Apparatus Purchasing: A Balance of Dollars and $ense

By William C. Peters

During the past several months, I have been involved with three fire departments that were purchasing fire apparatus. Two of the departments advertised and received public bids; the third provided specifications to a few manufacturers for pricing. The three apparatus exceeded budget expectations and required specification adjustments and, in two cases, a rebid.

Some of the comments I heard about exceeding the budget were, “Why are we over budget? We always specified apparatus that came in under budget.” What was the reason for the shock and disbelief when the bids were opened?

REASONS APPARATUS COST MORE

Many components and materials used in the production of fire apparatus have skyrocketed in price over the past few years, driving the price of apparatus up without any help from the purchaser.

First, the 2007 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) diesel emissions standards required adjustments and reengineering of many manufacturers’ standard chassis models. The additional exhaust gas recirculation has increased engine heat, requiring larger cooling systems and better air flow to the engine compartment. The diesel particulate filter and all of its electronic monitoring and controls increased the number of components, requiring engineering and hours of labor to install. In addition, the 2010 EPA changes are estimated to add an additional $5,000 to $15,000 to the cost of the apparatus, depending on the engine used and the type of system.

(1) 2010 EPA emissions standards will require additional components, adding to the cost of the apparatus. (Photos 1-4 by author; photos 5-12 by Ron Jeffers.)

Energy costs skyrocketed during this period as well. Remember paying $4-plus per gallon for gasoline? Any manufacturing process that consumed energy such as electricity or natural gas felt the squeeze of high energy costs and passed it on to the consumer.

Goods that were transported by truck, rail, or air (which is almost everything) increased in price. I am still paying a $2 monthly fuel surcharge for bottled water delivered to my home, even though the price of fuel has moderated during the year.

(2) Factory demonstrators and “show trucks” are often available at reasonable prices.

The increased energy and raw materials costs affected nearly every component used in fire apparatus construction. Sheet aluminum, steel, copper wiring, engines, transmissions, axles and pumps—all constructed of metallic components—went up in cost.

The 2009 edition of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, had an effect on price as well. Although we are producing safer fire apparatus, there is a cost factor involved. Roll stability control, seat-belt monitoring, helmet storage, vehicle monitoring system (black box), and chevron marking are just a few safety enhancements that added to the cost of new apparatus.

(3) If you are on a restricted budget, stick to an NFPA-compliant warning light system to save money.

Cities, towns, and fire districts across the country are facing the same fiscal crisis that most American families deal with on a daily basis—that is, trying to maintain a standard of living with less financial support.

On a personal level, unemployment is up, yields from retirement accounts are down, and the price of goods and services has skyrocketed. On a municipal level, tax receipts are down because of the large number of foreclosures. In a neighboring town, three car dealerships have closed; on what was once a thriving business district now sits acres of vacant land with weeds growing through the cracks in the asphalt, where dozens of shiny new cars once sat on display. In locations that receive the proceeds of sales taxes, those receipts are also down because of a decline in spending.

(4) Manually operated discharge valves and gauges are less expensive than electronic controls.

It is not unusual for the citizens of a community to demand fiscal responsibility of their elected officials. The governing body must then rely on the expertise of department heads to keep spending within the budget.

In this article, I will discuss many considerations for purchasing a piece of fire apparatus that meets budget expectations. I will be the first to point out that fire apparatus are cost-effective, as they typically have a 20-year service life, but that argument just doesn’t cut it when a municipality faces cutbacks in services or layoffs of city workers (including firefighters and police officers) to close a budget gap.

LOWER-COST ALTERNATIVES

If you are willing to modify your specifications, quite often you can find a factory demonstrator built for display at fire shows that meets your basic needs. Although these units might have some miles on them when you get them, they are “over the road” miles, and the vehicles receive very good care. In addition, you can generally get a full warranty just as you would for apparatus delivered from the factory.

(5) Is a booster reel absolutely necessary?

