The evolution of the fire apparatus industry

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 The fire apparatus industry is an interesting one. The changes in the companies and the industry as a whole are quite dramatic, not only in technical advances in design and operation, but also in the financial, business and management areas as well.

The American fire apparatus industry is big business, with several thousand units of various design and function being produced yearly. These vary from small to large with widely varied function and capabilities. And noting that many such units easily approach a million US Dollars, the financial management of both manufacturing and sales/administration can generate problems. Likewise, paying for such purchases may be a real project for the Fire Department.

Such financial problems are readily obvious in the latest chapter of the venerable fire apparatus manufacturer American LaFrance. As one of the pioneers in the business, a rich history going back for 180 years, the company has been a well-known, innovative pillar of the fire apparatus industry. But in recent years there have been several closings and reopening of their facilities, including a previous bankruptcy some six years ago. The latest closing was rather quick when on January 17th, several of the manufacturing facilities were abruptly closed and workers dismissed when the financial situation was beyond saving. Apparently this latest closing will be the last one, given the overall financial situation.

Several private and Government entities, including several Fire Departments who had deposits on apparatus being manufactured or in for repairs, are left in limbo. The entire financial and management situation continues to unfold.

The volatility of the fire apparatus business is well known, with companies going in and out of business, merging with other companies and changing names. In fact there is a whole history book that lists the story of every fire apparatus builder in America. It’s quite a family tree and a fascinating heritage of the Fire Service. While competitors to American Lafrance are sorry to see them close, this event gives a black eye to the whole fire apparatus Industry. Collectors of emblems covet their acquisition and the cataloguing of changes in the business. And the antique fire apparatus collectors, notably the SPAAMFAA (Society of the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America) scramble to preserve the history and memories of such products.

And as the vehicles get bigger, more complicated, heavier and expensive, the funding necessary for such acquisitions can get rather inadequate and scarce. Between the National Fire Protection Association requirements in their published standards (which may be adopted by an Authority Having Jurisdiction), the promulgations of the Federal Department of Transportation and other Federal Government agencies, as well as the developments in the truck industry, the products are not as simple as they used to be. The development of the various EPA (Environmental Protection Administration – US Government) alone have caused a number of significant changes in engines and accessories. Certainly a lot of ‘progress’ is appropriate, necessary, and quite useful but at the same time the financial aspects and operational considerations of Fire Department management are significantly more complicated.

Another subject hitting the fire service news of late is the rising frequency of fire-fighter deaths and injuries. While a significant percentage of these deaths are “simple” heart attacks there have been several multiple fireground deaths as well. And the tragedy of the 19 Forestry Fire-fighter deaths in Arizona made a spike in the numbers. While there are concerted efforts by several groups to address the health and safety problems of fire-fighters the toll continues to rise.

The United States Federal Emergency Management Administration reports there some 1.1 million fire-fighters in the US with some 31% career (paid) and 69% volunteer responding with from 55.400 fire stations. There were some 30.1 million calls in 2011 with 2/3 of them for medical help, 7.6% false alarms of various types, with only 4.6% actual fire emergencies and the remainder for miscellaneous attendance.

FEMA also has reported some 101 fire-fighters fatalities for the year 2013 with 29% being career, 41% volunteer, and 21% wild land fire-fighters with the remainder being contract personnel. The total reported in 2012 was 81. And 2014 is not off to be a good start, the mid-February total is already 17, which does not bode well for a reduction in the year’s total.

Other agencies and organizations report different and lesser totals and there appears to be some difference in how deaths are listed and categorised the totals and breakdowns of causes are varied with the agencies involved, such as NFPA and NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) investigating several of the deadly incidents. Certainly any death or serious injury is one too many. Even with enhanced safety gear (PPE Personal Protection Ensemble) and other safety related equipment/management, fire-fighter deaths and injuries occur regularly. In England there is a report of an alarming trend of increasing death and injuries amongst fire-fighters but a complete statistical analysis needs to be forthcoming in order to reach valid conclusions.

In any event, Fire Departments need to redouble their efforts to ensure personnel are properly equipped, trained, and supervised in this age of hazards and operational changes.

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