Mike Wilbur

Apparatus Innovations-Back in the Day

Fifty years ago no one in the fire service would have been able to predict the degree of engineering technology that has impacted the design of today’s fire apparatus. Electronic and safety components have been integrated into all sizes of apparatus with touch screens, wireless controls and envelope operation of aerial ladders as just some examples. While some have been critical with respect to the lack of apparatus innovations over the past ten years, the impact of changes within the NFPA 1901 Standard and EPA regulations on diesel engine emissions have had a greater influence on vehicle design than any period in recent history.

In many instances history tends to repeat itself and if one considers the recent introduction of ultra-high pressure fog pump systems, small attack apparatus and electronic pump panels, these concepts have been tried years ago and now are coming back in vogue. Some of these concepts have been marketed as innovations to improve fire fighter safety, others as deployment options due to reductions in staffing levels. Whether real or imagined, apparatus manufacturers have developed products to differentiate themselves from competitors using available technology and component enhancements. Go to any fire industry conference and note what manufacturers are touting as new equipment designs. Some of these are truly new and innovative, others may be recycled concepts from the past.

Webster defines innovation as: “a new idea, device or method, the act of process of introducing new ideas.” The fire service has often been known as a profession with “One hundred years of tradition, unimpeded by progress.” Let’s look critically at some of our past apparatus history and how apparatus design has changed over the years. Dating back to 1960, most apparatus was powered by gasoline engines with dual ignition systems, open cabs were common and a 1000 gpm fire pump with twin booster reels was standard. When Mack Trucks first introduced a diesel engine in apparatus built for Bermuda, it took almost ten year’s before most fire departments accepted this technology.

This era of apparatus design was dominated by American LaFrance, Mack and Seagrave with other regional builders such as Crown, Hahn and Maxim Motors enjoying a loyal following with many departments. During this period several manufacturers engineered and produced their own axles, engines and transmissions and even fire pumps. Product integration was a key factor in securing business with most builders offering one or two cab and body configurations with some degree of customization. Innovations that were introduced included the elevation platform, rear mount aerial ladders and intra-cab fire pumps.

Due to the production capacity and engineering standards it was difficult for the smaller, regional builders to financially compete with the major manufacturers at the bid table. Apparatus specifications at this point were less than thirty pages long and blueprints were hand drawn on a drafting table. In order to be recognized and compete with the larger manufacturers, regional builders would develop new designs in the market place to attract new customers. One of the recognized industry innovators is Dick Young, who operated Young Fire Equipment Corporation in Lancaster, New York from the early 1950’s until economic conditions caused the company to close in 1991.

Innovations pioneered by Young include the Crusader chassis which featured a low profile, 94-inch-wide cab, top mount pump panels with speed lay hose beds which were common configurations on Ford C-model cabs, mid-engine rear mount platforms and hydraulic valve controls for pumps.  When interviewed in October, 2015 Dick was candid about his assessment of the current state of the apparatus industry. Some of today’s apparatus “have no real identity to the vehicle and the marketplace appears to be satisfied with the current products”. Consider for a moment the typical custom chassis pumper equipped with a full height, rescue style body with roll up doors and visually what differentiates one manufacturer from the other. Back in the day each cab design was ascetically unique and while primitive with respect to seating and instrumentation, it was easy to distinguish a Mack CF from a Seagrave or Peter Pirsch apparatus.

Today’s apparatus tends to be longer and taller, requiring a series of steps and handrails to access the top of the hose bed and body compartments. Dick Young introduced the use of Morton Cass non-slip step surfaces in 1962 and provided this material on all step surfaces and in later years produced a three boom articulating platform with a mid-engine chassis. This box frame concept required three years of engineering design and became the forerunner for the Crusader II mid-engine chassis that was designed with a pedestal style fire pump with custom built intake and discharge manifolds providing a four-inch intake and discharge on all four sides of the vehicle.

To address issues with rust and corrosion on steel bodies, Young developed a modular body built with composite material, protected wheel liners and wiring harness to reduce down time and production costs. Over the years as bills of materials were developed, the apparatus industry focused on controlling material costs and reducing production cycle times. The requirement for special options and vehicle customization will never go away, however the cost to meet these needs can be controlled by engineering designs and 3D modeling.

The automotive industry each year unveils concept vehicles to demonstrate their design capabilities and introduce future innovations. The fire apparatus market, with annual vehicle acquisitions of around 4000 units each year cannot support having prototype apparatus designs. Innovative vehicle designs are often the result of a specific requirement that causes everyone to go back to the drawing board. Consider the development of aerial devices over the years where fire department requirements for higher vertical reach with increased tip loads have influenced aerial designs. Small attack apparatus coined the term “mini pumpers” during the early 1970’s became common place in departments, partially as a result of the success with two-piece engine companies in Syracuse, New York. The use of mini pumpers and tower ladders, first developed by Mack Trucks in coordination with FDNY are examples where manufacturer’s product offerings were built and field tested which resulted in further product improvements.

The old adage states: “What is old is new again.” When working with your apparatus committee take time to study your fire department’s history and determine the current and future needs of the response district. The apparatus that you design today must provide service to the community for the next fifteen to twenty years and embrace available technologies while enhancing the safety for your members.

Years from now when the definitive history of fire apparatus is written, there will be lively debate as to the most innovative period and type of vehicle that was produced. The history of the fire apparatus industry will influence these discussions with much to be gained from defining the mission of your next apparatus to insure success in the purchasing process.


Photos for use in AA March 2016- All images by Tom W. Shand

#1. Young produced the first four door, raised roof cab pumper to the Bailey’s X Roads Fire Department in 1983. Note the four crosslay attack lines and hydraulic valve controls at the pump panel.

#1. Bailey's X Roads Wagon 10 1983 Young Crusader II 1250 500 40 #83-765 Tom Shand


#2. Tallman, New York in 1973 placed into service a 65 foot Snorkel on a Young Crusader chassis equipped with a 1250 gpm pump. Note the low profile cab and extensive compliment of ground ladders which were carried on each side of the body.

#2. Tallman NY Young Crusader Snorkel

#3. The Ford C model chassis was the backbone of many fire department fleets. Bowmansville, New York operated with this 1986 Young pumper which featured hydraulic, top mount controls along with a composite fiberglass body.

 #3. Bowmansville NY Ford Young

Tom W. Shand

January 10, 2016


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