Chris Mc Loone
If there’s one thing the current economy has taught most of us, it’s that there is no crystal ball we can use to predict when things are going to turn around. Even when things start to look like they’re going pretty well, we again realize that very little of this is within our control. So, although things are pointing toward a 2014 that is better than 2013, the optimism remains understandably tempered.
Many fire industry manufacturers are proceeding with caution considering the fragility of the economy. Things are better than they have been, but there is still a long way to go. “We are optimistic that municipal budgets will continue the improvement we have seen in the last couple of years,” says Giff Swayne, president, Holmatro, Inc. “It is of course a fragile recovery, and there is still a good deal of pressure on fire department budgets. But, overall we are cautiously optimistic that the gains we have seen over the past couple of years will continue. During the depth of the recession and housing crisis, it was common to hear that departments were deferring purchases of new equipment because of budget cuts. But, we are not hearing that much anymore.”
David Durstine, vice president, marketing, Akron Brass Company, says that his company is optimistic for the North American fire service and is looking forward to seeing industry growth in 2014. “Although we expect the growth to be mild, there is a pent-up demand as many fire departments have been delaying purchases or equipment upgrades over the past four to five years, and we are beginning to see a positive outlook on many city and state budgets.”
Braun Industries is also looking forward to continued growth. “The economic indicators show a slight increase in growth for our industry in 2014,” says Chad Brown, vice president, sales and marketing.
On the apparatus side, Bobby Williams, vice president, sales and marketing, Pierce Manufacturing, says federal demand will remain down, but the company continues to see evidence for improvement in municipal demand. “Some of the areas that were hit harder economically are now beginning to show signs of life,” he says. “More of the larger fleet customers are starting the buying cycles, which is promising.”
Of course, the general state of the economy will have an effect on the fire industry and municipality buying patterns. It’s hard to pinpoint what the exact state of the economy is, but William Smith, president and CEO of Waterous, says, “Over the last two years, the economy has been stabilized and has been showing positive signs. As long as the government continues to support the fire service, 2014 will be a good year.”
Keeping an eye on Washington, D.C., is key. “I wish that there was a defined state of the economy,” says Swayne. “The gridlock in Washington, the uncertainty brought on by new legislations and regulations, and the roller coaster that is fiscal policy will play a role in our market in 2014. The problem is no one seems to have a clear understanding of where we are heading economically.”
Durstine adds, “As we saw recently with the United States federal government shutdown, optimism could change at the flip of a coin or significant events beyond our control.”
Braun cites the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a potential influencer on companies in his market. “I think there is some hesitation in the marketplace with ACA and how that will impact the departments and agencies financially.”
Swayne adds, “The recovery we have seen is fragile. Although the grants and Fire Administration funding seem to be intact for fiscal 2014, we need to keep a close eye on Washington and work with all industry stakeholders to ensure it stays that way.”
Williams adds, “As we emerge from a depressed economy, taxing entities continue to struggle with revenue receipts, delaying the purchasing of capital goods. This, however, creates a pent-up demand as replacement of vehicles can only be put off for a limited time. At some point, the total cost of ownership will come into focus, and it won’t make financial sense to put off the replacement.”
The fire service has always embraced technology to make firefighting safer and more efficient, and these days technology is often associated with electronics. Transitioning to things like electronic throttles, preset pressures, and electric valves has been slow, but things are beginning to change. “Over the past several decades, the fire industry in North America has been very traditional,” says Smith. “However, because of new technologies and changing market dynamics, it is now more open to change today than ever before. I think that is a good trend, and I see this continuing in 2014.”
As this change continues, expect it to happen at speeds not seen before. “I think with today’s pace of technology and innovation, you should expect to constantly see new breakout products and technologies faster than you have seen in the past,” says Durstine. “I think you could see this in 2013 if you stop and take a look at some of the new products in the industry. From the Akron Brass Hydro FX flow indicating nozzle to the innovations in battery-powered rescue tools, this change is happening all around the industry today. We are excited and can’t wait to unveil some real breakthrough products to the market.”
For Pierce, it will continue to fill gaps it identifies in its markets. “Pierce is in a constant state of listening to our customers and assessing how our product offerings line up with the voice of the customer,” he says. “Any time we see gaps, we begin the process of determining how we gain better alignment with the market needs and time the release to market or our new markets accordingly.”
Durstine sums up, “I expect to see new technology as a key driver in the market as the acceptance and use of modern electronics can and will enhance the capabilities and efficiencies of today’s first responders, allowing increased access to information for effective critical decision making in the firehouse and on the fireground.”
Keys to Success
As one would expect, fire service equipment and apparatus providers consider focusing on the customer a major key to their success. This year, however, respondents mentioned product affordability as a significant component of success for 2014. “The obvious key to 2014 is the appropriate financial support for our customer to upgrade or purchase new equipment,” says Durstine. Williams adds, “The keys to our success in 2014 are these four things: first, continuing to drive and support a lower cost of ownership; second, we must continue to listen to our customers; third, we must earn their business every day; and fourth, Pierce must continue to support our industry-leading dealer network.”
Swayne also cites dealer support as a key to success during 2014. “We also need to continue to work with and support our dealer network because at the end of the day it is our dealers who represent us in the market and it is our dealers who provide the after-sales service to our end users. If we get those things right and continue to bring new and innovative solutions to the market, we will be successful.”
Stability and Engagement
Manufacturers are expecting a more stable environment for 2014, albeit with slower growth than many are used to. That said, keeping an eye on Washington is important to see how things will go, but engagement in Washington is also critically important.
“The Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) does outstanding work on behalf of the entire fire service industry and front-line responders alike,” says Swayne. “In many ways, CFSI is like the hub of the fire service wheel in Washington, D.C. The institute receives no funding from the government or from the grant programs that [the CSFI] has been, in large part, responsible for creating and maintaining. It is incumbent on us, the manufacturers and service providers, to support the work it does that benefits us all. Heading into 2014 and beyond, it is critical that we continue to have a strong voice in Washington to advocate for our first responders and the industry that serves them.”
Durstine adds, “2014 is shaping up to be the beginning of what may be the new norm for the fire industry with a slightly slower growth rate than the industry has been used to over the past decade but settling into a more stable environment.”
Williams says that Pierce is excited about the future. “We choose to focus on the positives and will continue to drive innovation to meet the needs of the fire industry,” he says.
CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.