Speccing Rural Fire Apparatus

Issue 3 and Volume 8.

The purchase of a fire vehicle for a rural community is a critical decision. Tens of thousands of dollars is a huge expenditure, particularly in a stressed economy, and any apparatus purchase will have a long-term impact on the community, both financially and in terms of the service that the unit will provide. Before making the purchase, it is important to develop a specification that outlines exactly what you need, easing the decision-making process.

Needs Assessment & Timeframe
When making a large purchase like a new apparatus, the first step is determining the community needs. Although this may seem like a daunting task for a rural department with a predominately volunteer staff, a needs assessment can be a simple document that includes input from:
•    Community members
•    Responders
•    Mutual/automatic-aid partners
•    Regional fire/EMS coordinators
•    Insurance representatives from the Insurance Services Office (ISO) and/or your insurance carrier

Building a committee to tackle this task will make the job of determining your community’s apparatus needs much easier. To form an apparatus committee, select individuals who have knowledge of both the community and its fire protection needs. Although many departments’ committees are composed of fire service members exclusively, it is important to obtain input from other areas of the community as well.

Don’t be surprised if you come up with multiple needs for one vehicle. Industry experts agree that we will see more multi-use vehicles purchased this year, as the country’s economic conditions continue to put a strain on community finances. Multi-use vehicles include rescue-pumpers or pumper-tanker/tenders. With many emergency service organizations (ESOs) providing a variety of services, including fire and EMS, multi-purpose vehicles make sense from financial and operational standpoints.

Naturally, conducting a needs assessment will take some time. Also keep in mind that the build time for a new unit will be six to 12 months depending on the manufacturer. Buying a new vehicle for your community requires investments of time and money, so make sure everyone involved knows this up front.

Funding Sources
So, where are you going to find the money to pay for a new unit? Some departments have apparatus reserves, while others rely on grants. Another consideration is the lease-purchase option. Currently, money is cheap to borrow, and you may be able to find a lease-purchase that stretches over several years, allowing your department to pay annual installments. This is much easier than coming up with hundreds of thousands of dollars up front. Speak with a manufacturer or lender about your department’s options. The FIRE Act grant program is an obvious option; however, competition for these funds is stiff, and dollars are limited. Finding a reputable grant writer may help, but this will take time. If your apparatus needs are more immediate, you may want to go with the lease-purchase option.

Do Your Research
According to the NFPA, there are more than 30,000 fire departments in the United States. This means that you’re not alone in your quest for a new vehicle. Many departments are in a similar situation or have encountered similar issues in the past, so why develop your specification in a vacuum? Take advantage of the value of others’ knowledge. Doing an Internet search to find a similar vehicle or issue may shave hours or days of research off your project. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from your neighboring departments, as they may have been through this process in the past. Mutual aid doesn’t only apply on the fireground; it applies to sharing knowledge as well.

There are three primary sources of information that you use to develop your specification.
1.    NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus (2009 edition) is the current industry standard for speccing apparatus and equipment. Following this standard will go a long way in helping obtain the right vehicle for your organization. When crafting your specification, include the phrasing, “Apparatus must meet current NFPA 1901 Standards.” This will help the manufacturer know what you are looking for.
2.    Another primary source of information is the ISO. Following ISO apparatus guidelines will make a big difference in your community’s ISO’s Public Protection Classification (PPC) Program. What is that? It’s the basis for your community’s fire protection rating and the tool many insurance companies use to determine the premiums paid by property owners. While some naysayers will argue that ISO doesn’t matter, more and more departments are finding that it does matter. After all, ISO is the primary tool that allows our departments to be evaluated in most states, and the resulting insurance premiums should be the primary concern of all departments. Without ISO, all communities would have high premiums, regardless of their fire protection. Read and understand the ISO apparatus portion of the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS), which is available at www.iso.com/Products/Public-Protection-Classification-Service/Fire-Suppression-Rating-Schedule-FSRS-manual-for-PPC-grading.html.
3.    Lastly, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) library (www.lrc.fema.gov) is a valuable resource to assist in preparing a specification. For example, if you’re specifying a water tender/tanker, you may want to search the USFA library for “mobile water supply apparatus.” A search will reveal multiple references that will make your job easier.

There are hundreds of other resources out there to assist you in this process. Use your imagination and you may find one that works well for your department.

Contact Manufacturers
There are a variety of great apparatus manufacturers to choose from. But how do you choose? There are numerous factors to consider, including location and reputation, but it really starts with your needs assessment. For example, if you determined that you need a 1,500-gpm pump for your new apparatus, don’t compromise your community’s needs simply to allow a particular manufacturer to make a sale. Your community’s needs come first, and you have been entrusted to spend public funds wisely—so choose your manufacturer wisely.

