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Drive it Until the Wheels Fall Off? Are You Kidding Me?

by Mike Kennedy

EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

How old are the apparatus and trucks in your department? Ask any fire chief and the answer you will probably get is pretty close to 15 years old. Finding accurate data on the national average age of fire apparatus and trucks is very hard to do without sending a survey to the estimated 30,000 fire departments in the country (1). However, a 1999 applied research project conducted by Steve Pollock of the Odessa, TX Fire Department and submitted to the National Fire Academy shows the average age of apparatus in 17 Texas departments that responded to his survey, was then anywhere from 4.3 years for ambulances, 17.5 for pumpers and 20 years for ladders.

Let’s put this in perspective by asking a question similar to the one posed above. How many 17 year old personally owned vehicles are in your driveway? If you answered that question with any number higher than 0, chances are it’s a hand me down driven by your teenagers that you paid a couple hundred bucks for so that they quit driving your car. Now granted, none of your vehicles cost between $500,000 and a $1,000,000.00 (2), so factor that in too. But the idea that fire departments anywhere in this country drive to a fire and or other emergency situation in a 17 year old vehicle and then use it to protect and rescue the public seems appalling. But, what can be done? Your city or county has a limited budget and sometimes getting them to approve funding of the amount required to purchase the apparatus you need can be daunting.

Given the high cost of buying new apparatus and limited budgets, maintenance has to be a priority. But major questions have to be answered here too. In a 2012 article for Fire Rescue 1 entitled, Analysis: When to repair or replace fire trucks, John Hill reminds us that while maintaining and repairing a vehicle during its useful life is crucial, the decision to repair or replace gets difficult when the vehicles need repairs to reach the end of that useful life. Hill goes on to encourage a better way to think about these decisions. According to Hill, repairing represents an investment in a decision with a shorter useful life, and replacing means investing in a decision with a longer useful life. He concludes this train of thought by saying that by doing it this way, decision makers can view and compare the options side by side and come to a decision that is wise financially and makes the most sense.

Every situation involved in making these decisions is different and each is affected by factors Hill points out in his article; cost of the repairs, cost of replacement, useful life of a repaired truck, and the useful life of a new truck. Sometimes though, there are non-financial factors that have to be considered and in many cases make the replace decision much easier. For instance, parts for repairing the old apparatus may not be available, safety is compromised by the old condition of the old apparatus, the old apparatus may no longer be in compliance, or is simply no longer dependable. To quote Hill, “Then, it may be followed with a short-form financial analysis that sounds like: "Well, we can repair this truck for $20,000 and it'll be good for another five years or we can spend $300,000 for a new truck that will last for 20 years." It seems like a choice between $4,000 per year and / or $15,000 per year.”

Pollock’s research project further validates the other factors that need to be considered when considering apparatus replacement. The unit’s routine workload, physical condition, and the amount of preventive maintenance it has received during its lifetime tend to be better indicators of whether the apparatus is still reliable for first-line duty (3). What justifies and magnifies the need for apparatus replacement is escalating maintenance costs, increased downtime, and noncompliance with new standards. The need to address these concerns, and the desire to increase efficiency are good reasons to replace outdated equipment (4)). Remember too that the older the apparatus is, the less fuel efficient it is. Fuel costs money and the more fuel you use, the more money you spend. Also, don’t forget the insurance premiums.

Hill’s article does a great job of highlighting the “intangibles” concerning the repair or replace decision. “Safety, recruitment, morale, or liability to continue to use an older, repaired truck. It's important to include an amount for all these costs in the analysis.” He goes on to offer a means putting numbers to these intangibles. For more detail click here.

Pollock’s closing remarks provide clarity to the bottom-line issue at hand on this topic. “When this equipment is worn out, outdated, or unsafe it makes it that much harder to accomplish our mission.” To ensure reliable apparatus and equipment are available at all times, it is the duty of fire service leaders to develop plans to replace equipment on a regular systematic basis. Because unlimited tax dollars are not available to the fire service it has become the responsibility of the leaders of the fire service to identify the means to fund the needed improvements.”

Good maintenance plans, replacement schedules, and a good breakdown of costs are imperative for keeping your apparatus in good working order so that you don’t have to drive them until the wheels fall off. This article provides information to help you do all that.

Additional funding resources and information:

(Article) Finding Your Funding - Part I
(Article) Finding Your Funding - Part II
(Article) Finding Your Funding - Part III: Surplus Equipment Programs
(Article) You Need HOW MUCH?? The Cost benefit Analysis
(Article) Before You Buy: Capturing Requirements for Equipment

NFPA 1911: Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus.

References and Notes

1.   National Fire Department Census. As of January 2012, there were 26,482 fire departments registered with the census. This is about 88 percent of the departments estimated to be in the United States. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated there were 30,125 fire departments in the United States in 2010.
2.   FAQ page Dover, Delaware Volunteer Fire Department website. Oldest in-service truck is 1997 Pierce Lance Rescue, newest in-service truck is 2011 Pierce Quantum Ladder.
3.   Pollock reference for this information: Peters, W. (1995). Fire Department Apparatus. Fire Chiefs Handbook 5th ed., Fire Engineering Books and Videos.
4.   Peters, W. (1995). Fire Department Apparatus. Fire Chiefs Handbook 5th ed., Fire Engineering Books and Videos.

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