Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

What's the difference between fire trucks and a cup of coffee?
I like coffee, and I am fairly particular about what I’ll drink. I am sucking down a cup as I write this.

I brewed my cup using beans roasted here in my home state of New Hampshire. It’s from the Woodshed Roasting Company in Laconia to be exact. The particular coffee I have is named Winnipesaukee Weekend Blend. It’s good. Just the way I like it. When people ask me how I take my coffee, my answer is, “Very, very seriously.”

Out and about, Dunkin’ is my go-to brand. Starbucks is fine. It’s good coffee. But I’ll still drive by Starbucks for Dunkin’.

So, where am I going with this and what does it have to do with fire trucks? Let me tell you. A couple of press releases came into my e-mail inbox that got me thinking.

There’s been a lot of consolidation and realignment of products in the fire apparatus market recently, and a lot of it is probably for the best. But it makes me wonder about how manufacturers are going to keep the look and feel of the individual products.

Fire truck manufacturers have loyal customers, ones who like the “flavor” of the apparatus each builds. Most apparatus manufacturers are good people and build great products. But, I wonder what happens when builders start tinkering with how the trucks are made and what goes into them and even who makes them and where they are made; it’s not the same any longer.

With coffee, there are a lot of things that influence the final product. Water quality and temperature, how the beans are ground, and even who makes the coffee can have a big influence in the flavor and experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a total coffee snob. If I must, I’ll choke down a cup made from a $3-can store brand coffee made with heavily chlorinated river water from a city water system. Actually, no, I probably wouldn’t, but you get my point.

On a basic, fundamental level, coffee is all the same. It’s created from the processed and roasted seeds of a fruit known as a coffee cherry. Yes, they look like cherries. The next ingredient is water heated about 200 degrees. And that’s a cup of coffee—pretty simple.

At the risk of being called a heretic, I am going to say that fire trucks are basically all the same too. Steel and aluminum are primary ingredients. Diesel engines, mostly Cummins, some Detroit Diesels, and PACCAR and Navistar engines here and there are the power plants almost exclusively mated to Allison transmissions.

For pumps, there’s Darley, Hale, and Waterous and proprietary Rosenbauer models, primarily with a few other specialized pump makers, like C.E.T. Pumps and US Fire Pump.

Then there are accessories truck makers use like seats, tires, and warning lights and doodads and widgets, which all truck makers have access to and use frequently.

Fire trucks are obviously a bit more complex than a cup of coffee, but people strongly influence the quality and experience in both cases.

The engineers who design fire apparatus and the craftspeople who build them are the mojo. It’s the little stuff, the subtleties and nuances that appeal to customers and drive brand loyalty. It’s like a skilled barista with great equipment who knows exactly how to brew a perfect cup o’ joe.

Here in the United States, it’s almost a matter of pride to have highly customized apparatus that are finished to a mirror gloss. It’s tradition. It’s how we do it.

We know in Europe, fire trucks are utilitarian, like dump trucks, or delivery vehicles, standardized for the most part. There’s nothing wrong with that. They are great trucks that get the job done. It’s just different here.

I worry about the homogenization of fire apparatus. It’s likely the flavors, notes, and aromas will be the characteristics to go first. The way the doors close, the placement of the switches just where you want them, the height of the steps, or the dog house over the engine is not quite the right shape or too high for your preference. Nothing that will be unsafe or noncompliant—good builders won’t do that—but different.

I worry that fire trucks will sudden be like GMC pickup trucks being largely rebadged Chevrolets with a couple of different options.

I hope apparatus makers remember many firefighters are fussy when it comes to their apparatus. Manufacturers need to develop ways to keep the unique characteristics of apparatus to maintain brand loyalty. In my fire station, the three front-line apparatus were all built by the same maker. Two of them I helped write the specifications for.

Customer preferences are important in any business, particularly the fire service. Let’s hope manufacturers wake up and smell the coffee, realizing that generic and homogenized trucks are not everyone’s cup of tea.

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