Why so big? - Fire truck design

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This has bugged me as I watched numerous fire departments and municipalities raise taxes to fund new fire stations and vehicles over the past ten years or so.

Glendale was a recent example. The town of 5,000 passed an $8M bond issue on the grounds that the fire station was "functionally obsolete." Why? Was it falling down? No. Did electrical or plumbing needs exceed the cost of a new building? No. Was it unsafe? No.

It was obsolete because Glendale had a replacement fire truck - and it was matter-of-factly stated that fire trucks are simply larger and heavier now, and that he old fire station couldn't physically accommodate it.

But why?

Even the most aggressive estimates show that only 4% of calls to fire departments are structure fires (according to the NFPA). There are fewer structure fires of consequence now as compared to any time in history. The need to send out actual firefighting apparatus continues to diminish.

In order to bolster their perceived demand, fire departments regularly send a huge fire truck laden with 500+ gallons of water and three crew on routine medical calls, even when an ambulance is already on the way - comprising most of their calls.

Not only do larger trucks need bigger, otherwise unnecessary new buildings (Glendale had to tear down houses to accommodate the new station) - but they use more fuel, cost more, cause more road damage, and affect road geometry for decades. Decisions on the layout of entire streets and subdivisions are made based on the length and turning radius of new vehicles.

I'm glad to see this getting some attention around the country, but for the St Louis Metro area, it still seems like "bigger is better."
While it goes without saying that departments shouldn't impair their firefighting capabilities, smaller vehicles could respond effectively to most calls. "Some places, like Beaufort County in South Carolina, have opted for smaller 'all purpose response' vehicles. In 2010, its fire department had to replace three fire trucks, which would have cost them $1.4 million total. Instead the department ended up buying one new fire truck and replacing the other two with all-purpose cars the size of a pickup truck, paying just $675,000."
http://www.citylab.com/design/2016/01/f ... et/425142/

Seems like moving in this direction would not only save money but give redundancy and flexibility to fire departments.
Fire Departments have been fleecing America for awhile now. And all the while Fire calls have dropped substantially. I won't vote for an increase in taxes for fire needs ever again.


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Sending an ALS-certified apparatus along with an ALS ambulance is the SOP for all ALS medical calls, which is why some form of apparatus always goes out with the ambulance. Usually redundant, but there are often cases where the extra personnel and equipment are needed.

As for structure fires, the most important apparatus - by far - are ladder trucks, which are almost always larger than engines (for obvious reasons). These really do need the size, as they need to carry a large (usually minimum 75') ladder, a large crew component, and many specialized tools for vertical operations. In urban areas, this is especially so - why it may seem wasteful to have a 125' for a 2-story house in a city's outlying areas, there is a very real possibility that they'll need those ladder resources sometime. The engines are typically built to accommodate the ladders pump wise and to carry enormous amounts of hoses; the on-board water tanks usually won't even give you five minute's worth of fire-fighting capability, depending on line size and pressure. Many engines also serve as rescue vehicles and carry a lot of specialized equipment to free up other resources. I mean, if the station already has to be big enough to accommodate the ladder, why bother shrinking the engine? Heavy rescues (usually very large trucks) are typically more efficient than light rescues - it's easier to consolidate all that equipment into one larger vehicle and dispatch it as needed than to have a bunch of smaller units that do the same thing but not quite as well in most instances. Eventually, you'd still run into the same problems with stations - you'd have so many smaller vehicles that you'd need more station space.

Another thing you'd lose with smaller trucks is accident protection - a lot of the reason why fire trucks (other than rescue equipment) respond to MVA's is to provide a barrier between the accident scene and traffic so that secondary crashes are less of a threat to first responders - what better to stop a car than an enormous truck?

The reason Europe and Asia tend to have smaller apparatus is primarily due to the lack of maneuvering space in the narrower, older urban areas prevalent in both continents, Europe in particular. And believe me, they can really clog up an emergency area with all those extra units.
Saying "we send a fire truck with an ambulance because it's SOP" is circular reasoning. That's like saying "The sky is blue because it exhibits a cerulean hue." I don't really buy the reasoning of sending along a pumper with an ambulance as a matter of routine and agree with the departments that sending along a small support vehicle is actually more than sufficient (and usually overkill itself).

