Fall marks the start of a new model year for cars. Once, select dealers would hold sneak previews and car makers would place glossy ads in magazines and on television that showed new features that would change oneâ€™s lifestyle. And everyone knew someone who would rush out to be the first to own next yearâ€™s model.
As much as I fancy myself a car aficionado, I drive a 13-year-old car. I didnâ€™t intend to keep my car for so long, but I dread the haggling associated with buying a new car and I happen to like my current car. It only has 90,000 miles on it, so hopefully it still has plenty of life left in it â€” which is why I bought a make with a solid reputation.
Sure, a newer model would have more electronic gizmos, but you donâ€™t miss what you never had.
For the fire service, the new model year typically is in the spring, when manufacturers showcase their new apparatus at the big industry trade shows. While itâ€™s not an apples-to-apples comparison, there are similar things to consider before buying a car or a fire truck: How will the vehicle be used? Whatâ€™s the reputation of the manufacturer? How is the customer service? What are the operating costs and maintenance required?
The depressed economy has hit fire- and emergency-service manufacturers and service providers pretty hard. The fire-truck market has shrunk three years in a row, and according to one industry consultant, fire truck sales are estimated to be down 40% from their annual average of 5,000 trucks.
Right now might be the best time to purchase a new fire truck. But that might not be an option, as many departments are being forced to delay the purchase of new vehicles because of declining property and retail tax revenues. Those that do place orders appear to be specifying more multipurpose vehicles or foregoing some features.
But whichever category your department falls into, emergency vehicle maintenance has never been as critical as it is today.
I recently spoke with Hank Henninger, FIRE CHIEFâ€™s 2011 Emergency Vehicle Technician of the Year. He told me that when he first started working on fire trucks, his employer primarily did refurbishing. In 1985, Henninger was part of a team that redesigned, re-engineered and refurbished a 1963 model, 100-foot ladder truck for Ossinger, N.Y. The team added a roof to the rigâ€™s open cab, installed crank windows, put in a diesel-automatic engine and a new generator, and added new cabinets. After a year of work, the fire department put the truck back in service, where it stayed until 2003.
While refurbishing a 20-year-old truck to last another 20 years raises safety and NFPA-compliance concerns, the current economy is forcing many departments to operate apparatus years beyond expectations. Whatâ€™s a fire chief to do?
If a fire department canâ€™t afford to buy new apparatus, then fire chiefs must take responsibility to ensure that the vehicles follow strict maintenance schedules and are repaired in a timely manner. This requires working closely with fleet supervisors or emergency vehicle technicians, including those who work for independent contractors or municipal or public-works garages.
Fire departments can hold off purchasing new vehicles only for so long, and eventually the purchasing pendulum will swing back. Until that time, however, it is imperative that chiefs and their officers ensure that every vehicle in the fleet is well-maintained and safely operated. From the mechanic or technician in your shop, to the firefighters who perform the morning checks, the safety of your apparatus is everyoneâ€™s job â€” and the safe operation of apparatus has never been more critical.
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- Tips from a Pro: The Economy's Impact on Apparatus Budgets