Straight Talk: November 2014
By Kevin Foster
Departments use different methods to tackle the apparatus-design process.
By this point in the year, many departments are well into, or perhaps have completed, the budget process for 2015, while others are gearing up for it. Either way, I expect now that this edition has landed on your desk, lunchroom, coffee table or other reading place, it will provide some inspiration to those who are in the market for apparatuses in the coming year or two. Seeing what other departments have just received and from whom is a good place to start, but not all departments have the financial resources to buy new trucks. And if you do, do you really need what the department in the next community or region just got?
Years ago, as a new fire chief, the department for which I worked found itself with multiple trucks that failed safety inspections and another that had a catastrophic pump failure. All these issues occurred within months of each other, resulting in almost a complete fleet turnover. When I was with another department, there was a solid replacement program supported by financial reserves, so we simply designed the vehicles, went through the tender process and ordered the trucks. Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes is the need to replace numerous apparatus but also time to space out the purchases.
Although each truck-buying situation has a different set of circumstances, the starting point is essentially the same: a review of the needs of the department, the community and the overall municipal state of affairs.
Of course, the analysis may not always go in that order. The available financial resources may limit purchasing options. Having faced this situation, I used a number of strategies to combat the circumstances, including scaling back the size of apparatuses combined with a revised dispatching model, long-term financing, short-term financing, refurbishing aging trucks and buying used vehicles, just to name a few. Typically, regardless of the chosen strategy, some individuals in the department will need some time to become comfortable with and supportive of the approach.
Understanding the geography of the community, the building stock and associated risks and the department’s operating procedures help to determine the types of features required or not required on the apparatus. For example, two similar departments may be considering buying tanker trucks; one may use a porta-a-tank water-supply system, thus preferring a water tender while the other relays water from its delivery tanker to the fire line pumper, so a pumper/tanker may be the vehicle of choice. Neither is wrong if it best suits the situation.
Typically, a fire truck is purchased with an anticipated service life. That projected service life differs from community to community, but I am relatively confident in saying that, regardless of the replacement schedule for an apparatus, the community in which it is in service will change significantly between apparatus purchases. It is not always effective to replace a rescue with a rescue; perhaps a rescue pumper would be a more effective use of resources. Also, consider what might complement a neighbouring community. Working co-operatively could effectively provide service to both areas. For example, if two neighbouring, urban-type communities have aerial apparatuses, wouldn’t it be beneficial for both communities if one is a platform and the other a ladder? Perhaps the departments would find situations in which one is more effective than the other.
Compromises may be necessary to balance all of the factors that are in play when considering an apparatus acquisition. But there is one matter that cannot be compromised: firefighter safety. Apparatus construction, testing, and maintenance codes and standards are developed with the intent to eliminate or mitigate firefighter injuries and fatalities. This translates into improved safety for other drivers on the road. One of the leading causes of firefighter injuries and fatalities is vehicle crashes and the majority are apparatus incidents.
Don’t measure your department by whether it has the newest trucks, by the amount of chrome, or whether you have the most technologically advanced unit available. Be proud to safely and efficiently use whatever apparatuses you have to protect your community and your fellow firefighters.
I wrote this while thinking of former St. Catharines, Ont., Fire Chief Mark Mehlenbacher, who passed away in July, having lost his battle with cancer. I first met Mark when I was buying a used truck from his department. I could always call on Mark for advice or an opinion; he willingly shared his experiences, whether they were good, bad or ugly, whenever it would help. I am honoured to have known him as a colleague and friend.
Kevin Foster is the fire chief in Midland, Ont. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @midlanddfsem