When the topic of rural fire apparatus comes up, what comes to mind? Engines with large water tanks? Wildland/urban interface (WUI) rigs? Off-road vehicles? Many in our fire service family protect rural areas, either exclusively or as a part of their responsibility or mutual-aid response. Choosing the right apparatus to respond to rural incidents is critical to an effective response, and there are many lessons that can be learned from the various apparatus that protect our rural areas.
Note: I’m sure that you have your own ideas and input when it comes to rural apparatus, so I encourage you to 1) brainstorm innovative ways to improve and/or change this type of vehicle, and 2) share your thoughts with those who deal with rural issues on a daily basis.
Here are a few key lessons learned, as well as things to consider when purchasing an apparatus for rural response.
One of the best lessons learned comes from a department that purchased a new engine and discovered that due to the angle of departure, they were unable to back the new engine into the bay. This forced the department to locate land and build a new fire station. Sound ridiculous? It’s sad to say, but more than one department has realized after the fact that their new rig won’t fit into an existing station. Tip: When specifying your new rural apparatus, carefully consider how and where it will be stored, particularly if you have unusual circumstances regarding entrance to and departure from your fire station. After all, can you really justify a new fire station based on a poor purchasing decision?
Rural Water Supply
Adequate water sources/availability are primary issues in many rural areas, so being able to carry an adequate water supply to the scene is always a concern. But it’s important to remember that the weight of water adds to the gross vehicle weight (GVW), which limits the number of additional items that can be carried, including crewmembers. Several other issues must be considered when purchasing a water shuttle apparatus. These include:
- Tank size: Limits on the GVW in your community could limit your tank size.
- Pump: Although you can obtain an inexpensive “transfer” pump with many water tankers, consider spending a few thousand dollars more to upgrade to a rated fire pump. This type of pump provides increased flexibility and safety in fire operations, and will allow you to offload water faster than a construction-type pump.
- Dump valves: Need to move a lot of water fast? A dump valve is your answer. Consider placing a large square or rectangular valve on the rear and both sides of your apparatus. Remote-control valves in the cab will increase operator safety.
- Dump tank storage: If you use dump valves, a dump tank is a logical addition. Storing these tanks can be problematic, but there are various ways to ease this issue. Incorporating this storage into an apparatus design is much simpler than trying to add it in after the fact.
- Tools and equipment: Many departments find it easier to carry tools and equipment on their water supply apparatus. Hard suction, supply hose, nozzles, fittings and even ladders can be carried to get the needed equipment to the scene. Since some departments only send a water tanker on out-of-district responses, make sure your firefighters are properly equipped.
When considering the structural suppression needs of a rural area, don’t forget the basics. For example, if your rural structural response unit only carries a 12′ ladder and your rural area includes large homes, you’re limiting your crew’s capabilities and safety. Think outside the box—use ladder sizes that are different than the typical 12’/24′ combination. How about a 16′ roof ladder and a 28′ extension ladder?
Another consideration: hose and nozzle sizes that give a higher flow. I’ve seen departments respond to rural structure fires with rigs that are equipped with only 60-gpm wildland nozzles and a 1½” hose. At minimum, use a variable flow or adjustable nozzle with a higher flow and a 1¾” attack line.
Also think about the common tools you utilize on structure fires and keep them available on your rural response rigs. A crew once asked me why I outfitted a water tanker with ladders, supply hose, SCBA, tools and a rated pump. They were then called to perform an initial attack at a working structure fire, because the district engine companies were committed on other incidents. The point: Always have a back-up plan.
Although the WUI isn’t the only responsibility for rural responders, it’s often a priority. Departments must consider all the risks that they handle and not classify a rural unit to only handle wildland incidents. How often have you started to respond to a wildland fire, only to be diverted to a structure fire or traffic accident? One older captain once told me, “Take all of your gear, all of the time.” Some firefighters assume that if they’re responding to a wildland fire, they don’t need to take their structural PPE with them. Wrong.
That said, obviously, this gear takes up space. To counteract this: When buying a pick-up-type wildland response vehicle, buy a crew cab. This gives added storage space for gear as well as an extra firefighter. Tip: Check your state or federal mutual agreements and contracts for specific requirements for apparatus. You could learn the hard way after purchasing a new WUI vehicle that it doesn’t meet your mutual-aid requirements.
EMS & Rescue
Although EMS and rescue make up 80% or more of our responses, some departments outfit rural apparatus with EMS and rescue equipment after they’ve purchased the rig. Some of this equipment is bulky and heavy, so it’s better to plan these compartments in advance. Some rural ALS departments have had to sacrifice other equipment to carry all the equipment needed by their paramedic crews. Tip: Pre-planning and involving your EMS personnel in the specification process will go a long way in properly outfitting a rig.
There’s typically no “multi-purpose” unit that can handle all the various tasks required in rural fire protection. When speccing out rural apparatus, take into consideration the weight of the responders and their PPE to avoid exceeding the GVW. In the event of a vehicle accident, you can bet that the actual weight versus the GVW will become a factor during an investigation and resulting litigation down the road. Some departments automatically think they need a 4 x 4 for rural response, but because this upgrade can increase the cost of a vehicle by up to $50,000, see if you can get by without it and add components that you really need.
Tip: To determine what equipment you should carry, refer to NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus’s Equipment List; Insurance Services Office (ISO) Equipment Lists and Equivalency Lists; and the National Wildfire Coordination Group (NWCG) Equipment Lists as a basis for your minimum needs. Obviously, your local needs will also come into play and help you determine what you need to carry. Remember: It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate any incident if you don’t have the right tools to do the job.
Until next time, stay safe!