I think we're all avoiding the elephant in the room so I'll just say it: fire departments are sending out more equipment on calls in order to keep call numbers up. A few weeks ago, I watched an ambulance as it pulled into a sporting event to transport a player on the field with an injury. After it had the person stabilized, tied down, and loaded, a fire engine wailed in the distance. The ambulance pulled away and reached the gated entrance to the facility (a private school). The fire engine had accidentally wedged itself at the entrance trying to make the turn into the gate (as opposed to coming directly into the gate through the 4-way intersection). There was absolutely no reason for it to be there, and in fact it prevented the ambulance from leaving while it did several three-point turns to unwedge itself. The firefighter were needed as they jumped out of the truck and directed the driver as he manipulated the truck out of the entrance and destroyed a curb in the process. There was no reason to send it; the ambulance was already leaving.

This is the same reason some fire departments run "code" when changing smoke detector batteries. I watched it happen myself, and listen incredulously when the FF explained the reason - guess what, those numbers were later used when requesting a tax increase.

It was smart of fire departments interested in maintaining their funding for their very important but decreasing role to conflate medical care and firefighting. After all, while the number of fires plummeted, people will always need medical care. But IMO it's gone too far.

Nobody is complaining about ladder trucks.

I have to believe that buying a larger, million dollar piece of equipment to serve as a slightly larger buffer from cars isn't terribly cost efficient either. Saying a pumper can be used as a barrier as a justification for buying an even larger pumper is, sorry, asinine. Seriously, you want to pay for, fuel, and drag around and maneuver extra tons of weight and length 365 days a year because having an even bigger pumper can be a better barrier than a normal sized pumper??

Then again, I don't think anyone is complaining about sending a fire engine to a motor vehicle accident in general, and nobody else is conflating the specific example of a car accident with ALL routine medical calls.

Sorry, but most of this just bolsters my distaste for buying, maintaining, and increasing the size of larger and larger apparatus as a matter of routine. The justification used to maintain the status quo convinces me of that.
As a previous volunteer firefighter, I can tell you that the theory and reasoning behind having apparatus such as Engines or Towers certified as ALS response units and sending them along with ambulances is:

1) Extra hands are useful. I can't tell you how many times I responded to calls for an individual who simply needed help off the ground to arrive and find them completely unresponsive and not breathing. Two people performing CPR, starting an IV, placing them on a backboard, transporting them to an ambulance, etc etc etc isn't as effective as it is having 4 or 5. Our standard procedure was to ALWAYS send a fire response unit (Engine and/or Tower) along with a rescue unit on EVERY medical call.

2) You never know what call for service will come in when. You could be responding to a patient with a heart attack and get dispatched to a structure fire immediately after. Or vice versa... you could be cleaning up at a house fire and then get a call for a fatal car crash and have to go straight there. For this reason we made EVERY fire response unit ALS certified (minus a brush truck...but that's a different purpose all together).

Claiming that fire departments are "fleecing" tax payers is absolutely naive and to be frank, dangerous. And I actually do side with the reasoning about having a larger pumper. If they respond to crashes on an interstate and their previous pumper was in fact a quint or some brush truck style unit then yeah they actually do need a larger apparatus for safety reasons. It's not just to act as a buffer... remember that firetrucks are essentially mobile tool boxes. Extra space = extra room for more equipment such as extraction tools or shoring equipment for unstable structures and vehicles. Even as a volunteer firefighter for a district that served about 10,000 people in central Illinois we were looking to get bigger and create operational flexibility.