Another possibility is a “program truck”: This is a basic model that the manufacturer has preengineered and can build at a reduced cost. Generally, these rigs have a mid-size engine and offer specific options and modifications on the basic model. You can obtain good, cost-effective apparatus without sacrificing much more than the fancy customization.

A major manufacturer listed the following basic pumper attributes at a reasonable price in a recent advertisement: custom cab and chassis; 330- to 425-horsepower (hp) engine; 1,250- or 1,500-gallons-per-minute (gpm) pump; 1,000-gallon tank; 1⁄2 or 3⁄4 compartments on the right and full height on the left—from $227,400. A four-door commercial with the same basic outline was listed at $143,000.

 (6) Basic shelves are the least expensive compartment modification.

So, let’s see what we can do as responsible citizens to purchase a new rig and stay within the budget.

BOILERPLATE ITEMS

You can unknowingly add many thousands of dollars to the price of the apparatus with a few items in the General Requirements section, commonly called “Boilerplate.”

Bonds. Most jurisdictions require a bid bond, which is nothing more than security in the form of an insurance policy or cashier’s check for a percent of the sale that ensures the bidder will enter into a contract if awarded the bid. Typically, this is not a costly item; however, a performance bond is another situation.

(7) Reserve floor-mounted trays for heavy equipment.

A performance bond is like an insurance policy: It ensures that the manufacturer will meet the requirements outlined in the contract. A performance bond costs money. Much like auto insurance, the apparatus manufacturer is rated based on many factors, including company size, financial condition, and past history of fulfilling contracts. The bidder is charged X amount of dollars per thousand dollars of value of the contract. Some large manufacturers enjoy a low rate; some smaller builders pay more. This cost is passed on to the consumer in the bid.

If you invest any money up front, either as prepayment or progressive payments as the apparatus is being built, a performance bond is a must. Otherwise, if the manufacturer enters into bankruptcy or defaults with the chassis manufacturer, you might be out a sizable amount of money. If you intend to pay on delivery and only have your time invested, you don’t have much to lose if the bidder defaults except the increased price of a replacement because of inflation. You then could save the cost of the performance bond.

(8) Extensive compartment modifications can be costly. This unit has a refrigerator and a microwave.

You can save some money in the form of a discount if you pay on a schedule rather than on delivery. If you are working with a builder who purchases a chassis, then finishes your apparatus, you can get a discount if you pay for the chassis when it is delivered. If your fire department has the money to pay for the apparatus and is willing to make payments before the delivery, weigh the savings in discounts vs. the cost of the performance bond. If there is still a savings after you deduct the cost of the performance bond, it might be worth pursuing. Just be sure the bonding company is reputable and your interests are solidly covered.

Factory inspection trips.These trips are factored into the price of the apparatus based on the number of participants and the distance of the fire truck factory from the customer. Most apparatus dealers are well-acquainted with the expenses they incur and have a set amount they charge per person. If you have a six-person committee, is it necessary for every person to go on every trip? Most of the time, half of the committee members could go; if they get stuck on a question, they could telephone the other members. Then the other half of the committee could go for the final inspection. Keep accurate notes so everyone is on the same page.

(9) Custom graphics never extinguished a fire!

I am a firm believer that a minimum of two factory inspection trips are absolutely necessary: the preconstruction conference and the final inspection. These trips should involve work, not play.

One way to save money on the trips is to have the apparatus dealer make all of the arrangements and let the fire company or municipality pay for the trips. This takes out the “averaging” effect of charging a flat rate per person. If you pay for the actual hotel bill and the airline cost, you could save some money.

(10) Gold-leaf lettering is attractive, but reflective lettering increases visibility and safety.

Excessive warranty requirements. Most manufacturers offer a one-year warranty, with other areas such as the cab and body structure covered for 10 years and some aerials covered for 15 to 20 years against structural failure. The engine, transmission, pump, water tank, and axles all have their own pass-through warranties. Insisting that the entire apparatus have a “bumper-to-bumper” warranty for three to five years could add tens of thousands of dollars to the price of the apparatus and is unnecessary.

