Fire Fighting in Canada

Truck know-how

In September’s Truck Tech column we discussed the fact the cost of fire trucks has increased by about $46,000 since 2006 due to new emissions standards and other criteria.

November 1, 2010 
By Chris Dennis

In September’s Truck Tech column we discussed the fact the cost of fire trucks has increased by about $46,000 since 2006 due to new emissions standards and other criteria.

Now, I want to help shed some light on the process of buying a truck, from the time the fire chief gets approval from council to when the new apparatus rolls through the bay door and onto the floor in your fire station.

Buying a fire apparatus is a complicated procedure that often takes longer than anticipated from raw chassis to finished product. Photos by Chris Dennis  

Buying a fire truck – and doing it properly – takes time and experience. Some fire departments establish truck-building committees; others depend on a few experienced personnel who know what is best and base their decisions on some of the following:

  • The community’s needs. Is your jurisdiction a concrete jungle in suburbia with lots of hydrants or a rural setup with few or no hydrants? Are there highrise buildings? Your apparatus purchase is critically important. The new truck will become your legacy and your community’s safety depends on fire apparatus reliability and performance. Fire department morale and efficiency are riding on the design and construction of the next generation of emergency vehicles that you specify and purchase. Mistakes could be costly and embarrassing. Drafting professional fire apparatus specifications is key to assuring that your municipality will get performance on which you would proudly stake your professional reputation.
  • The fire department itself. You want emergency services vehicles that are right for your job. This truck is going to be the best truck yet for your department, with state-of-the-art equipment that will assist with saving life and property and keep firefighters safe. Or at least we hope so. Consider the oft-told (and true!) story of a shiny new truck that arrived at a station but was too tall to get through the apparatus bay door. Don’t let it happen to you.
  • Make sure the truck isn’t so large that you can’t get it down every street and across every bridge in your community. What good is a fire truck if you can’t get it to the scene? Whether the truck has one drive axle or multiple axles, the infrastructure must be able to support the weight as the truck goes over the roadways.

The purchase process works in a couple of different ways; it can go out for tender, as per a spec you have put together, or there can be a request for proposals. Whatever you decide, be sure you do not overbuild the truck.


Is it here yet?
So, it’s time to build the fire truck. Wait! Have the crews heard that the department has been given the OK to buy a new truck? If so, be prepared for an onslaught similar to that parents hear while on a family vacation in the custom cruiser – Are we there yet? Are we there yet? – only you hear, Is it here yet? Is it here yet?

Dozens of decisions about details and particulars must be made during the building process.  

Depending on the manufacturer, or what kind of truck you are building, timelines for construction from the time the purchase order is created to initiate the new build to when the truck arrives at the station, will vary. For this exercise, we will keep it simple: a custom, four-door cab, a pump body with a booster tank, a foam system and storage compartments. Putting this build on paper requires time and a quiet place. The process is underway.

It takes an average of two weeks to build a truck on paper. Then, the truck goes out to tender, in most cases for 30 days. The dealer that is awarded the build is notified and authorization is given.

A custom cab is built to suit the fire department’s requirements as per the department’s specifications, so the department will meet with the selling dealer to discuss the build in detail. This is called a pre-construction meeting. If the dealer is local, this meeting may take just a week to put together. If the dealer is out of province, and if air travel is required, scheduling a time to meet could take another week, so we will say two weeks to final a pre-con meeting.

The frame rails, suspension, cab, drive line, engine, transmission, wiring harness, interior, glass and paint all now have to be put together. Each manufacturer builds at a different pace but, on average, it takes two to three weeks to create a fully functional driving cab and chassis.

Assembly line
Scheduling the truck to go onto the assembly line is another matter to be taken into consideration. The wait for assembly depends on how busy the chassis builder is; we will say five weeks from when the order was placed to when the first bolt is put into the truck.

Let’s look how much time this has taken so far:

  • Two weeks to spec;
  • Four weeks for the tender process;
  • Two weeks to arrange and complete out of town pre-con meeting;
  • Five weeks to schedule a position on the assembly line;
  • Three weeks to assemble cab and chassi;
  • Total: Sixteen weeks, or four months.
It takes about five months to build a truck from start to finish.  

If the custom cab builder is also the body builder, the timeline will be greatly reduced as everything is done under one roof. A few examples of custom cab and body builders are Pierce, KME and Ferrera. If we look only at the time to build the unit it may take just 90 days, again, depending on specifications and the manufacturer.

In our example, the cab is a separate entity from the body so the build time is slightly longer. Once the chassis has arrived at the body builder, the rough and unfinished body is assembled on the chassis. Even with modules, this takes about two to three weeks. Then, the fire department is invited back to the body builder to perform pre-paint inspection on the body portion of the apparatus. This takes a day to do but may take longer if flights are involved.

By this time, a few months have passed since the tender was awarded. If the department decides it wants to add a few things to the pump body, a change order is created and authorized by the department and the truck goes back into the assembly.

About two weeks later, if all has gone well, the department goes back to the apparatus body builder and performs a final inspection. This inspection must be thorough. Anything missed here cannot be done after the department takes delivery without it costing money, as you will sign off on this new truck and indicate that everything has been done to specification, down to every stainless steel screw and every measurement of material. You will check that instruments are in the correct measurement – imperial or metric – that all NFPA requirements and UL or ULC certifications have been met, that pump configurations – including something as small as chains and caps  – are all accounted for. And all this takes time. One final truck inspection should take eight hours to complete correctly at the body builder.

At the end of the day, some changes are made, some corrections are written down and, in a few more days, the truck is delivered to the department. Here’s an updated look at the time after the first 16 weeks:

  • Two weeks pre-paint inspection;
  • Two weeks to paint and add change orders;
  • Total: Twenty weeks, or five months.

In my experience, six to eight months is an average from beginning to end based on this chassis and apparatus build. A standard NFPA-compliant fire truck may take three to four months. This number may differ with each builder.

Once the truck arrives, the atmosphere changes around the station and everyone wants to know when it will be in service. The old truck is safe but beyond its life cycle. If the truck was spec’d and built with body graphics complete, communications installed (i.e. radio), and all other creature comforts your department uses – such as mounting brackets for tools and heavy hydraulics set up – you may think the truck is ready for service. No it is not. This truck is so far advanced from the old one that the firefighters need to be trained. Bringing people in to train the trainer works but that costs money, so that may not be feasible with overtime constraints. That means it may take a week or two to do hands-on training with four platoons. And, if your department has a mechanical division, it will want to become familiar with new technology such as regeneration, computer diagnostics and electronic pump controls, and this can take another couple of days.

Building a custom fire truck is complicated. But it’s worth the wait if you do the necessary research and ask all the right questions.

(To see the September column on the cost of fire apparatus go to and click on past issues, then Fire Fighting in Canada, then September, then Truck Tech.)

Chris Dennis is the chief mechanical officer for Vaughan Fire & Rescue Service in Ontario.

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