Mobile Fire Apparatus: United States vs. Europe

By George H. Potter

How many standard European urban pumpers would you need to compete with a 1,750-gpm municipal engine from the United States? Four, operating at maximum output of 413 gallons per minute (gpm) (1,600 liters per minute (lpm)). This essentially describes the many differences between North American and European concepts in mobile fire apparatus. There are many more subtle and complex differences, some of which have been interchanged over the years.

The history of mobile fire apparatus design and construction in both the United States and many European countries goes back to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century. Historic names such as American LaFrance, Peter Pirsch, Darley, Mack, Ahrens-Fox, Hi Ranger, Waterous, and Hale have come (and some have gone) in the United States, as have Magirus, Metz, Merryweather, Chubb, Simon, Godiva, Camiva, Rosenbauer, Bachart, Ziegler, Bronto, and Baribbi in Europe. Some of these have crossed the Atlantic Ocean in both directions, establishing operations in the truly distictive markets, adapting their respective design philosophies to comply with the local requirements and gaining inroads in these markets.

The basic American pumper concept has been plenty of horsepower coupled to pumps that can flow up to 2,000 gpm. (The Fire Department of New York’s “super pumper” has its own place in history). Nearly all North American engines have their pumps mounted after the transmission, thus taking advantage of 90 percent or more of the motor’s power. Some builders still supply front-mount pumps connected to the engine’s flywheel, which also uses nearly all of the motor’s power.

European builders, however, put the pump at the rear of the vehicle, using power takeoff (PTO) and transmission shafts from the gear box to the pump, which results in a power loss of up to 30 percent. There are also some front-mount suppliers to (curiously) many Scandinavian fire services. Quite often, front mounts are used on lightweight pickups or closed bodied vans as European versions of minipumpers.

Although diesels have been used as the primary engine in the United States since at least 1975, diesel power has prevailed thrioughout Europe for powering all types of vehicles–light- to heavy-duty trucks, buses, and nearly all other types of motor vehicles, even passenger cars, including ultra-sub compacts. Until just this year, diesel fuel for motor vehicles has been cheaper for consumers than gasoline. In passenger cars and light-transport vehicles, diesel fuel offers better mileage with what until now has been considered less contaminating exhaust emissions. Diesels are still the only powerplants used in fire trucks in Europe.

Although in the United States the custom or purpose-built chassis designed and specially equipped for firefighting vehicles has a wide range of applications and suppliers, the Europeans have generally tended to use commercial chassis modified or specifically prepared for use as fire apparatus. Notable exceptions to this have been Magirus of Germany and Merryweather, Dennis, and Carmicheal in England. Magirus is probably the only company that designs and builds almost 100 percent of some of their vehicles; chassis, motor, cab, body, and pump.

The European concept of the “standard” municipal pumper is a six-seat, four-door cab-over-engine truck, with three or more lateral compartments fitted with equipment mounts and separators for rolled hoses of various diameters, all enclosed by aluminium roll-up doors and a rear-mounted, multistage PTO pump with outputs of 400 to 600 gpm at 100 psi and 50 gpm at 600 psi. On-board water tank capacities vary according to each country’s particular general specifications, although the most common volumes vary around 500 gallons, whereas tanks of up to 1,000 gallons are not uncommon, especially in rural areas and smaller municipalities with insufficient fire mains. Ground ladders and hard suction hoses are normally carried on the roof of the body in special racks. In the United Kingdom (and several other countries influenced by British firefighting strategies), many pumpers carry a three-section, 45-foot ladder fitted with stay poles and large-diameter wheels to facilitate movement. These long ground ladders are particularly effective in the central areas of older cities where narrow, winding streets abound, with residential and commercial building no more than four stories in height (about 40 feet).

The use of large-capacity tankers is widely accepted on both continents, again with certain fundamental differences. A European “heavy” tanker may carry as much as 4,200 gallons on a four-axle straight chassis, or more than 6,700 gallons in a tractor drawn elliptical tank (not unlike fuel tankers). European tankers generally carry a full range of auxiliary equipment, although the American concept of “quick dump” into portable tanks for rapid turn around is not generally applied, except in France for rural and forest fire combat. Other countries like Italy and Spain are also looking into this strategy in order to improve capabilities in areas of limiteed access for many types of apparatus.

Aerial devices are another significant area of difference in general concepts for European fire services. Hydraulic extension ladders are rear mounted on custom-built platforms, with vertical reaches of between 50 feet and 122 feet are the most common. However, 145-and 165-foot ladders can be found in many large municipal departments, and Magirus built several 198-foot units in the 1990s. In the mid- to late 1950s, the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department placed at least two Magirus 100-foot rear-mount ladders on special-built Maxim chassis. Today, the concept is taking root with European companies associated with United States suppliers, such as Rosenbauer, among others.

Hydraulic, articulated and, extension platforms are also quite common, with the most common heights of between 66 and 145 feet. Again, special-order rigs have been built and delivered in 198- and 230-foot heights, and Bronto of Finland has built several 333-foot units (33 stories) for the Moscow fire department, among others.

The body work on both types of apparatus (ladders and platforms) is generally configured for carrying only essential equipment: SCBA, hose and accessories, maybe ventilators, and little else, since the task assignments for aerial crews are essentially oriented around vertical access and search and rescue. This is again in line with the general European fire service philosophies of rotating personnel in different positions according to duty tours: today you’re assigned to first response engine, next shift on the ladder, followed by a turn on the rescue rig. European firefighters are really “jacks of all trades.”

Although the aerial platform concept may well have originated in the United States as a variation of the “cherry picker” long used in agricultural and municipal maintenance work, European manufacturers such as Simon and Cella (now merged), Comet, and most of all, Bronto, are now the leaders in concepts and technology. There are also several Japanese fire equipment manufacturers supplying similar apparatus around the world.

Multiple-use rescue trucks and hazmat units are probably the types of vehicles where the differences between North American and European design are minimal. On both continents, these apparatus generally carry quite similar equipment in comparable compartments and lockers and are staffed by similar numbers of personnel. At least two of the major hydraulic rescue spreader and cutter brands used in the United States are of Dutch and German origin, respectively. Regarding hazmat containment and control equipment, Americans and Europeans use a vast array of tools and material from suppliers on both sides of the ocean.

Although the National Fire Protection Association has published several codes on the characteristics, performance, equipment, maintenance, and operation of mobile fire apparatus for the United States fire service, automatic transmissions are very little known in Europe except in aviation fire apparatus. However, several chassis builders have recently offered this option; fire services in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, and France have aquired some units. Fire service leaders are slowly but surely recognizing the need to facilitate apparatus drivers’ concentration on getting their vehicles through the continent’s more and more congested narrow streets safely and as quickly as possible.

George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as firefighter, apparatus driver/operator, and crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain certified as a fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish firefighters’ association ASELF.

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