If you want to try to determine just how much it will cost, add the extended warranty as an optional item. Specify the standard one-year warranty, and have the bidder provide the amount it will cost to increase it to the number of years you are considering. I guarantee that it will be a real eye-opener!

THE CHASSIS AS THE STARTING POINT

Consider the following when selecting a chassis.

Custom cab or commercial cab. Custom cabs generally have more room, and some can accommodate up to 10 firefighters; a commercial cab is generally limited to five seating positions. Commercial chassis have the axle ahead of the driver’s position, resulting in a longer wheelbase and longer overall length, which increase the turning radius. In addition, generally visibility is better in a custom cab with the driver sitting forward, allowing for easier maneuvering in tight quarters.

(11) Twelve-volt scene lighting such as this LED type can save the price of a generator.

Axle weight.The axle weight is calculated based on the following information:

  • Number of riding positions (allowing 250 pounds per seating position).
  • Engine size—higher hp engines are heavier and require a heavier transmission.
  • Water tank size on a pumper.
  • Whether an aerial or platform is being used.
  • Amount of hose storage area required.
  • Weight of loose equipment if it exceeds the allowable amount for the apparatus type.
  • Size and type of body being specified.
  • Construction material of the cab and body.

I don’t expect you to be able to select an axle size from the information given; however, you should know that if you need a 500-hp engine and you ride with 10 firefighters in the cab or have a heavy aerial mounted over the cab roof, you can rule out an economy model chassis and go for a heavy-duty custom.

If you are looking for economy, specify a medium-block engine (generally up to 400 hp), which will require a lighter transmission, driveline, and axles. Limit your seating in the cab to a realistic number such as six. Avoid numerous modifications—extensive compartmentation in the cab, for example.

(12) “Want” vs. “Need”: We “want” to be heard, but do we really “need” six air horns?

There are probably hundreds of modifications that can be made to the basic chassis, each with dollar amounts attached. Independent front suspensions are available using torsion bars, air bags, and coil springs. Testing has shown that they tend to handle and stop better than a straight beam axle. They also add a significant upcharge over a straight axle with leaf springs.

Secondary brakes.Apparatus more than 36,000 Gross Vehicle Weight Rating require a secondary braking device. The choices in order of cost and effectiveness are exhaust brakes, engine compression brakes, and driveline retarders (hydraulic and electric). Each has different attributes that make them both more or less favorable based on the terrain on which you operate and the ambient temperature. In relatively flat areas, an exhaust brake works fine. In hilly areas, you may wish to specify an engine brake or a driveline retarder. Hydraulic retarders create heat in the transmission fluid, which must be dissipated and might be less than desirable in hot climates.

Tires and wheels. The tires must match the vehicle’s load and speed rating. Take into consideration the typical road conditions you encounter when selecting the type of tire and the tread pattern.

Wheel choices include aluminum wheels and steel painted. Some manufacturers offer aluminum wheels as standard, since they don’t require priming and painting like steel wheels do.

Electrical system. Examine this area quite closely. I always advocate using six group 31 batteries for the absolute reliability they provide. In addition, the largest alternator that will fit under the cab enclosure is another worthwhile option, since most of the apparatus warranty claims involve electrical systems.

Warning lights can become a money pit if you let them. In 1996, NFPA 1901 defined the areas of the apparatus that require warning lights, the output of the optical warning devices while responding and while on-scene, and the allowable colors. This has led to manufacturers offering lighting packages. Nothing says that you can’t add additional lights after you have satisfied the minimum requirements; this is where some departments can really go overboard spending money.

If you are on a restricted budget, by all means specify an optical warning system using light-emitting diode (LED) lights that meet the standard. Resist the temptation to cover every square inch of the apparatus with warning lights that wobble, flash, or spin!