I'd be more than happy to sit down and discuss this in person with anyone who wants to ask questions. Obviously every department has their own SOP and we know first hand that some spending is wasteful. I just don't think this is one of those cases.
If they respond to crashes on an interstate and their previous pumper was in fact a quint or some brush truck style unit then yeah they actually do need a larger apparatus for safety reasons.
We all know that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about replacing a large pumper, the size of which has adequately served a community for decades. And, it goes almost without saying, a community that hasn't grown a single square inch or person in population, and one in which structure fires have been reduced to almost zero.

And not just replacing it, but replacing it with something even larger - to the point of having to build a larger building, tear down houses, and redo street geometry to accommodate it. It's indefensible.

Progressive fire departments already realize this and are adapting. It's not like it's just ignorant "civilians" crowing about things they know nothing about. It's just that local fire departments haven't caught on, and are more interested in defending the status quo as though questioning the increasing size of fire equipment is an attach on their livelihoods. It's not - in fact, it's a desire to make fire suppression sustainable even though it's becoming more and more rare.

Part of it is driven by the ISO rating metric - which is actually not very important in setting insurance premiums. Yet they chase it like it's the most important metric. I've personally spoken with a fire chief who said reducing the district's ISO rating was one of his most important goals. To wit:
Every fire department states that their first priority is life safety. So why do fire departments continue to chase the holy grail of lower property insurance rates for their community by improving their ISO rating? The pursuit of which has fire department leaders purchasing fire apparatus that might not meet its operational needs.

"If life is indeed a greater priority over property, North County Fire District should look at its highest life loss problems. Currently, (and not identified by this study), vehicle accidents account for over a dozen deaths in the District's service area," Orman wrote. "Additional focus on this problem may be an effective option. Investment in equipment, training, and personnel to improve the mortality of accident victims may be beneficial."

So if your department's ISO rating is not as important as it was once thought to be, what's holding your department back from designing fire apparatus specs that better meet your operational needs, save money, and can be driven down the streets in your city or town?
https://www.firechief.com/2016/03/16/ar ... s-too-big/
Rapid response
Rapid Response Vehicles are not a new phenomenon. Departments across the country have experimented with using smaller vehicles — ranging from four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs to small- and medium-sized vans. These are primarily for EMS responses, but also for calls where sending a Type I engine is a case of overkill.

Those departments were probably focused on reducing the wear and tear on those expensive Type I engines and reducing their fleet operating costs. They likely gave little thought to creating a new vehicle type that was designed with their current mission in mind.

As public sector spending cuts are restricting budgets, fire chiefs and fleet managers are looking for the best cost-effective solutions to maximize efficiency and productivity

https://www.firerescue1.com/fire-produc ... d-economy/
I mean, you kind of skipped past a lot of my points regarding number of personnel and additional tools and are instead focusing on the size aspect... which I need to know more about the specific department, previous apparatus, new apparatus, etc etc. But if you're focusing solely on the height and width of fire trucks rather than a sky why area departments don't consolidate then I think you're asking the wrong questions.

We could save so much more money from consolidation than we could nit picking the modernization of apparatus by demanding the go with "smaller" units.
chaifetz10 wrote:
Fri Apr 21, 2017 9:35 am
I mean, you kind of skipped past a lot of my points regarding number of personnel and additional tools and are instead focusing on the size aspect... which I need to know more about the specific department, previous apparatus, new apparatus, etc etc. But if you're focusing solely on the height and width of fire trucks rather than a sky why area departments don't consolidate then I think you're asking the wrong questions.

We could save so much more money from consolidation than we could nit picking the modernization of apparatus by demanding the go with "smaller" units.
I have not read of a single department's inability to fit necessary extraction or life support equipment on a standard-sized pumper. That's used after the fact as justification. On the other hand, you skipped a lot of points about fire departments sending out fire apparatus in large part to secure grants and tax increases based on the number of calls they respond to.

This isn't nitpicking. This is talking about the largest purchase that some cities ever make - easily a half million dollars just for a pumper - and the cascading effect of having to redesign entire facilities and their streets just to accommodate it. Glendale is just one case in point and a perfect illustration of it.

