The fire chief and his deputies had just returned back to the station after attending a budget hearing meeting with the town council. The chief was very discouraged as he learned for the third year in a row that his request for funding to replace a twenty four year old pumper had been denied. While the chief thought that this year the department would finally receive council approval for the $450,000 dollar expenditure for the new engine he came away disheartened and upset with the budget approval process. The chief compared the fire department’s plight to the police and highway departments by stating: “Surely the police patrolman are not riding around in cars that are twenty four years old and I know that the highway department just received two new snow plows last year. You councilmen are playing with public safety here and you should approve the departments request for this new pumper”. Unfortunately the fire chief did not succeed with his case and the department was told to resubmit their request during next year’s budget cycle for consideration. This account is playing out in many communities across the country and we as fire service managers need to be prepared to state and sell our program to those politicians and outsiders who control the financial resources in our municipality.
The past few years have presented some of the most difficult economic challenges for our country since the Great Depression. Municipal governments are struggling to provide services in all areas as their income has decreased. A combination of lower real estate transfer tax, sales tax receipts and other funding streams have all decreased to the point where for the first time in years many municipalities are having to consider reducing the level of services including closing of libraries, schools and lay offs of some municipal employees. It should come as no surprise that the fire service would be included in an analysis of government services that would come under review for possible budget reductions, particularly with respect to capital purchases for fire apparatus. In many communities the cost of a new engine apparatus or ladder truck would most likely be the most expensive piece of rolling stock that would be acquired by the municipality. Simply stating that “we need a new pumper right now” will not satisfy those in charge of approving large capital cost equipment especially when the total amount of the purchase will impact the budget in a single year.
Any fire department regardless of the size of their apparatus fleet should have a well developed fleet replacement plan for all units. This plan should include encompass a number of aspects including initial vehicle cost, maintenance, fuel and insurance costs, vehicle usage, mileage, age and condition as well as compatibility with recent safety enhancements. Using this data the department should be able to develop a profile of actual vehicle cost per run or per mile to determine the cost effectiveness of each unit in the fleet. There are several fleet management software packages that provide different modules that can produce the information needed to assist department personnel with quantifying vehicle performance and life cycle costing. This data can then be utilized to determine the appropriate time frame for apparatus replacement for each unit in the fleet. This program then needs to be reviewed and approved by whoever controls the financial resources in your community. In this manner there should be no surprises when requested funding for new or replacement apparatus during the budget process.
The National Fire Protection Association in the 1901 Automotive Fire Apparatus Standard provides some excellent information in Annex D with respect to replacement cycle recommendations for apparatus. In part it states: “It is recommended that apparatus greater than 15 years old that have been properly maintained and that are still in serviceable condition be placed in reserve status and upgraded in accordance with NFPA 1912”. Since 1991 the NFPA 1901 standard has been revised six different times including the current edition which was adopted in January, 2009. Apparatus which is older than a 1991 model lacks a number of significant safety enhancements including four door cabs, non slip step surfaces, slow close pump intake and discharge valves, improved emergency warning lighting and many more items.
Perhaps your community in the past has historically acquired new apparatus through an outright purchase and has encumbered the entire cost of the new unit upon delivery and acceptance. While this has been the traditional method for many jurisdictions, one alternative is to investigate the use of a municipal lease where the cost of the new apparatus can be spread over several years with a smaller annual impact to the overall budget. Utilization of a lease purchase or other alternative funding strategies might allow the department to acquire the apparatus when called for in the fleet replacement program as opposed to going to bat for a larger single capital expense. As many communities are investigating methods of providing services to their residents without increasing the tax rate we in the fire service must begin to think “outside of the box” for alternative methods to provide the needed apparatus and equipment resources to insure the safety of our personnel and those that we serve.
It is unfortunate that at the same time that we are called upon to do more with less that the overall cost of fire apparatus has increased dramatically over the past four years. The impact of two major changes in diesel engine technology as a result of the EPA regulations which took effect during 2007 and 2010 caused all builders of both commercial and custom fire chassis to make major engineering investments to redesign their cabs and electrical systems to accept the new engines. Also during the past two years there was a dramatic spike in the increase of metals and raw materials which also impact the entire fire apparatus industry. Both of these situations together with more moderate cost increases due to the most recent NFPA 1901 requirements have all had an impact on the cost of new apparatus. All of this has been beyond the control of local fire departments which now must increase their budget requests to account for these technological advances.
Some departments may be in a position where although they require a new, replacement apparatus that there is simply no available source of funding to meet their need. For departments in this situation there are several alternatives to consider including the rebuilding of a newer apparatus in order to extend its life cycle. The NFPA 1912 Standard for Fire Apparatus Refurbishing contains some valuable information and a specification guide in Annex B of the standard to assist a department through the rebuilding process. In addition, the department may wish to gain the advice and experience of an Apparatus Architect to properly assess the apparatus to insure that the needs of the department are being met with a rebuilding project. Apparatus which was built after 1991 that have a four door cab, a mechanically solid drive train, fire pump and bodywork may be a candidate to be rebuilt. However if the Apparatus has been substantially rehabbed before, or if a full frame up rehab will cost fifty percent of the cost of a new Apparatus or the manufacturer that built the apparatus is no longer in business the apparatus is probably not a good candidate for a rebuilt. This is where maintenance and testing reports are vitally important to properly assess the apparatus for a rebuilding project.
Another alternative may be to look to acquire a newer, used apparatus that is in good condition, or could be rebuilt to enhance safety components while extending its useful life cycle. With the cost of a new aerial apparatus approaching one million dollars with some devices, the acquisition of used aerial ladder or platform may provide the needed apparatus for a smaller community at a fraction of the cost of a new unit. It is important to review the maintenance and testing records of any used piece of apparatus including pumper service testing and a current aerial testing certification to insure the basic condition and safety of the vehicle. Once again a department may wish to consider gaining the expertise of an independent outside consultant to evaluate the prospective apparatus prior to making any financial commitment to acquire the unit.
While the current financial conditions may be with us for some time to come there are some practical things that we can do to insure that we have the appropriate tools and documentation to justify our apparatus and equipment needs. Following the Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” is appropriate when planning for major capital expenditures in any area and especially where public safety is concerned.