Apply the same restraint for audio warning devices. An electronic siren is significantly less expensive than a mechanical siren—and a lot easier on the electrical system. Many people feel it’s just not a “real” fire truck if it doesn’t have a chrome coaster siren on the bumper. I admit I am sold on the sound as well, but just understand that it will add a few thousand dollars to the price of your new rig.

You can add many features to the apparatus for safety, such as a backup camera. Even if you opt for this camera, make sure nobody backs the apparatus without maintaining eye contact with another person who is observing what is behind the rig.

Headset-type intercoms in the cab are very popular but costly. The standard requires not more that a 90-decibel (db) noise level in the cab at 45 mph, and most cabs are spacious and open to facilitate face-to-face communication. If you’re on a budget, evaluate the need for such accessories.

Have your department radios provided and installed locally. Apparatus manufacturing facilities do not specialize in radio installation, so you will pay a premium to have the radios installed. You can expedite the process and preserve your electrical system warranty if you pay to have the factory install the antenna (even a customer-supplied antenna) on the roof while the interior is apart and install a pair of power leads (one direct hot, one battery switched, and a battery ground) for your radio person to tie into. This cuts down significantly on the sparks in the dashboard when “Ralph the Radio Guy” is looking to power up the new unit he’s installing.

PUMP AND TANK

Everyone thinks that they need the “biggest and baddest” pump available. Most fire pumps fall into two categories: 750 to 1,250 gpm and 1,500 to 2,000 gpm. The higher you go in gpm output, the more hp and torque the engine must provide. You can generally specify a 1,500-gpm rated pump with the mid-size engine without problems. Remember, the pump discharge rating is at draft, so a 1,500-gpm pump operating from a positive source, such as a hydrant, will far surpass the pump’s rated capacity.

In addition, NFPA 1901 requires a sufficient number of discharges to move the water out of the pump based on its rating. Each discharge size has a gpm rating assigned: 21⁄2-inch discharges are rated at 250 gpm; a five-inch discharge is rated at 1,000 gpm. Theoretically speaking, a 1,500-gpm pump needs only two 21⁄2-inch discharges and one five-inch discharge to be compliant. Most truck committees specify numerous discharges all over the rig. While it may be convenient having discharges on all sides of the apparatus, it is not cost-effective. Each discharge requires a valve, plumbing, drain, operating mechanism, gauge, and termination fitting and cap as well as the labor to install the components. Why not stick with a basic setup like two 21⁄2-inch discharges on the left pump panel, one 21⁄2- and one five-inch on the right, and one 21⁄2-inch at the rear (in addition to your preconnects)? This will add convenience and efficiency. When specifying discharges for preconnects, consider the actual use and only specify what you really need.

The same is true of suction inlets. A midship-mounted pump typically has one six-inch steamer connection on each side and one 21⁄2-inch auxiliary inlet required by NFPA 1901. When you specify valved suction inlets, you increase the price by several thousand dollars for each. Front and rear suctions are also quite costly. They require a large welded plumbing pipe run through the apparatus, several drains, possibly an inline valve if specified, an automatic pressure relief device if the suction is valved, generally a swivel (on a front suction), an NST adapter, and a long-handle cap. A second 21⁄2-inch suction is an additional cost but not nearly as much as a front or rear large flow intake. Electrically operated valves and combination pressure/flow meters also add to the cost of the apparatus.

Do you need a booster reel? How often will you use it? Booster reels are heavy, take up space, and are costly. Do not justify including a booster reel by saying, “We always had one.” Base need on usage.

When you select the water tank size, remember that the bigger the tank, the heavier the apparatus will be. When you get into the 1,000-gallon tank size, generally it raises up the hosebed and increases the vehicle’s overall height and length. And the additional water weight requires a heavier axle assembly and tires to carry the load.