As far as consolidation, the cost of consolidating metro area fire departments and districts was made clear by Better Together - an upfront cost in the neighborhood of $200M (!) on top of an extra 1200+ personnel, with no guarantee that it would ever save money - but justified in large part by an improved ISO rating. And most savings could be realized without merging, but cooperating on bulk purchases, which could be done today if fire departments weren't trying to outdo each other on the size of their...trucks.
We estimate the unified department would need 24 additional fire engines at a cost of $750,000 per engine. This cost does not factor in bulk discounts, based on economies of scale, which would be achieved when the unified department purchases equipment as one entity. However, a conservative estimate of fire engine costs would be $18,000,000. The purchasing of additional 32 ambulances, at a cost of $300,000 per ambulance, would be $9,600,000. The addition of two hook and ladder trucks, at a cost of $1 million each, places the projected cost at $2 million. A rough estimate of eight special operations units is included at $750,000 per unit.
....
The $169.1 million investment needs include the new firehouses, trucks, and other items.
...
As mentioned previously, the cost of hiring an estimated 1,255 new employees for the new department, fully implemented, is $100 million. The cost of fringe benefits for those employees is $56 million. This brings the grand total to $156 million for the new hires.
Given that a 'unified' fire district is based on the same premise of "more, more, more" and "bigger, bigger, bigger" that current fire departments operate under, it most certainly is not nitpicking.
I don't know of any department that purposefully inflates calls for funding. Unless you can provide a link or direct evidence then this argument is nothing more than your own opinion. Additionally, most runs are counted by the incident, not the quantity of units that responded. A house fire counts as one regardless if 1 or 4 engines respond. (That's how I've always seen it reported). I think you're mistaken on this point.
Why Send A Firetruck To Do An Ambulance's Job?

Getting answers can be difficult. That has a lot to do with the political power of fire departments and their unions — and the challenge of trying to change that.


http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shot ... mpaign=app



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chaifetz10 wrote:
Fri Apr 21, 2017 9:48 am
I don't know of any department that purposefully inflates calls for funding. Unless you can provide a link or direct evidence then this argument is nothing more than your own opinion. Additionally, most runs are counted by the incident, not the quantity of units that responded. A house fire counts as one regardless if 1 or 4 engines respond. (That's how I've always seen it reported). I think you're mistaken on this point.
I listened as the fire truck rolled up, sirens blaring, to my parents' elderly neighbors' home. They were horrified that all the neighbors came over to see if they were OK when they simply wanted their batteries replaced. I listened as the firefighter explained that they counted it as a call. You're right; I'm betting I can't find a study entitled "Methods and Procedures for Inflating Calls for the Purpose of Tax Increases" but it was pretty clear. A co-worker also called the fire department to help with the installation of a new car seat; they preferred to send out a truck (which counts as a call) rather than have them come by the fire station, which wouldn't count. I can think of no other logical explanation for that one.
That sounds like miscommunication between then dispatcher and your parents neighbor then. No fire department will roll with lights and sirens to replace a battery. I would bet good money they were dispatched for an "activated smoke alarm" which they would treat as a potential structure fire.

Not evidence that they are inflating calls for money.
chaifetz10 wrote:
Fri Apr 21, 2017 9:59 am
That sounds like miscommunication between then dispatcher and your parents neighbor then. No fire department will roll with lights and sirens to replace a battery. I would bet good money they were dispatched for an "activated smoke alarm" which they would treat as a potential structure fire.

Not evidence that they are inflating calls for money.
Incorrect. No miscommunication. The explanation was clear.

I didn't say they were inflating calls. I said they were counting many different types of calls for the purpose of justifying increased funding. "Call growth" has been the underlying reasoning beyond numerous FD and FPD tax increases. Most recently in my memory was Affton FPD making projections on increases in call volume as justification for an increase. Summaries of call volumes in other departments includes not only fire and EMS calls, but false alarm calls, service calls, "good intent" calls, and others - not just 911 calls.
downtown2007 wrote:
Fri Apr 21, 2017 9:55 am
Why Send A Firetruck To Do An Ambulance's Job?

