Fire Fighting in Canada

Why fire trucks cost more


Why fire trucks cost more
The way we buy fire trucks has changed but one question remains constant: How much? Truck Tech columnist Chris Dennis examines the myriad factors that have increased the price of apparatuses and explains how to convince city council that you need more money.

September 20, 2010 
By Chris Dennis

September 2010 – There was a time when buying a new fire truck was exciting. Along with the purchase came the thrill of knowing that a new rig was going to be born; something that was created by a group of people who would talk about a big fire, remembering when they could have used more water, or if only they’d had enough space to carry that one piece of equipment they had saved so long to buy. The way we buy trucks has changed but one question remains constant: How much?

Photo 1: To clean the DPF unit  it must be removed and taken to an authorized dealer to be vacuumed, or the truck must be taken to a dealer, where the unit can be removed and vacuumed – at your cost.
Photos by Chris Dennis


As the chief mechanical officer for the City of Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service in Ontario, one of my jobs is to spec and build fire trucks. I listen to the crews’ likes and dislikes and I take this information and pass it on through the chain of command. I hope to shed some light on a few items that have driven up the cost of these beautiful machines.

Let’s talk first about commercial firefighting trucks. These are the cabs and chassis made by manufacturers such as Freightliner, International, Kenworth, Peterbilt and Mack. I will refer to these chassis as commercial-cab fire trucks. For those fire departments that build their commercial apparatus around the latest NFPA standards, the commercial chassis manufacturer of choice has been narrowed to  International. To build a body on this chassis and remain compliant, departments must look at apparatus manufacturers that are not only NFPA standard compliant, but are Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC) certified when built.

Departments can determine the price of the chassis they want by calling the dealer of choice and asking how much. They’ll tell you somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000, depending on, well, many factors.

Let’s say that in 2001 you bought a single axle Freightliner pumper with 1,000 gallons of water and a big fire pump. Back then, you didn’t have to worry about emissions or air bags – items that had become issues for the automotive sector.

Fast forward to 2006. We had heard rumblings that there would be a clampdown on diesel-engine emissions but we were surprised to hear it would include fire truck chassis. This was a wake-up call for the fire service. We learned that the engines would be slower and would burn more fuel, and we understood that buyers would have to come up with a more money to help save the environment. I am an advocate for keeping our atmosphere in one piece, but in 2006 we had to tell our councils that trucks were going to be $25,000 more expensive because we were running greener businesses and, to do our part in the eyes of the public, we had to pay more for an emissions-friendly truck.

This changed the way departments approached councils about apparatus purchases and meant that our firefighters and mechanical divisions would have to be educated, because driving techniques and repair techniques were changing. This, of course, meant more training costs.

The commercial fire chassis builders had to put engines in their trucks that could meet these tough emissions standards, and along with that, change the way the engines burn exhaust gasses. The chassis makers were able to meet these emissions levels by collecting unburned gas particles in a diesel particulate filter, or DPF. This is where the emissions would be stored to a point where, through a series of sensors, the engine would determine that the particulates were becoming backed up in the filter and had to be returned one more time.

Each engine manufacturer has its own way of doing this, but basically, the engine goes into a function called regeneration or regen. While we drive the truck, the engine’s electronic control unit or module (ECU or ECM) monitors the DPF function. This computer senses that while the engine is running, it must begin the regen function to keep tailpipe gasses down. At road speeds of five kilometres or higher (and not in a fire apparatus engaged control; i.e. pump gear or PTO function), the engine goes into regen. In most cases, the driver is not aware that this is happening.

Photo 2: On a commercial chassis, the DPF unit is mounted close to the turbo-charger side of the engine and takes up space under the cab, which means there is no room for an extra fuel tank.
Photos by Chris Dennis


The emissions change and upgrade adds a whopping $16,000 to $20,000 per truck. But these filters need to be maintained, and drivers need to understand what the new warning lights on the dash and the extra switches are for. Training time is money out of the budget to educate drivers about how the truck will function and how drivers should react when these lights come on. If your department is blessed to have an in-house mechanical division, any questions the drivers may have can be asked and, hopefully, answered right away, without removing the truck from service. If your department depends on outside repair shops for these answers, you may be taking the trucks out of service more often to have these questions answered. Time costs money. Council must be made aware of these things so that budgets can be increased.

