Vehicle Research

Spec'ing the Right Fire Apparatus for the Job

Writing specifications for a new fire apparatus can be daunting. Determining the intended purpose is the first step, but there are many paths to take from there.

March 2009, Government Fleet - Feature

by Lauren Fletcher - Also by this author

Selecting a fire apparatus is a detailed job requiring hours of research. Factors such as determining the vehicle's function and essential apparatus capabilities are important.

The first step in spec'ing a fire apparatus is to determine its intended purpose.

"In my opinion, the key to acquiring any vehicle is acquiring the right one for the job and/or intended purpose. This might seem like a simple concept; however, any vehicle acquisition will be unsuccessful if the final product does not fulfill its intended mission from an operational, cost, safety, and acceptance standpoint," said John Clements, manager, fleet operations, San Diego County.

According to Gordon Schoonmaker, fleet operations supervisor, Spokane Valley, Wash., Fire Department, the next step is determining the fire apparatus capabilities. He then looks at what apparatus type would suit his fleets' needs best.

"We ask questions, such as do we need top- or side-mount pumps; custom or commercial chassis; mid- or rear- mount aerial; small, medium, or large rescue body, etc.," said Schoonmaker. "How a new apparatus fits into the department is a consideration as well. We try to keep similar apparatus as much as possible. It eases training requirements for mechanics and firefighters and helps reduce parts inventory."

These factors are even more critical, according to Clements, because a fire apparatus is "life and safety equipment, complex, very specialized, expensive, and a long-term investment for the owning agency."

Fire Apparatus Spec Preparation Varies

Once the intended use and purpose of a fire apparatus is defined, the next step is to prepare the specs.

Corey Call, fleet operations chief, CALFIRE and Napa County, Calif., Fire Department first questions personnel who will use the apparatus. "I then meet with the Battalion Chief or chief of that area. I contact fire apparatus manufacturers I know and advise them that I am looking to build."

San Diego County's Clements takes a similar approach. "Our first step in preparing fire apparatus specifications is to meet with the end-user (fire agency) and define their needs, including items specific to their department such as four-wheel drive due to rural terrain."

Currently, the county's fire support program is unique as it acquires apparatus, assigns them to existing fire departments, and then, from a fleet perspective, provides maintenance and fuel support. Due to the county's situation, officials concurrently meet with fire services staff who manage the fire program, to provide assistance in defining requirements, standardizing apparatus and equipment between departments, and determining additional equipment needs such as hoses, nozzles, etc.
"I think the practical application of our process for other agencies is to be sure and obtain input from all the players - direct and indirect," said Clements.

The next step in San Diego County's fact-finding process is identifying all accessory equipment (breathing apparatus, hose, tools, etc.). County staff thoroughly researches equipment available in the industry, including current and anticipated regulatory requirements related to the type of apparatus under consideration.

"I hear some agencies say their purchasing department restricts them from talking to potential vendors to avoid favoritism," said Clements. "Although communications with a manufacturer is sometimes abused, it is essential an agency know what manufacturers are capable of supplying."
San Diego County employs a few final steps in the specification process.  
"First, we never assume we know it all. Involving all major players in the process, seeking information from other fire agencies and experts are all part of our process," said Clements. "Second, and probably most important, we have end-users review the specifications before the bidding process." This pre-bid review can also include manufacturers, noted Clements.

The county's final step in developing specifications is to research how a given apparatus can best be acquired. Options include a traditional bidding process, an existing bid from another agency, and/or purchase of an already built demonstrator unit.

Schoonmaker has a standard spec for pumpers, the bulk of his purchases. "Each time we buy another pumper, an apparatus committee consisting of firefighters, myself, and an assistant chief review the spec and determine what worked and what didn't and incorporate changes. We also look at any new options or technology that may work well for us."

Timothy Calhoun, director of fleet services, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, Fla., works with an apparatus committee that includes members from every level within the department.

"We meet bimonthly to discuss capital purchases and apparatus specifications. Last year, we started a new subcommittee of operators on specific apparatus to survey EMTs, driver operators, etc., to get their opinions and concerns," said Calhoun. "We also sent a 28-question online survey about the design of our current fire trucks that received a 67-percent response rate."

Members of the Palm Beach County Fire Rescue committee have also visited other fire departments, requested demos from vendors, and used manufacturer site visits to review not only their assembly process, but other department designs as well.

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