The Fire Engine’s Expanding Mission

By Richard Marinucci

The fire engine is the backbone of all fire department operations. Its original purpose was to deliver water to the fire, but it has now become an all-purpose vehicle equipped to provide tools and equipment for an ever-expanding mission. Although fire engines and their engine company responsibilities are thought of as the means to get water from the source to the seat of the fire, this is but one dimension. As such, departments must be more proactive in planning how they will use this vehicle.


In some ways, organizations are left to their own devices regarding the functionality of a modern engine. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, has requirements for a “pumper” but does not consider additional services to be rendered. A pumper is defined as, “Fire apparatus with a permanently mounted fire pump of at least 750-gallon-per-minute (gpm) (3,000-liter-per-minute) capacity, water tank, and hose body whose primary purpose is to combat structural and associated fires.” The standard also lists equipment to be carried to support this function. Departments must plan their vehicles’ purposes to maximize their potential and minimize the possibility of problems.

Most big city or metro departments operate separate engine and truck companies. Often, departments in suburban and rural areas do not have this option, and engines must be equipped for multiple fireground operations. Those arriving on what might be classified as a traditional engine or pumper could be asked to perform truck work, special rescues, and service beyond delivering water to the fire. Planning can help with delivering quality service and making sure a vehicle is utilized as designed without adding unnecessary wear and tear, especially regarding overall weight of the vehicle. Functionality and access to equipment during emergencies are also important.

Engines are asked to respond to vehicle crashes to assist with patient care, provide extrication services, and help provide a safer work environment. Departments with a high possibility of roadway emergencies, especially those with limited-access highways and high-speed roadways, must be prepared to respond to those types of incidents. As such, the necessary tools are required. Hydraulic extrication equipment is the core of vehicle extrication. But, the evolution of extrication has produced a much larger cache of tools required to be efficient and effective. There are other power tools as well as hand tools that are needed, especially in lieu of changes in automobile manufacturing.

One of the keys to successful operations is efficiency. Fire engines require hose, nozzles, fittings, forcible entry tools, ladders, and an assortment of other tools needed for firefighting operations. Each of these must be relatively easy to access, especially during high-stress operations. During an emergency, expeditious deployment leads to better outcomes. All of the essential tools must be located on the apparatus to meet this goal. Locations for essential tools must be such that there is no need to move other tools out of the way to retrieve them. Obviously, with more “stuff” being placed on fire engines, this is becoming more of a challenge.

Additional Duties

There are departments using their fire engines for advanced life support vehicles. The purpose is to take advantage of response times to initiate patient care sooner, which translates into better outcomes. These so-called paramedic engines do offer a way to improve EMS but also add challenges. The purpose here is not to discuss the pros and cons but to point out the issues that should be addressed regarding space utilization. Engines must be designed to accommodate all of the duties they are expected to fulfill. Organizations that add EMS responsibilities must make sure their rolling stock can do so efficiently and effectively without reducing the core capabilities and uses of the fire engine.

As all hazards organizations, fire departments have continued to take on additional jobs and services. The basic vehicle for fire suppression has become more of an all-purpose vehicle. It now carries special rescue equipment for all of the technical rescue disciplines. The trucks must meet space requirements. But since many of these operations are not as time-sensitive as fires and EMS calls, the location of equipment does not necessarily need to be as easily accessible. This equipment can be placed in out-of-the-way locations that have not typically been used before. It is important to locate this equipment so that it does not impair access to the time-sensitive equipment.

Not Just an Engine Company Now

So what does all this mean? Fire engines have become “do everything” vehicles. It is an extension of the fire service itself in that as more responsibilities are added, circumstances become more complex. Firefighters assigned to an engine are expected to do much more than deliver water. Likewise, that vehicle has much greater expectations. Organizations need to consciously acknowledge this so the vehicle remains productive and is not overwhelmed with the responsibilities.

Planning is more important. Fire departments must know all of their job responsibilities and which ones engine companies are expected to handle. They might even need to start over and establish all of the functions that need to be performed and then assign them appropriately to all of the apparatus in the fleet. At some point, it is appropriate to consider whether or not the fire engine can realistically accept all of the added equipment and tools. Too often, organizations continue to add and never reevaluate situations until outside circumstances dictate. A proactive approach is much better in the pursuit of quality service.

Take this approach when you order new apparatus. Review the services currently being provided and the essential equipment and tools needed. Consider adjusting the current layout of the vehicle. Often storage and compartments are based on additions and finding the available space, not necessarily on the best locations.

New apparatus is a great time to reevaluate and redesign. Also, try to project services your department will be expected to provide in the future. This is not always possible, but you may consider extra space that likely will be needed even if you don’t yet know what for. In many organizations, there is an understanding that the job will change, new tools will be added, as will additional responsibilities. Have room for growth.

Evaluating current operations is one thing that departments rarely do. Organizations should periodically physically go through their apparatus and do some spring cleaning. Determine if everything carried on the vehicle is still relevant. Get rid of items that are not used, are outdated, or are archaic. Look at the number of specific tools and equipment that you carry. Will you realistically use all the axes on your truck, for example? Establish a regular schedule, maybe quarterly, semi-annually, but not more than annually, for a look at your apparatus and the tools you carry. If you are able to subtract, you should then check to see that equipment is placed for efficiency and effectiveness.

The evolution of the fire service into all hazards response organizations has changed traditional views on apparatus. As the service continues to evolve, departments must make changes to their approaches. Improved service must be the driving force of this change. Adding responsibilities that lead to mediocrity across the board cannot become acceptable. Fire engines are an important element in quality service, and their functionality must be continually evaluated to ensure the utmost efficiency and effectiveness.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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