Offsetting Fuel Costs

I am so glad I retired! No, really! Don’t get me wrong. I miss “most” of the members of my department. I miss the work and the feeling I would get walking back to my car after going to a fire or other emergency, knowing that “we” helped and made a difference in someone’s life.

But, I don’t miss the politics, and I sure don’t miss the silliness. By silliness, I mean the city administrators making (or trying to make) rules that they believe affect the city lawyer, accountant, or garbage worker the same as a firefighter—rules such as “Never leave your city-owned vehicle idling.” No problem—we don’t need to “run” fire engines at fires. Hydrant pressure still provides “some” water out of the nozzle, and ground ladders can reach “most” of the roofs in the city.

All cities go through tough economic times from time to time. In Toledo, it seemed as if we had more than our share of tough economic times. This latest bout was equally as challenging. In the past few years, we have cut personnel in staff positions, “take-home cars,” and city-issued cell phones and pagers.

As you are aware, gasoline prices soared around the middle of 2008. [Editor’s note: Gas was @ $4 a gallon when respondents sent in these answers, but the price of fuel always has the potential for volatility.]

To offset those costs, the few staff chiefs allowed to take their cars home because of “on-call” status for multiple-alarm fires are now being required to pay for the gasoline they use driving to and from work. That will certainly save a few hundred dollars a year out of a $10 million deficit. (That’s why I am glad I am retired!)

—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 is your department doing to offset fuel costs?

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: Hillsboro has a long-standing practice of evaluating and using alternative-fueled vehicles whenever appropriate. Currently, the fire department’s fleet uses gas/diesel-powered vehicles. In our 2008/09 budget message to all of our employees, we asked them to reflect on the economy in general and our fiduciary responsibilities as a department and as they relate specifically to fuel consumption. We were asked to tighten our belts.

Management, fire inspectors, emergency management, training, fire education, and other authorized staff members are making adjustments in the day-to-day usage of their city vehicles. Whenever possible, we are conserving fuel through planning our daily trips and carpooling while attending meetings, functions, and trainings. An example of this is our employees walking or using the light-rail system to attend meetings, training, or functions whenever possible and the event is within a reasonable distance.

We have also made some adjustments in emergency services. When on an emergency incident scene and not engaged in aerial or pumping operations, we turn off the apparatus and use the warning lights if it is not parked in a legal manner.

We are being more economical in the fuel consumption aspect of our budget; this is demonstrated to the community through our actions.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: We implemented several years ago a program to do what we can to conserve energy. We make sure we turn off lights, etc. when not in a room, have changed lights to energy-efficient fixtures, and switched to bulbs that are more energy efficient.

We wash in cold water as much as possible and make sure that our hot water heaters are set at the right temperatures. The thermostats are set at comfortable settings.

Fuel-wise, we’ve reduced as many of the unnecessary trips out of the firehouse as possible and have the battalion chiefs deliver more items on their daily rounds. When ambulances are in training and have to keep the engine running to keep the medications from the excessive heat, we have members plug the units into an electrical outlet and shut off the engine. We shut down an engine any time we can. We carpool staff for meetings and lunch as much as possible. It adds up.

What we will not do is cut our emergency responses in any way people- or apparatus-wise. We are responding with the same number of apparatus to incidents as in the past. There’s some pretty scary stuff going on right now with departments sending only one rig to a reported structure fire until the fire is confirmed. We just don’t want to put our people behind the eight ball any farther than we have to. Someone’s going to have to close a pool down or let some grass grow in the medians or something before we jeopardize the safety of our firefighters.

Elby Bushong III, deputy chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: The cost of providing service and the current downturn in the economy are affecting all areas within our department. Fuel consumption and vehicle maintenance are two areas in which we have attempted to cut costs. Company officers have been advised to shut down the apparatus when possible; this will help reduce fuel costs and put less wear and tear on the apparatus. We have cut back on all nonessential driving. Training and other essential activities will not be affected.

The cost of maintenance, hopefully, will be affected by the reduced number of engine hours. We are also increasing the use of alternate vehicles in our fleet, such as ladder tenders (smaller co-staffed trucks that have basic life support medical equipment, a full complement of extrication tools, and saws for ventilation). These trucks cost considerably less to maintain than the larger ladder trucks, and fuel consumption is also reduced. The company officer can use the apparatus that will best meet the needs of the incident. We will evaluate the results of these policies to determine the overall savings and to see if we can make any additional changes in our operations.

Craig H. Shelley,
fire protection advisor,
Saudi Arabia

Response: Although our department is fortunate not to be immediately affected by rising fuel costs because of our location, I can empathize with those departments that are affected. In addition to rising fuel costs, most municipalities have also been hit with reductions in income, resulting in forced spending freezes for many fire departments. In addition to planning for rising fuel costs, fire chiefs must also plan for reduced funding—a double hit on the budget.

