What is in this article?:
A Virginia department unveils a new approach to apparatus replacement that measures the financial lifecycle of the apparatus, analyzes and projects both current and future needs, and objectively communicates those needs to purse-string holders.
(Appeared in print as "No More Guesswork")
Most metropolitan fire-department fleet managers would agree that keeping an aging fire truck — with its high maintenance costs and obsolete functionality — is akin to throwing good money after bad. But it’s much harder to find agreement on when that tipping point has been reached. Indeed, there are no black-and-white or industry-accepted methods for measuring the depreciation of a custom-built fire truck.
So, how do you empirically demonstrate that a particular fire apparatus is costing the community more to maintain than what the community is getting in return? How do you prove — using data that budget officials will accept — that a replacement fire truck is needed?
The Henrico County (Va.) Division of Fire set out to answer that question last year. To prepare for the possibility of changes to the department budget, members dug deep into the files to find an analytical tool that would enable them to articulate the department’s apparatus replacement needs with a high degree of confidence. In the end, they developed a completely new approach that let them measure the financial life-cycle of fire apparatus, analyze and project both current and future needs, and communicate those needs in an objective manner.
The result was positive. The department emerged from one of its most-difficult budgets ever with its multi-year apparatus replacement plan completely intact and with a strong commitment from the county’s board of supervisors to maintain that plan into the future.
Preparing a Plan
Henrico County is a suburb of Richmond, and surrounds the city on three sides. The Division of Fire is an accredited agency serving about 300,000 residents and operates out of 20 fire stations with a compliment of 517 career firefighters. It maintains 27 engine companies (20 front-line and seven reserve), seven tower ladders (five front-line and two reserve), four heavy rescues (three front-line and one reserve) and 21 ambulances (14 front-line and seven reserve). Apparatus are maintained by seven full-time EVT-certified mechanics, with occasional outside repairs performed by local service centers.
The division did not have a formal replacement plan for fire apparatus prior to 1996. Instead, the department requested apparatus as “supplements” to the budget on an as-needed basis. Specifications changed frequently, resulting in a fleet with excessive age and significant maintenance costs, front-line units with poor reliability, a number of obsolete apparatus still in service, and wide inconsistencies in mechanical systems (different motors, transmissions, pumps and more) that challenge the mechanics. From a financial-planning standpoint, inconsistent fleet replacement practices over periods of years created significant peaks and valleys in funding levels, making forecasting of future needs difficult and inconsistent.
In 1996, the department’s leadership proposed a multi-year replacement plan. The plan had a number of components and goals, the first of which was to standardize apparatus specifications to ensure consistent equipment with consistent capabilities. The department formed an apparatus committee, and mandated the development of specifications that would reduce variation in the fleet and enhance both capabilities and reliability.
The second goal of the replacement program was to provide a financial planning tool that would allow for an annual appropriation to be included in the division’s base budget. This required a multi-year, phased-in approach to apparatus replacement without exceeding the appropriated amount and without seeking different funding levels every year. For the purpose of planning, the goal was to replace engines after 10 years of front-line service, and to replace ladder trucks after 12 years of front-line service. The plan did not articulate how long apparatus would remain in reserve status.
The development of the replacement plan was a watershed moment for the division. By 2009, every piece of front-line equipment was obtained under this new plan. The results have been positive: The department now operates a very consistent, standardized fleet. The mechanics know the trucks inside and out, and are familiar with the issues that are unique to the models purchased. Over the years, the division has refined the specifications based on issues and needs. The repair shop is able to maintain a reliable stock of common spare parts, and mechanics are able to spend more time on preventive maintenance and less on repairs, from 20/80 in 1997 to 50/50 in 2009.