February Roundtable: The Economy and Apparatus Purchasing and Maintenance

I remember a year ago asking a question for the February 2009 Roundtable concerning the budget crisis and fuel costs. I never would have thought a year later that I would still be on the apparatus/budget crisis thing. This recession has affected most of the departments in the country. Layoffs have occurred in the most “rock-solid” departments. Although some have avoided the layoff ax, there have still been cuts to staff levels, and most resources are going to fund field operations (as it should).

When I think of how the budget has affected the department in which I previously worked (Toledo, Ohio), I think of shrinking staff personnel to handle the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes “stuff” that most firefighters fail to realize even occurs on their behalf. How do they think the paper towels end up on the monthly supply requisition shipment?  A “staffer” put it there after a civilian employee processed the order and procured the funding from the general budget to purchase it.
Depending on the department and how it is funded, one big ticket item is most assuredly affected by this recession. Apparatus. $500,000 engines and $1million aerial platforms are continually facing that end of service cycle that requires replacement. How can a department laying-off personnel and not filling civilian staff positions look the city council in the eye and ask for new apparatus? Not only has the cost of purchasing apparatus increased but also has the cost of maintaining the present apparatus.

In Toledo, they have begun a lease program for new apparatus. This has saved the city a lot of money.– JOHN “SKIP” COLEMAN retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

Question: What effect has the economy had on your department’s apparatus purchase and maintenance programs?

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Lewisville is seeing the same decline in the economy as everybody else. We’re fortunate that we haven’t seen (not yet anyway) the really bad times that some of our fire service families are going through with budget cuts and layoffs. Revenue for our city is down, but forward thinking by our city administration, mainly our city manager’s office and budget director, has had our department see less of an impact. That’s not to say that we haven’t been making cuts over the past several years, but making those adjustments in how we spent our money then has helped us in how and what we spend it on today. It’s getting harder and harder to find areas to cut; next year will probably be worse than this year, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

As for the economy’s effect on our apparatus purchases and maintenance programs, we run our own shops and are blessed to have one of the best fire apparatus mechanics in the country and his partner working for us. Just that fact helps us budget wisely, because they are able to repair things the right way the first time. Also, through their preventative maintenance programs, we have been able to keep a lot of the little stuff from happening and nickel-and-diming us to death.

We are also blessed to have an “internal lease” program, which was funded years ago. The amount that would have been needed each year to make a “leasing” payment on an apparatus was set aside in each year’s budget. Each year when the new fiscal year begins, the payment is taken out of the budget and placed into the internal lease fund. This fund also earns interest over the years, which allows for that buffer you need for an unexpected increase in a purchase or that new light bar or radio. An example would be that we just ordered a new engine; we simply cut the purchase order for the amount needed and placed the order with the funding already in the internal lease account.

Bob Metzger, chief,
Golden Gate (FL) Fire District
The economy has wreaked havoc on numerous fire districts in Florida. Numerous departments are reporting layoffs of skilled firefighters, resulting from budgets that have been gutted owing to reduced property tax collection. Many other departments have postponed or cancelled the purchase of new apparatus. Those conditions have only made the need for regular maintenance programs more acute.

In the Golden Gate Fire District, we recognized early-on the impact that a faltering economy would have on our district. Being almost exclusively funded by ad valorem revenue (property taxes), we created a campaign in support of a referendum initiative requesting approval of an increase in our millage cap. The campaign started about a year ago and was passed by the voters in May of this year. This increase allows the district to maintain the employment of its members for the foreseeable future.

The campaign results do not allow us to purchase apparatus–the sputtering economy still has not rebounded sufficiently for that. As a result, we continue to pay more attention to the maintenance and repair issues with our existing fleet, trying to get as much use as possible from each piece. We recognize that we cannot do this indefinitely.

Elby Bushong III, deputy chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
The bad economic times are making it difficult for all areas within Phoenix. The fire department has had to find ways to use funds efficiently to be able to purchase as well as maintain the current fleet. At this time, we have not had to cancel any planned purchases of apparatus. However, the future of state-shared revenues and city budget shortfalls could impact future apparatus purchases. Our fleet managers are working on ways to make sure that the equipment we have now is maintained. The lack of funding cannot affect our ability to provide service to the community. We are working hard to make sure the fleet is in the best condition to provide the services our customers expect.   

Christopher J. Weir, division chief,
Port Orange (FL) Department of Fire & Rescue
Perhaps like most departments, Port Orange took a $2 million dollar shortfall from reduced property tax revenue as a result of the reduction in home equity values and Florida Amendment 1 property tax-rollback initiatives, which have hurt almost every emergency service department in Florida. As a result of our portion of cuts, the city council required us to cut apparatus purchases and prolonging the life of current front-line and reserve apparatus. The city council did approve the purchase of one engine ($400,000) for our new Town West Fire Station. However, the city council rejected the purchase of a second front-line engine and directed our department to find ways to make due with the resources on hand.