BODY CONSTRUCTION FEATURES AND MATERIAL

Regarding body configuration, consider that customization costs money! Start by evaluating standard body and compartment styles various manufacturers offer, and settle on one that will fit your equipment and suit your needs without breaking the budget.

Compartments.Do you really need full-height and full-depth compartments on all sides of the apparatus? Quite often, these huge, locker-style compartments are only partially full, especially near the top, where it is difficult to retrieve equipment. Will it suit you to have full-height on one side and low compartments on the other?

If money is no object, there are dozens of ways to modify compartments to add efficiency. If you are operating on a budget, start with basic shelves first. Determine the number of shelves you need to hold your equipment. Many times after they receive delivery of a rig, department members remove shelves and place them in the apparatus closet, never to see the light of day. Remember, if you get additional equipment later, you can always order an additional shelf then.

Roll-out trays come in various weight capacities. Floor-mounted trays are typically heavy duty with a 400- to 500-pound capacity and are used for heavy equipment such as gasoline-powered rescue tools, portable generators, and heavy tool chests. If you are going to put only hose fittings, nozzles, and other lightweight equipment on these trays, specify a lighter capacity to save money.

Roll-out, tilt-down trays can be handy for reaching equipment high up in a compartment. These, too, are expensive, so unless you know that you need them, consider shelves or standard roll-outs.

Tool boards can really help organize your equipment and make good use of high-capacity compartments. Determine exactly what equipment you intend to mount to the tool boards before specifying them. One committee specified three vertical tool boards in one compartment. The members found that after they mounted equipment to both sides of two boards, there wasn’t enough room to mount anything to the third roll-out board. They removed it and banished it to that dark apparatus closet.

Other considerations include trim on the inside surface of box pan doors. Is it necessary? If you are concerned about the paint getting scratched, consider having the inside of the compartment door sanded with a natural finish. It is far cheaper than mounting full-size sheets of polished stainless steel.

Exercise caution with spending on paint, lettering, and graphics. Decorating fire apparatus goes back to the days of the steamers and before, when beautiful scenes were painted on the sides of the boiler. The cost of applying a hand-painted scene on the side of your current “steamer” can really break the bank! This applies to fancy graphics that most manufacturers offer as well. Although I appreciate the pride that goes into being a firefighter and your fire company, times are tough, and this option might not be necessary. To apply this rationale to your personal life, would you invest in a new fancy paint job or landscaping at your home if you had difficulty paying the mortgage?

I always hear the public complain about “chrome bumpers” and “fancy gold-leaf lettering.” The truth is the standard stainless steel bumper generally costs less than a heavy-duty painted steel bumper that has to be manufactured for the apparatus. As far as the lettering goes, in many cases, gold leaf and reflective letters cost the same or close to the same, as most of the investment is in the application labor. The difference is that reflective lettering increases visibility and safety. I have never heard anyone complain about too much reflective trim!

Apparatus bodies are typically constructed of aluminum; galvanneal steel; stainless steel; and, to a lesser degree, composite plastic/fiberglass. In most cases, steel bodies weigh more than aluminum. Stainless steel bodies are probably the most durable, but they also cost the most. Often one of the selling points is that you can just stick another chassis under the body 15 years from now. The truth is, almost no one does that!

I am not a big fan of galvanneal steel bodies because there is always the possibility of rust and corrosion where the metal is cut and welded if not properly finished. Aluminum bodies, both extruded and formed, have performed well in the fire service. If you are looking to save money, go with the standard aluminum body.

AERIAL EVALUATION

Aerial apparatus are without a doubt the costliest vehicle investment your department will make. Therefore, it is very important that an apparatus committee on a budget carefully evaluate the type, size, and load capacity of the unit it is specifying.

One of the first considerations is, “Will it fit in the firehouse?” There is nothing worse than convincing the elected officials that they need to spend three-quarters of a million dollars on a new aerial truck, only to find out it won’t fit in the station! Going back and asking for construction funding can really be embarrassing. Do your research, especially when you are on a budget.