Some ideas that can be used to reduce fuel costs would be to educate personnel in the need to reduce energy costs with specific examples such as turning off lights when rooms are not in use, reducing water temperature for station domestic water, automatic closing of station overhead doors, lowering thermostat settings, and altering responses. Many departments may have to rethink response assignments, reducing the number of first-response vehicles or responding nonemergency for second- or third-due apparatus unless a fire is confirmed. The risk vs. benefit of such a program would have to be evaluated after reviewing previous responses. Since all apparatus most likely have radios, very little time would be lost transitioning from a nonemergency mode to a full emergency mode. Every initiative will help in trying to balance the rising fuel costs with reduced budget allotments. Firefighters and fire officers must recognize the seriousness of the situation and act responsibly.

Michael T. Metro, assistant chief,
Los Angeles County (CA)
Fire Department

Response: With a department as large as ours and the number of vehicles, rising fuel costs have impacted our budget. The following are some of the things we have been doing: purchasing hybrids for staff vehicles, evaluating “clean idle vehicles” for our paramedic squad fleet, evaluating alternative fuel vehicles, and seeking grants for repowering and replacing vehicles.

Also, we purchase fuel in bulk, since each of our fire stations has its own fueling pumps. The vendors with which we contract broker the fuel each day with their distributors to get the best price.

Mike Bucy, assistant chief,
Portage (IN) Fire Department

Response: This is a hard category to manage since transportation is essential to what we do. We like giving our personnel the freedom to roam—our belief is that it keeps our drivers’ driving skills sharper and enables the crews to keep an eye on things going on in their district. Given that, we have worked with a company that has a product that targets better performance for motors that has a residual effect of saving two to three percent in gas mileage. Unfortunately, as is the case for most services, we are experiencing a five to six percent increase in run volume. Crews are keenly aware of the public image as well and try to keep nonruns to a minimum and to combine several nonessential trips into one trip. This is an open question that may have different answers this time next year.

Bart Hadley, chief,
Lawton (OK) Fire Department

Response: Increased fuel costs have had a major impact on our city’s budget. With fire as one of the larger fuel-consuming departments within our city, I attacked this issue from three angles. First, we’ve reduced emergency vehicle response in several areas. We were careful not to overreact; we were prudent in how we reduced the number of calls to which we respond and the number of companies typically responding to these calls. For example, on a reported single-car MVA with injury, but without the need for patient extrication, we’ve reduced our standard response to a single engine company. Similarly, on most residential automatic alarms, we’ve reduced our initial response to two companies, only one responding Code 3. In addition, we’ve reduced the number of less serious emergency medical calls to which we respond.

The second area addressed was reducing nonessential fire vehicle usage. We implemented further limitations on the types of usage allowed. This coupled with a newly developed “idling” policy helped reduce our nonessential fuel consumption.

The third area addressed our fueling process. We have implemented a more cost-effective refueling procedure by using a tow vehicle (received through a grant) to provide mobile refueling capabilities to outlying stations. The key to having these moves viewed as “appropriate” proactive decisions is to include personnel. They are vital to the citizens’ overall view of us as stewards of the tax dollars they provide.

David “Chip” Comstock, chief,
Western Reserve (OH)
Joint Fire District

Response: Our department has not changed its operations. We structure our current responses to single- or multiple-station responses, depending on the nature of the call. We use single engines or squads wherever possible. Because our department cannot reduce the number of vehicles responding, the increase in fuel costs results in a reduction in spending in other nonfixed expenditure areas such as equipment or vehicle replacement. One variable expenditure area, training, has not yet been affected, but as travel expenditures increase because of increased fuel costs, attendance at some training venues may have to be curtailed.

Michael J. Lopina, lieutenant/paramedic,
Lockport Township (IL) Fire Department

Response: We have not done anything to alter our fuel consumption. Our chiefs asked us for input on limiting responses on automatic alarms, etc., but the chiefs and officers decided it was best to keep responses the way they are. We had many discussions about reducing the number of apparatus sent to runs but ultimately decided that it was not in our best interest or that of our customers. While most automatic alarms are false and the bean counters would have you believe that sending fewer rigs on a run would be cost effective and not harm the customers, this past April we had an extra-alarm fire in a transient hotel that resulted in several rescues of residents and one fatality. It was an automatic alarm that alerted us to the scene; no 911 calls were ever placed. Had that been a reduced response, there is no doubt that the number of fatalities would have been higher and the damage done by the fire would have been far greater. There are things most departments can sacrifice to make up for the rising fuel costs other than reducing the number of rigs sent to a call.

Jay Womack, lieutenant,
Euclid (OH) Fire Department

Response: Our assistant chief outlined a new vehicle operations policy in an attempt to reduce operational fuel costs. The policy basically states that vehicle engines will be shut off anytime a vehicle will be idling more than five minutes. This would include company inspections, training not involving the apparatus, and any other nonemergency setting. Our vehicle maintenance supervisor assured us that operating diesel vehicles this way is acceptable. The policy is pretty much common sense, asking people to be frugal with fuel usage the way they probably are with their personal vehicles.