Since most of our responses are EMS related, at a 78 percent-percentile, we looked at the purchase of an EMS transport capable vehicle equipped with SCBAs, tools, CAFS capability, heavy extrication equipment, and the capacity for carrying three to four  personnel per response. The objective was not to replace all front-line engines with this style of vehicle but to use this vehicle on our center city EMS-related responses when in quarters. Using this vehicle would curtail maintenance costs and excessive wear and tear that would occur if the front-line engine were used for EMS calls. In case of structural or vehicular fire responses, the CAFS and preconnected 1¾-inch hoseline on the transport could be used as a stopgap measure to contain the fire until the second-due engine arrives for additional resource allocation.

This was not considered a popular move, but we presented our reasons for supporting this purchase concept. They included the fact that this vehicle could be used for rehabilitating fire crews when fighting fires and also provide a patient treatment area, protecting patients from extreme heat, rain, and the cold. In essence, the vehicle will have multiple uses. Once we presented this vehicle as an alternative, the council voted for the purchase cost in the interim, until our economy permits additional purchases of new engines to replace our aging fleet. The city council and city manager, however, were aware of the need to replace our front-line engines and to boost reserve apparatus. 

Jeffrey Schwering, captain,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
Our maintenance programs are holding up well, thanks to members of the department who are assisting our maintenance officer with many in-house repairs. These in-house repairs and regular maintenance keep the engines running well. Our proactive maintenance program saves the city hundreds of dollars annually. We are in the middle of budgets now; until that is finished, our status for 2010 is unknown.

As far as apparatus purchase is concerned, nothing has been mentioned to indicate a new engine in the near future. Our oldest engine is our spare. It is a 1987 Seagrave and is still a workhorse. Frontline companies are a 2000 Pierce Dash that we able to purchase used and a 1995 Seagrave engine. With budgets and the economy the way they are, it appears that we, like many departments, will have to wait and see.

Jeff Abbott, deputy chief,
Decatur (IL) Fire Department
Fortunately, we were able to purchase two pumpers last year before the economy tanked. Unfortunately, we have a $900,000 aerial platform that needs to be replaced, and now there is no money to replace it. We have moved our quints to stations where they will not have to run as many calls. This was done to extend their useful life. One measure our city has taken to weather the economic storm was to stop contributing to our vehicle replacement fund. This is a short-term fix that can have long-term maintenance issues for us. We hope that the economy rebounds before we are faced with the maintenance issues.

John Staley, chief,
Thornton (CO) Fire/EMS
The most important impact the economy has had on our purchases has been to consider stock equipment and demos. Although the department still prefers custom-built units, we have contacted apparatus manufacturers expressing an interest in their stock units and demos because of the difference in costs. Second, the economy has forced us to look at the use of our equipment and apparatus and to consider alternatives in using and operating them. The department has contacted a couple of apparatus manufacturers and inquired about the types of materials used to construct the pumpers. Line personnel have suggested using composite materials to fabricate the bodies or using lighter-weight materials for compartment interiors; we are even rethinking the volume of equipment we carry on the frontline apparatus. Finally, we have mandated that all further purchases will be bid as a three-year payment program as opposed to total payment made on delivery.

Mark Greatorex, chief,
Hamilton Township (OH) Fire Rescue
Our department has established a replacement schedule for our apparatus. We put money aside each year for apparatus replacements or upgrades. We need to replace our 1985 open jumpseat apparatus, but the economy has slowed this down for us. Along with economic reasons, the new standards on emissions and the new NFPA standards are also factors. They have increased the overall price of the apparatus. We have looked at remounting the body from our 1996 pumper onto a new chassis, which is estimated to cost between $250,000 and $300,000. But, is this a sound alternative? We would still have the 1985 as our spare.

As far as maintenance issues are concerned, we still believe in following the recommendations of the manufacturer and the component manufacturers. We still service our apparatus at 250 hours; this will not change. I tell my crews that their safety and protection are their first priority. If something is wrong with a vehicle, it is to be taken to maintenance and repaired in the quickest manner possible. If departments are “skimping” on apparatus repairs and increasing their maintenance intervals, beware. This could come back to bite you in the litigation process. The days of fixing fire apparatus with bailing wire, string, and duct tape are behind us.

Julian Rapps, firefighter,
Langford (British Columbia, Can.) Fire Rescue
We have bought secondhand equipment from the United States–a 2000 aerial from Denver in 2007, a 2000 rescue from Alabama in 2008, and a new pumper from Crimson Fire in 2009.

Charlie Cahill, assistant chief,                
Westmere (NY) Fire Department
We have been fortunate that we have a line in our yearly budget a line for placing monies for future apparatus purchases. We are able to pay cash for our apparatus when the time comes for replacement. As a volunteer department that does not do EMS, we are able to hold our apparatus for 10 years without the need to replace it. With three engines, a truck, and a heavy rescue, this is a great savings.

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