Getting answers can be difficult. That has a lot to do with the political power of fire departments and their unions — and the challenge of trying to change that.


http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shot ... mpaign=app
I think this is basically a different issue, though I don't necessarily disagree. I've had mind-boggling conversations with firefighter union reps (with gems such as "I don't think any fire department should pay below the average firefighter salary") but here I'm not being anti-firefighter, anti-tax, or anti-public-safety. I'm just looking at the local obstinacy to progress as circumstances change over the long haul regarding firefighting equipment that's just not used as such anymore.
I'm calling BS on this.

And you are correct that all those calls count. If a unit went in service and responded, that is by definition a call. Lights and sirens are not a prerequisite. In fact, some calls require no lights or sirens (such as domestic disputes where EMS will station near the location out of sight until police clear the scene as safe).

I'll be blunt, I feel like you're fishing for a reason to paint a Fire department as financially irresponsible. Using anecdotal evidence from a few handpicked situations and presenting ideas that aren't based on reality (call volume, repsone required, etc) only makes me question your logic even further.

Don't get me wrong, we should monitor all government spending to be sure all money spent is for a true need. I have zero issues with your concerns about spending millions of dollars on a new fire house. In fact, I too would question if renovation or retrofitting would be a better solution. Doors can be made bigger and annexes built. We're totally on the same page there. I just take issue with your connect the dots argument that I find multiple hole with.

We can agree to disagree on this topic and I'll stop responding.
As I said, I'm not trying to paint fire departments as irresponsible all the way through. My first post was, in fact, about one topic exclusively: the inexplicable and seemingly endless increasing size of pumpers and the associated costs of redoing fire stations and streets to accommodate them. And how fire departments, even in the USA, have begun adapting while our locals haven't. Totally fine not going off the rails on related topics.
Some food for thought

Strong Towns - STEVE MOUZON - HOW FIRE CHIEFS AND TRAFFIC ENGINEERS MAKE PLACES LESS SAFE
Of all the urbanism specialists with tunnel vision, fire chiefs, fire marshals, and traffic engineers are probably the most dangerous. And by “dangerous,” I don’t just mean that they’re a threat to good urbanism; they also get people killed, which is exactly the opposite of what they are commissioned to do. A classic example of their silo thinking is playing out right now in Celebration, Florida, where the proposed measures of eliminating on-street parking spaces and eliminating street trees will almost certainly leave Celebration a less safe place than it is today.
https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/201 ... -less-safe
quincunx wrote:
Fri Apr 21, 2017 12:28 pm
Some food for thought

Strong Towns - STEVE MOUZON - HOW FIRE CHIEFS AND TRAFFIC ENGINEERS MAKE PLACES LESS SAFE
Of all the urbanism specialists with tunnel vision, fire chiefs, fire marshals, and traffic engineers are probably the most dangerous. And by “dangerous,” I don’t just mean that they’re a threat to good urbanism; they also get people killed, which is exactly the opposite of what they are commissioned to do. A classic example of their silo thinking is playing out right now in Celebration, Florida, where the proposed measures of eliminating on-street parking spaces and eliminating street trees will almost certainly leave Celebration a less safe place than it is today.
https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/201 ... -less-safe
Definitely - total Freakonomics material. Look at some of the new, small subdivisions with pavement four slabs wide, even on cul-de-sacs. They're effectively high speed motorways. But if your kid gets hit by a speeding vehicle, the pumper sent along with the ambulance can get to them an extra half-second more quickly.
A couple of issues in play that i know of.

Obviously trucks need replaced over time. The industry standard for truck size has increased in size over time. So if you want to order a pumper for an older engine house there are situations were the truck would have to be customized to fit rather than just ordering a standard truck. Custom tends to cost more even if its smaller but you do save on building replacement costs. I don't know whether this is the case for the situation you referenced but it does happen.

