend from many departments that are shying away from the latest electronic gadget. “A return to basics,” he asserts. “Pull a lever and open a valve. Turn a knob and raise a light pole manually. End users are becoming concerned about trucks now being so complicated that their firefighters have lost the basic knowledge of operating a pump, aerial, etc. If the automated system fails, what do they do? When things work mechanically, there is at least the feeling that an operator can manually open a valve or put the truck into pump mode manually.” Lyons also states that in some cases, the maintenance staff can no longer maintain the vehicles unless they become specifically trained by the vendor they are buying the truck from. “Just being an EVT master mechanic may no longer be enough,” he adds. “You may have to be specifically trained on a certain computer diagnostic software that is proprietary to a certain manufacturer. More training, more expense. Given the choice, many are asking for more basic equipment.”

Gaskin notes two trends impacting apparatus specs and designs that go back for more than five years: demands and staffing. “The demands being put on fire departments for the types of service that is expected of them have grown,” he says. “There is a much greater diversity in what society wants and expects from fire departments, and I think that this is going to continue begin driven by several factors. This drives the need for more training, broader expertise, and more and different types of tools and equipment. Second is the reduction in available manpower. While this primarily affects the volunteer side of the fire service, the paid side is not immune to it, especially in municipalities that are having financial challenges.” He also cites training requirements, work and family obligations, and less of a sense of community service as affecting staffing. “These challenges will continue long after 2020, and they really do have a broad effect on how your apparatus is designed and specified because you need to specify apparatus that works with you and makes your job easier,” he says. “Available manpower and ability are big parts of the equation.”


Bill Adams and Ricky Riley handled the question of what they would like to see in fire apparatus rolling off the line in 2020 in this month’s “FA Viewpoints.” So, we’ll leave that question to them. We did, however, ask our interviewees what they would like to see departments start doing in 2020 when specing their rigs.

“Do your research,” says Lyons. “Stop relying on salesmen to sell you a truck. Specify your truck!” He uses a recent client experience as an example. The client was surprised when Lyons inquired about what make and model of electronic pump governor it wanted. The reply was, “Whatever is standard.” True, the rig would come with one from the manufacturer but maybe not the type the department wanted or that matches its other trucks. “Another client was surprised when I informed them that aluminum wheels are not standard on a truck but an option they must ask for. In this business, being an educated consumer with product knowledge and a grasp of the details is a fire truck manufacturer’s best customer.”

“Use the ‘Apparatus Purchasing Specification Form’ in Annex B of NFPA 1901,” suggests Peters. “If completed, it will give a manufacturer a good understanding of what the fire department is trying to accomplish. The form can be shopped around to acceptable manufacturers to solicit approximate pricing. Also, it will serve as a good reminder for the committee so important features are not inadvertently left out.”

Gaskin would like to see fire departments take stock of themselves. “Review your calls for the last 20 years and see how the volume and types of calls have changed,” he says. “This will tell you where you are going. Know your ISO rating and have a copy of your ISO report to use as a guide in decision making. Deal realistically with what your available manpower is. Review your town or county master plan. Stop the ‘what if.’ It’s killing your apparatus design and driving the cost of already expensive vehicles even higher. Remember: You are buying apparatus for today and the future—not the past.”


There always seems to be something firefighters are talking about across the country during any given year. It could be rear-mount vs. midmount or smooth bore vs. automatic fog. There’s always something. During 2019 some of the hot topics revolved around the upcoming NFPA 1901 revision. We asked Gaskin, Peters, and Lyons what they think the most hotly debated topics will be during this revision cycle.

“The emergency lighting changes,” says Gaskin. “It is amazing how much time and energy that is put into emergency lighting.” Gaskin also notes the seating changes as a topic that will be debated. “I think the seating changes are going to be a topic of discussion also. Not ‘hotly debated,’ but I think the seating things are not going to be widely understood. That will create confusion and therefore discussion.”

Peters agrees about the lighting. “I think the most hotly debated topic was the warning light provision that calls for dimming rear warning lights after dark,” he says. “Purchasers tend to overdo it with warning lights, and at night it can actually be dangerous for personnel on the scene. Even firefighters working around the rig are having a difficult time with high-output LED lights. Lowering the light output and slowing the flash pattern seem to be more acceptable. The problem is: Is this scientific or perception? We’ll see!”

Lyons points to the rear chevron colors. “Not sure if it will be the most hotly debated subject, but rear chevron colors are sure to be discussed,” he says. “A very personal decision is the color of a vehicle, and that includes the rear chevrons. This is directly related to pride in ownership and personalizing it to a town, city, or region. Many do not like the suggested colors.” For some of Lyons’s customers, there is inconsistency in the standard regarding colors and fire apparatus. “A client recently asked me, ‘If the current lime/yellow and red chevrons make the truck more visible, then why not ban the color black from being a paint color choice?’ I thought that was an interesting question. I am seeing more and more black and black-over-red trucks lately. Honestly, I agree. If the NFPA is truly concerned about visibility, then be concerned about the entire vehicle—not just the back end. In some departments, there are valid reasons the chevron stripes should be a certain color.”


For general comments about what he sees happening in 2020 when it comes to fire apparatus, Lyons returns to the financial aspects of specifying fire apparatus. “A growing concern by both large metropolitan departments and small rural departments is surging prices,” he says. “Twenty years ago, a department could purchase a nicely outfitted platform/quint for around $750,000 or a pumper for $250,000. Today, that price has zoomed to $1.2, $1.3, and yes, $1.4 million for a platform and some pumpers pushing $800,000. With more advanced technology on trucks today and the fact that they are all still handmade—custom, if you will—the prices have dramatically increased.” He adds that the public is asking more questions than ever before when fire departments ask for $500,000 or $1 million. “Recently, one small town turned down the volunteer fire department’s request for $500,000 for a new tanker,” says Lyons. “This was to replace a 27-year-old tanker. Used truck possibilities are now being considered. So, I believe we will see more oversight or at least interest by the general public in purchasing. Those departments not purchasing via open, competitive bidding might be asked some difficult questions as to why they purchased off a contract or negotiated with one specific manufacturer.”

Peters also turns to apparatus costs. “I think that due to better workmanship and rust-resistant materials being used in apparatus construction as well as the replacement costs involved, departments will opt to hold onto their apparatus for longer periods of time,” he says. “I know of several departments that are doing limited refurbishments and upgrades because their district or department just can’t afford replacement apparatus.

Gaskin expects growth in technology for rigs to continue. “The level of technology in fire apparatus has grown exponentially in the last 10 years, and I expect that to continue,” he says. “Multiplex systems have touch screens and electronic valves, and light switches can be controlled from multiple locations. The list goes on, and each year the available electronics increases. In many cases, fire departments don’t have a choice because of engine operations that have been electronic since the late 1980s.”

It is fairly clear that staffing issues and budgetary considerations will likely continue to impact fire apparatus design into 2020 and beyond. Probably the best advice to offer as we go into 2020 is when you sit down to design the rig, be honest. Design for your reality and what you think the reality will be in 20 years. Remember that with any feature you decide on with fire apparatus design, there’s usually a tradeoff somewhere else. Do your research and use the tools available to you in the NFPA 1901 Annex. Fires won’t stop occurring, and the public will continue to need our help. The lucky part is that we are using the most reliable and safe fire apparatus ever built. Have a great 2020.

CHRIS Mc LOONE, senior editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 26-year veteran of the fire service currently serving as a safety officer and is a former assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has served on past apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and an editor for more than 20 years.

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