Platforms cost more than straight stick aerial apparatus because of all the features they have, dual controls, and heavier load-carrying capacity. Do you need a platform, or will an aerial suffice?

Consider the length of the aerial device. Currently, a popular apparatus is a 75-foot quint, combining the best attributes of a pumper with an aerial device. If you need a 100-foot aerial because of vertical heights or setback from the street, a 75-foot just won’t do it. Remember, a 100-foot aerial can be operated at 75 feet, but a 75-foot aerial can’t be stretched to 100 feet! Keep in mind, though, that the 100-foot aerial will cost more.

Carefully consider what aerial accessories you are adding. Aerial ladders have everything from a prepiped waterway to scene lights, electrical outlets, hose outlets, and mounted loose forcible entry and ventilation equipment. Platforms are even worse—they have dual monitors, compartments for all sorts of accessories, and all the features and options listed for aerial ladders. Is it all necessary? Ask for pricing, then evaluate.

GENERATOR AND LIGHTING

Evaluate whether you want to include a generator. If you typically use the pumper for vehicle rescues, or if you have no other suitable apparatus such as a rescue or ladder truck with a generator, a generator might be a necessity.

The most recent trend has been hydraulically driven generators. A hydraulic pump is driven by a transmission-mounted power take-off (PTO) that powers a hydraulic motor, thus eliminating the need for a separate power source to drive the generator. This is a very efficient way to produce electrical power. Where many committees go wrong is when they want the biggest generator possible. As you increase the generator output, you also increase the price. Many times, this is an unnecessary expense.

Generators are rated in kilowatts (kw), or thousands of watts. An 8-kw generator provides 8,000 watts of output. If you’re just installing some 1,000-watt scene lights around the apparatus, an 8-kw generator might be fine. If you are including a light tower with 9,000 watts of lighting output, you will obviously need a larger generator. Keep in mind when sizing a generator for your application that motor-driven electrical accessories such as SCBA booster pumps and fans can draw up to 31⁄2 times their running wattage while starting.

While scene illumination definitely increases firefighter safety, there are less costly ways of accomplishing it if you are on a budget. Twelve-volt high-intensity discharge (HID) lights strategically placed can provide ample lighting around the apparatus without requiring an AC generator. New LED scene lights that operate on 12 volts have improved output with larger and brighter LEDs and could be a good substitute for 120-volt fixtures.

MOST TRUCK FOR THE MONEY

Some apparatus committee members feel that, since they only get to specify a new apparatus every 20 years or so, they want to get the best-equipped unit with the latest options and features, which leads to a very expensive public purchase. When the purchasing authority limits the fire department’s working capital for the purchase, there are ways that you can get as much truck as possible for the available money. First, go through each item in the specification, and put it in one of two columns: “Want” and “Need.” Be certain the spec has all the “need” items, then go back to the “want” items, evaluating each and including them as necessary.

In many locations, if the bid price is over the available budget, the department rejects all the bids and adjusts the specifications before the project is rebid. To prevent this from happening, include an “Options” list at the end of the specifications. Make it clear that the items listed as options may or may not be included at the discretion of the fire department (or purchasing authority). Then you can list individually all of the “want” items that didn’t make it into the body of the specifications, leaving room on the bid pricing sheet for the bidder to price each item separately. When the bids are evaluated, and you know how much funding remains after the basic specifications are met, you can use the options that are most important to you without breaking the bank.

We are all feeling the pinch of the current recession, both in our personal lives and in our community. I hope this information is helpful and allows you to get the new apparatus you need.

WILLIAM C. PETERS retired after 28 years with the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, having served the last 17 years as battalion chief/supervisor of apparatus. He served as a voting member of the NFPA 1901 apparatus committee for several years and is the author of the Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook, the apparatus chapters inThe Fire Chief’s Handbook, and numerous apparatus-related articles. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and of the FDIC executive advisory board.

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