I mentioned that the DPF unit needs to be maintained. So, as per the manufacturer recommendations, just vacuum it out. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds. You have to either remove the DPF unit (see photo 1) and take it to an authorized dealer to be vacuumed, or drive the truck to a dealer, where it can be removed and vacuumed – at your cost. Cleaning the filter requires a specialized piece of equipment that is not easily available for purchase. So, once again, we’re looking at more money to maintain the exhaust system.

On a commercial chassis, the DPF unit is mounted close to the turbo-charger side of the engine (see photo 2). The DPF now takes up space under the cab on the right side of the truck, which means there is no longer space for an extra fuel tank. On a highway truck, this is a simple fix: move the passenger-side fuel tank behind the cab on the frame rail. But this is a commercial chassis for a pumper with a body that comes all the way down around the frame rails, and a midship fire pump that is almost right behind the cab. Where does the right side fuel tank go now, you ask? Simple. It moves to the driver’s side. OK, then, where do the batteries go? Get the picture? The commercial chassis, when equipped with the DPF unit, needs some alterations.

Let’s now compare the above information with the custom fire chassis builder. For a custom chassis, the manufacturer starts with a set of frame rails and builds the truck from the ground up by hand. The spec builder decides on the type of front and rear suspensions and the engine (prior to 2009) transmission, cab, rear axles, brakes, seating and instrumentation – the options are almost endless. The chassis in the custom line up, for the most part, are all NFPA compliant, but be sure to ask whether your department stands by the standards set out by NFPA. This may determine right away which custom chassis you choose. Now for the big advantage: custom chassis offer more room in which to position the DPF unit under the truck. This is great news, but now you have to go to council and convince the politicians that a commercial chassis is no longer the best way to spec a truck. Custom cabs offer many options not available commercially – for example, seating arrangement, safety interlocks, crash testing and rollover stability – all of which are included in NFPA standards. All we need, of course, to do this is an extra $16,000 to $20,000, in addition to the $80,000 we had put aside for the commercial chassis.

So, before 2006, a custom chassis cost about $125,000 for a single axle. The emissions alone after 2006 drove this cost to more than $150,000, without a body or additional NFPA standards.

Leading up to this year, the over-the-road trucking industry was told that if it was going to build commercial or custom chassis fire trucks, it had to emit .01 emissions from the tailpipe, the same as the other engine builders. Caterpillar pulled out of the over-the-road trucking industry altogether, and Detroit Diesel decided it would fade out the 60-series engine from the custom fire truck chassis. The 2010 emissions requirements have greatly decreased the number of original equipment manufacturers in the fire truck market.

Another tool being used for emissions control is a diesel fluid known as urea.  Urea is an organic compound with the chemical formula (NH2)2CO. It is a solution made up of purified water and 32.5 per cent urea. Urea is also called Diesel Engine Fluid (DEF). Using this process to control emissions involves injecting a water-based DEF solution into the exhaust system. The ammonia produced by the hydrolysis of the urea reacts with the nitrogen oxide emissions and is converted into nitrogen and water within the selective catalytic converter (SCR). These enhanced emission control processes involve more sensors and more warning lights for the driver. Once again, training means money.

Something else to think about: urea contains more water than product, and, for most Canadian fire departments, this means it can freeze in the winter. That means the urea needs to be housed in a controlled environment, and the tank on the truck has to be heated, increasing the price again.

And there’s still the problem of where to put a fire pump. This is a huge challenge for commercial and custom fire truck builders. Oh, and don’t forget that the engineers and designers trying to figure out how to incorporate all these changes into truck designs have to be paid, and that, of course, adds to the cost of the truck.

The purpose of this column is to help you budget for a new truck and understand the associated costs of maintaining and running the apparatus. When we are sitting around talking about the big one, or what we could have done if we had had this piece or that piece of equipment, let’s think about how we are going to sell council on the custom or commercial truck purchase – how much indeed.

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

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