Buildings also age and if a municipality has continued to defer maintenance and upgrades over the years it can be cheaper to build new as opposed to renovate the existing firehouse. For instance it is no longer an industry standard to have a fire pole. The increased response speed is offset by the increased probability of the firemen spraining ankles when stepping of the pole and firemen have been injured by losing the pole and falling several stories creating an emergency rather than responding to it. Making the facilities accommodate female firemen is also a tough hurdle for older firehouses.

Additionally a disadvantage of renovation is that the fire departments have to operate during this work. If the work goes on for extended periods that can impact their ability to operate. Most firehouses built in the last 50 years or so are IMHO architecturally disposable so i don't see their loss as a major hit to the urban fabric. In these cases its a dollars and cents issue not a preservation issue. Some of the old ones in the city though are true gems and should be treated as such whether they house a fire department or not.

The call volume thing is a little tricky. When its your call you want it to be fast and carry the equipment it needs. Even if call volumes do go down what does that imply for the emergencies that still exist. Acceptable losses...?

Truthfully to keep the firemen on their toes there is reason to send them on just about any call they could be helpful in. Sitting in a firehouse rehearsing scenarios (or watching TV) is not the same as responding to a call. Sounds like the one going to the stadium needed the practice. Thankfully it wasn't a life and death emergency as that could have been tragic.

I have no doubt there is a culture to pad numbers and people justifying their own jobs, that is true in almost every job. When it comes to asking for taxes, everyone tends to sift the number and present the ones that support their request. I am also uncomfortable with what I would characterize as the 'unassailable hero status' firemen, and their budgets by proxy, seems to command. That said, there are also a lot of real factors that relate to the choices they make as well.
I'm only addressing a couple points because a lot hinges on them.
STLEnginerd wrote:
Fri Apr 21, 2017 12:33 pm
Obviously trucks need replaced over time. The industry standard for truck size has increased in size over time. So if you want to order a pumper for an older engine house there are situations were the truck would have to be customized to fit rather than just ordering a standard truck. Custom tends to cost more even if its smaller but you do save on building replacement costs. I don't know whether this is the case for the situation you referenced but it does happen.
I'm still suggesting that referring to an industry standard is a lite version of circular reasoning. There are no NFPA or any other changes that warrant larger trucks. They industry average is getting larger because that's what gets ordered. I appreciate the point about having to order custom to fit a smaller fire house; however I know the biggest manufacturers (like Pierce) offer trucks configurable trucks that fit regular fire stations; the option is still there. In fact,
With the economy continuing to pinch municipal budgets, some fire departments are looking to purchase smaller, more agile pumpers to use as first-response units. It appears that mini pumpers and quick-attack pumpers aren't dead but only have been hibernating.

"There's a trend toward consolidation and smaller apparatus," says Chad Trinkner, Pierce Manufacturing's director of product management for aerials, pumpers, and fire suppression.
I know that's just one quote but does hint at a trend - it's not all headed towards bigger.

And of course that doesn't work for very special circumstances, especially things like low beams in historic fire stations. But it does satisfy the majority.
STLEnginerd wrote:
Fri Apr 21, 2017 12:33 pm
Additionally a disadvantage of renovation is that the fire departments have to operate during this work. If the work goes on for extended periods that can impact their ability to operate. Most firehouses built in the last 50 years or so are IMHO architecturally disposable so i don't see their loss as a major hit to the urban fabric. In these cases its a dollars and cents issue not a preservation issue. Some of the old ones in the city though are true gems and should be treated as such whether they house a fire department or not.
Definitely not arguing that - it IS about economics. I am totally in agreement that no matter how few structure fires happen, we have to be equipped to fight them. But we have to recognize those economics and that it's becoming more expensive overall to support fire suppression despite the precipitous drop in need.

My house is 70 years old and as you say - totally architecturally disposable. But it's completely functional and there would have to be an extremely compelling reason to knock it down to build another house. I expect that kind of taxpayer scrutiny when the 'need' for a larger fire station arises simply because the vehicle is bigger. Removing a fire pole is another reason that might be important, but wouldn't warrant complete destruction of an existing station.

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