Choosing a specialty manufacturer may seem like a good idea, but if it’s 3,000 miles away, how are they going to service your warranty and repair needs when they arise? Larger manufacturers often have regional service centers. In the long run, choosing a regional manufacturer that’s close to your department and familiar with local needs may be better than choosing a major manufacturer that has a stellar reputation but doesn’t have a local dealer.

Some communities choose to use one manufacturer in order to simplify fleet maintenance. For the small, rural department, this may not be critical because they don’t have as many vehicles as their larger neighbors. Although using one manufacturer may make sense due to stocking common parts, such as filters and other maintenance components, driving across three states to get your vehicle repaired may not be the best idea. If several departments are buying from one manufacturer, another consideration may be to have a service center for a manufacturer established at a larger neighboring department. As with others aspects of this process, doing your homework up front can reap huge rewards in the long run.

Your local apparatus representative can outline the pros and cons of their company, allowing you to make an educated decision. Collect manufacturer literature, and do as much homework up front to weed out manufacturers that do not meet your needs.

Building the Specification
Once you’ve done your research and (hopefully) found several interested manufacturers, it’s time to start building your specification. Some manufacturers offer programs to help departments through this process, or you can use the templates you found during your research. Further, some of the larger manufacturers offer an online specification builder. This can help you establish the basics prior to finalizing your specification. In any case, be clear on your community’s needs. You may find that a manufacturer offers a “pre-engineered” or “stock” program that uses common components to help build a unit. This can reduce your costs considerably and is a good option to explore. But once again, don’t compromise your department’s needs for the sake of the manufacturer. In some cases, you will need a custom-designed unit due to wheelbase, vehicle height/weight, weather or other issues. All of these items should have been identified in the needs assessment.

Additionally, when speccing your vehicle, don’t forget 1) state DMV requirements for commercial vehicles, 2)local bridge and tunnel limits and 3) the size of your existing fire station, and the angles of departure on your driveways. Nothing is more embarrassing than buying a new apparatus and then not being able to get it into the building.

Specification Options
This is where you start adding all the bells and whistles. Start with your chassis and work from there, keeping in mind how various components impact vehicle response. For example, having an underpowered vehicle with a large water tank will increase your response times. Once you add weight for hose and equipment, things only get worse. Hopefully, you determined this need back in the needs assessment phase and you already know the right type of chassis for the job.

You should also know what ancillary equipment you will need to add, such as generators, foams systems, hydraulic ladder racks—and  don’t forget about things like brackets to mount everything. Nothing will destroy the inside of a compartment faster than loose tools. Fortunately, some manufacturers offer equipment packages to simplify this process. Other options to consider when speccing apparatus include:
•    Chassis style and horsepower
•    Water tank and pump sizes
•    Foam systems
•    Hose capacity
•    Generators and lighting for night operations
•    Rescue equipment
•    Body and compartment size and style
•    EMS equipment storage
These and other issues must be considered and addressed by your committee.

Bid Process
Most organizations have a purchasing process. If not, you should develop one prior to buying a new piece of apparatus. Good purchasing guidelines will help you buy the right unit while protecting those valuable public funds. For assistance in this matter, contact your local county attorney or seek local legal advice. This process should include how the award is made. You may be required to obtain three bids, but only receive two. In that case, document your efforts to keep the auditor happy if/when you’re audited to prevent any implication of favoritism. Do you have to take the low bid? In some instances, the answer is no, particularly if the specifications were not met. This is why it is so critical to clearly delineate the purchasing requirements during the specification process.

Other Options
If your budget is limited, you may be able to locate a good quality, used apparatus that meets your local needs. Some departments sell off or trade in vehicles that still have many years of useful service, giving rural departments the opportunity to find a vehicle that meets their needs at a reasonable cost. There are multiple used apparatus dealers across the United States ready to serve your needs. In addition, buying a used vehicle will save on delivery time, allowing you to get that “gently used” apparatus in service faster.

Another option to consider is a joint-use apparatus. Some communities have separate fire and EMS agencies that share facilities. Why not pool your finances and buy a joint-use, multi-purpose vehicle? Some counties have Joint Powers Authorities (JPAs) that do this with hazmat, USAR and other specialized vehicles. Why shouldn’t the rural departments learn from our larger siblings?

Hidden Costs
When purchasing an apparatus, beware of hidden and long-term costs related to sales tax, delivery costs, inspection trips, insurance, increased fuel and maintenance costs. All these things must be budgeted for in advance. You may be replacing two apparatus with one new multi-purpose vehicle, with the thought that some costs will be reduced. But, as stated many times, do your homework! There may be an increase in insurance premiums in the future if your new unit is worth much more than the two older units.

A new emergency vehicle will be a source of pride for your community and your department. Taking the time to specify something that is useful will help instill that sense of pride. Do your research and specify the right vehicle for your community. You’ll have to live with your decision for years to come. Stay safe!