The True Cost of Operating Worn-Out Fire Apparatus

Jim Juneau

Every fire department-whether urban or rural, large or small, career or volunteer-has a basic and ongoing moral and legal responsibility to provide safe and functional fire apparatus and equipment for use by its personnel in performing their duties. But, these are tough economic times, and a fleet of fire apparatus represents a huge capital investment for any department.

As fire departments face tighter budgets, and as the communities they serve demand a greater volume of more diversified first responder services, the difficulties of keeping an apparatus fleet in good repair and “safe for service” have become much more challenging.

Aging Fleets

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) “Third Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service,” published in June 2011, tells us that about half (46 percent) of all fire department engines (pumpers) in service in the United States were more than 15 years old, and 11 percent (almost 10,000 units) were more than 30 years old. Moreover, another 1,000 to 2,000 additional in-service engines cross that 30-year age threshold every year, two thirds of which are operated by fire departments that primarily serve rural communities.

Surprisingly, although awareness and acknowledgment of this aging fleet problem have become much more widespread, the numbers reported most recently by the NFPA have not varied significantly since the United States Fire Administration first collected and reported similar statistical data back in 2002. I don’t have to tell you about the many dramatic safety and functional improvements that have been made in fire apparatus over the past 15 years-really basic things like enclosed cabs, antilock brakes, slow-close valves, cab-noise abatement, higher aerial tip loads, better seats, occupant and equipment restraints, equipment storage, lighting and slip resistance. Of course, there is a multitude of other improvements far too numerous to mention here, including some really fancy “connected vehicle” electronics capabilities and new vehicle stability and rollover protection systems that are now commonly available.

Nonetheless, these aging fleet statistics represent a shocking reminder to all of us that many firefighters working today still do not enjoy many of the significant safety and functional benefits that more modern apparatus would otherwise provide to them because they are working with old, worn-out equipment that long ago became obsolete.

Annex D

More than 10 years ago, in an effort to assist fire departments with the difficult task of determining when to refurbish or replace existing fire apparatus, the NFPA joined with technical experts provided through the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) to develop a set of recommended practices relating to the replacement or refurbishment of in-service fire apparatus. NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus (2003 ed.), first incorporated these recommended practices as “Annex D,” and the NFPA added the same Annex D to subsequent editions of NFPA 1906, Standard for Wildland Fire Apparatus; NFPA 1911, Standard For The Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, And Retirement Of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus; and NFPA 1912, Standard for Fire Apparatus Refurbishing.

At its essence, Annex D clearly defines the minimum recommended technology requirements for acceptable first-line fire apparatus and reserve apparatus, and it provides a clear definition of obsolete apparatus. It includes the following recommended practices relating to aging apparatus: “It is recommended that apparatus greater than 15 years old, that have been properly maintained, and that are still in serviceable condition, be placed in reserve status and upgraded in accordance with NFPA 1912, Standard for Fire Apparatus Refurbishing, to incorporate as many features as possible of the current fire apparatus standard (see Section D.3). This will ensure that, while the apparatus might not totally comply with the current edition of the automotive fire apparatus standards, many of the improvements and upgrades required by the recent versions of the standards are available to the firefighters who use the apparatus. Apparatus that was not originally manufactured to the applicable NFPA fire apparatus standards, or that is over 25 years old, should be replaced.”

There are many factors and considerations that typically figure into the process of planning and executing an apparatus replacement program, including not only the age of the rig but also its frequency and environment of use, mileage, service history, maintenance and operating costs, as well as your analysis of the changing first responder service needs in your community and the ultimate cost of securing a new apparatus (after trade-in) compared to the continually increasing cost of operating the old units. These topics are already the subject of numerous other articles by fire service fleet professionals that can be referenced for advice on how to perform the necessary analysis and then used to prepare a justification package supporting purchase of a new rig.

Keep in mind, however, that the ultimate capability of your fire department to efficiently meet the needs of your community and, more importantly, the day-to-day capability of your personnel to safely respond and perform their duties can both be severely compromised if the responding apparatus is just not up to the task of arriving safely and functioning flawlessly every time, on demand. When known vehicle deficiencies are ignored, or when needed replacement of dangerous or malfunctioning equipment is deferred, someone is eventually going to get hurt, and the legal consequences flowing from that injury will certainly follow. I can tell you from experience that the seemingly high cost of replacing an obsolete engine or worn-out aerial can be a real bargain when compared with the huge emotional and financial cost of seriously injuring or killing someone-maybe even one of your own firefighters. After a catastrophic accident, it is very difficult to explain and justify to others what was originally an attractive “cost-saving” decision.

FAMA is committed to the manufacture and sale of safe, efficient emergency response vehicles and equipment. FAMA urges fire departments to evaluate the full range of safety features offered by its member companies.

JIM JUNEAU is a products liability trial attorney practicing with the law firm of Juneau, Boll, Stacy & Ucherek, PLLC in suburban Dallas, Texas. He has served as the designated legal counsel for the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) and the Fire and Emergency Manufacturer’s and Services Association (FEMSA). He also serves as a voting member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Apparatus Technical Committee and the NFPA Technical Committee on Ambulances.

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