Nate Morgans, captain,
Tulsa (OK) Fire Department

Response: Our department has recently done considerable amounts of research and planning to curtail our fuel consumption rate. Some of these fuel-reduction measures include shutting down nonworking apparatus at working fires and medical emergencies, excluding motor vehicle accidents, and a general reduction of drive time normally associated with station life (one trip to the store). These measures obviously only concern those in field operations. Staff personnel are also required to reduce drive times if possible. Recently, our district was assigned a new district chief. He has asked us to monitor both fuel consumed and miles driven, to determine our normal miles-per-gallon (mpg) rate. I work at a two-company station. As of this week, the engine gets about 3.92 mpg. On the other hand, our ladder gets about 1.9 something mpg. With these rates of fuel consumption, no wonder the fire service is freaking out about fuel cost. Perhaps more will be done in the future to improve mpg rates on newer apparatus. I wonder what the ’84 Mack pumper that was a reserve at my station when I was hired had for an mpg. It was darn sure a lot less.

Mark S. Hall, assistant chief,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department

Response: One of our members came up with an idea for fuel conservation. The chief endorsed the member’s recommendation and sent it out in a numbered memo to all personnel (see below). Creative ideas are abundant in the department; we just have to be willing to listen.

On September 28, Member Norm Stout wrote: “A few months ago, a suggestion was made to management that we turn off department vehicles as often as possible instead of letting them idle needlessly. The purpose of this was to reduce fuel consumption, increase vehicle life, and reduce the exposure of personnel and patients to dangerous particulate matter in diesel soot and carcinogenic benzene.”

Management liked this idea and wanted to run with it. Wisely, management chose to make it a suggestion—not a new rule or policy. The hope was that people would use good judgment, the same good judgment they use in handling all the details of a call that do not require a new policy. The battalion chiefs passed this suggestion along in meetings with their crews. The chief also reinforced this in a multipurpose memo that described other cost-saving measures.

The crews at my station initially met this idea with the typical cynicism. They had half a dozen reasons why it was a bad idea. It didn’t take long or much discussion for them to realize, however, that mainly firehouse culture was affecting their decision making. The crews at my station, on my shift, have been very receptive of all of these concepts. The end results have been that you are not breathing carcinogenic fumes when working on a patient outside near the apparatus, you are loading the gurney in a much quieter environment, and you can roll hose beside the fire truck in fresh air—and you put less fuel in the rig at the end of the shift.

Some crews have been practicing this long before it was ever brought up; I compliment them for their forward thinking. On the other hand, there is still some resistance and a lack of awareness on other shifts and in other stations. It may be that the battalion chiefs’ minimal discussion when they introduced the measure was not enough to move this along.

Management saw the wisdom and cost savings of this idea; if we don’t make it happen on reasonable, non-policy terms, management will find a way to make it a rule. We don’t need any more rules. We need to use the same judgment while at work that we use at home. We don’t leave our garage doors open with the heater running at home. Why do it at the fire station? We don’t leave our lights on at home unnecessarily. Why do it at the fire station? We don’t leave our personal vehicle idling needlessly, with gas more than $4 a gallon. These points don’t even begin to address the associated health issues of exhaust inhalation.

There are many online sources that convey different recommendations about idling. Some say it is more efficient and better for operating components of a diesel engine to shut it down than to keep it at a low idle. I encourage you to do some research on your own.

Garry Phipps, captain,
Greenville (NC) Fire Rescue

Response: In an effort to offset increased fuel prices and spot shortages, we have instituted practices such as the following:

  • Responses to unconfirmed automatic fire alarms will be reduced to two fire engines, one EMS unit, and a battalion chief.
  • When operating at an extended emergency scene, units are to shut down unless they are required for operational needs.
  • On arrival at the emergency department, EMS units with an expected turnaround time of five minutes or greater are to shut down the engine.
  • Crews are limited to one trip per day for expressly obtaining meals or groceries.
  • Staff attending the same function or activity should strive to carpool when practical.
  • Units operating at a training function will have the engines shut down unless operational needs require otherwise.
  • Use lower-consumption fuel vehicles for out-of-town trips.

Scott Mensing, lieutenant,
Wheaton (IL) Fire Department

Response: We have a directive to turn off vehicles while on calls if possible. When vehicles are out of quarters for training, fuel, shopping, and other errands, they are to be turned off when parked. The directive also asks that all errands be run on one trip. Each station has a car that can be used for fire inspections, going to headquarters, or other areas in the city that can be handled without taking the engine or tower ladder. This all makes sense and is something we have been doing for a long time except for turning vehicles off at calls. This directive came out in the summer months; in cold-weather months, we should be seeing an addendum that addresses cold-weather operations.

Michael Zywanski, acting chief,
Naperville (IL) Fire Department

Response: Naperville and the Naperville Fire Department have created and instituted a three-tiered approach to fuel conservation measures. Tier 1 includes measures such as shutting down nonessential vehicles at multicompany incidents, reducing nonessential trips, altering driving habits, scheduling fire inspections by map grid to make more efficient use of time and fuel, and conducting follow-ups on minor violations by phone calls. Tier II measures include repositioning reserve apparatus, restricting shopping locations in still districts, altering how annual medical exams are conducted, and adjusting responses. Tier III measures affect how services are delivered. Hopefully, we will not need to use Tiers II and III measures.

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