Fire apparatus originally came into being for one purpose -- to carry men and equipment from the place where it was stored to the scene of the fire. By the beginning of the twentieth century, fire apparatus had become almost as much a work of art as it was a functional piece of equipment.
This "spit and polish" characteristic of fire apparatus was not necessarily a bad thing. It showed the pride that the firefighters showed in their equipment and apparatus and it showed that the Apparatus was well cared for.? Many of the customs that are seen in today's firehouses had their genesis in the maintenance requirements of a bygone era.
In the days of real horsepower the horses tended to deposit? "horse apples" upon the street from time to time. These somewhat offensive articles then littered the streets and roads of the day. As fire apparatus moved over these thoroughfares a certain amount of the dirt and muck from the street became attached to the wheels or spattered on the undercarriage of the vehicles, especially in wet weather. Since this material was not wanted in the firehouse, the practice of washing off the wheels of returning apparatus as they were backed into quarters was initiated; a practice that continues to this day since mud and dirt adhering to rubber tires can ruin the appearance of a freshly mopped apparatus floor just as quickly as could the animal residue of a century ago.
Many of the procedures and practices of bygone eras were initiated for practical reasons, The practice of checking the lights on the apparatus first thing in the morning, for example. It would seem more appropriate to do the "light check" toward evening since the coming darkness would be the time when the lights would be most needed. True enough, but in the days of horse drawn engines and oil lamps things were different, The lamps on the apparatus floor were left burning at night as were the side lights on the engines. This practice was intended to ensure adequate illumination on the apparatus floor and save time in the event of an alarm; it takes time to light a number of oil lamps. These lamps would be running dry by morning so this is the time that they would be filled and readied for the day's events. Other maintenance would need to be performed at this time, blowing the condensate on the steamers, flushing the standby boiler, filling the lubricators all these things needed to be taken care of in preparation for what might turn out to be a busy day. So, being adherents to tradition we still do light check first thing in the early morning.
In the case of fire apparatus form should follow function and function should be meeting the needs of the community served. When the "spit and polish" becomes an end in itself rather than an indication of effort expended to achieve that end, it is possible that we may have strayed a bit far from what was originally intended.
For example, one community was going through the process of purchasing a new pumper. Each of the prospective suppliers presented their bids; but one enterprising salesman, who was well acquainted with the "movers and shakers" of the department and knew what "turned them on" offered to include a "front mounted bell" as standard equipment. His company was awarded the bid even though it was not the lowest and the engine sits on the line today with a "front mounted bell."? The bell is mounted on a chrome plated rod which goes up through the center of the bell and out a hole in the top. No one was aware that the bell had no clapper or means of being rung if it had one.
The manufacturers and salesmen will make whatever you want! The price of the equipment carries a concomitant increase in the size of the salesman's commission check. Thus we have engines with seats upholstered with expensive leathers, air brushed paint jobs depicting exotic scenes, chrome plated dual exhaust stacks chromed wheels and numerous other accouterments, some of which make an engine look like a refugee from the stockcar track. They may be pleasing to the eye of the beholder but they do nothing to enhance the effectiveness of the apparatus at the fire-scene; and; they may actually increase the required maintenance.
In the wake of the incidents of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, large amounts of money, both state and federal, became available for the purchase of fire and emergency equipment. Much of this money has been spent for badly needed improvements to enhance the capability of local emergency response agencies and many of these improvements were long overdue. But some of it (far too much) was spent hurriedly in an effort to get the funds encumbered before some imposed deadline passed or while the proposal was still in effect. With little regard for the actual needs, many departments received equipment they did not order and, in some cases, could not even use. They had neither the personnel trained in the use of the equipment nor the need for it in their community. Meanwhile real needs went unmet.
Another factor which has often been ignored in the selection of apparatus and equipment is the cost of long term operation and maintenance. Today's sophisticated equipment requires constant maintenance. Unlike the fire axe of grandpa's day which was purchased, hung on the engine and forgotten,? today's "black boxes" require batteries, and in some cases connection to a charger; gas cylinders must be recharged, components with shelf lives must be renewed periodically, and instruments must be re-calibrated and standardized. Sometimes very expensive, maintenance cost are not included in grant funding. The terms of the grant usually specify how long the equipment must be kept operational and these operating costs are often not small; sometimes they can wreck havoc with an entire departmental budget.
The other factor is the "one size fits all" mentality of many central government officials and agencies.?
Fire brigades vary in many respects; the needs of an isolated rural plant or production unit, covering many square miles without fire plugs are, quite obviously, vastly different from those of a compact urban district in the industrial part of the city that covers only a few blocks with a hydrant on every corner. Central purchasing decision makers should consider this factor when they decide on equipment purchase but all too often it is ignored and standardized "one size fits all" equipment is the order of the day.