Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
Gadgets, gimmicks and gizmos
Volume 24, No. 2

When "apparatus" is mentioned in the context of the fire service one normally thinks in terms of motor trucks, the basis for nearly all land based fire suppression equipment. This is true to the extent that, in the lay mind the term "fire truck" is still the norm in spite of the fact that a "truck" carries ladders or other similar equipment. An engine carries pumps, hoses, nozzles and other appliances associated with the application of suppressants, to the fire ground and a "utility" transports firefighters, air compressors or power generators. In the final analysis, they are all motor trucks modified and fitted for a particular task within the spectrum of emergency response.

The basic function of any fire apparatus is to transport requisite fire fighting equipment to the scene of the fire. Apparatus has evolved from the simple two-man "barrow" of colonial days to the diesel powered behemoth of today which not only transports equipment but firefighters as well and does it in air conditioned comfort. It even powers the equipment after it has arrived at the fire ground.

As motor fire apparatus evolved, it became more and more sophisticated (some might say complicated). The first motorized apparatus was nothing more than an automobile chases (probably a Model T) with the body removed and replaced by a box to hold a load of hose and a nozzle -- nothing sophisticated or complicated about that. Then some skillful shade tree mechanic with a bit of insight noticed one of these "trucks" sitting idly by while a fire was being fought and conceived the notion of installing a tank in the bottom of the hose bed and attaching a pump to the engine to boost the water pressure. Voila! the motor pumper was born.

Early fire apparatus, especially in small town America and industrial plants, was often home-built and the practice of departments constructing their own apparatus was stimulated by the economic constraints of the "Great Depression" and the material shortages imposed by World War II.

I'm not just walking down memory lane. Apparatus from the past is offered as a basis for comparison.

I recently attended a demonstration of present day fire apparatus put on by one of the commercial apparatus dealers in conjunction with our local fire department in observance of Fire Prevention Week. The demonstration piece was one of their largest top-of-the-line municipal type engines and it was a beauty.

This engine was big; I would have bet that the old truck that I first served on could have been parked in the hose bed. The driver's compartment looked like the cockpit of a 747 and the pump panel had more lights, knobs, levers and gauges than a dog has fleas. Since the width of an apparatus is limited by what can be driven over the public roads and the length is constrained by the tightness of the curves the vehicle must negotiate, the only option open if one wishes to increase the capacity of the vehicle is to go up. This the designers did; this engine was tall.

This demonstrator engine had every bell and whistle known to the fire service; some of them were needed innovations, some were great labor saving devices and some were simply "cosmetic," but they ran the cost up like a New York elevator and the rep was trying to sell every one of them. He had the attention of every chief in the area and he was maximizing his opportunity. I could not help but make some mental comparisons with a bygone era.

Our old home-made engine was simple; simple to operate and simple to repair. We did most of the work ourselves. If the engine needed a tune up, we hopped across the street to the local auto parts store and bought everything we needed for perhaps $20. A few hours work and our rig was purring like a kitten. The local lawnmower shop had the parts for our auxiliary pump engine and anything else could be had from a mail order fire service supply house. Life was simple.

By way of contrast, the demonstration unit on display was custom made and many of the parts had been modified to the point that they were available only from the vehicle manufacturer. In addition, the diesel engine was so complicated and so loaded down with electronic interlocks that it required a specialized factory technician with a van load of diagnostic equipment to determine what was wrong, let alone work on it. This engine included a secondary compressed air powered starter in addition to the normal electric system. Long gone was the mandatory hand crank. It died with the advent of the diesel. There is just no way any human could possibly crank one of those big brutes, so why insist on a hand crank?

Apparatus such as the one I was shown are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. The cost of maintaining this one engine could have easily exceeded the total budget for my old volunteer department. The cost of maintenance particularly should be taken into account when contemplating the purchase of one of these behemoths. True, they ain't cheap, but they are like herd bulls. It is what they do that counts.

Fire engines normally carry ladders. Traditionally these are carried on racks mounted on the sides of the engine. The demonstration engine that I saw had no sign of a ladder. When I asked about ladders, the operator simply pushed a button; a hydraulic pump began to whir and two arms rose from the top of the hose bed carrying a ladder. They described an arc and came to rest with the ladder positioned at exactly the right height for two firefighters to grab it and walk away.

Next the operator demonstrated the foam proportioner. This was another box filled with electronics and costing almost as much as a small car. When it was activated, it displayed the percentage of foam concentrate being pumped down to three decimal places and controlled the pump and engine throttle.

The pump and hose bed were marvels to behold; the engine was equipped to lay and supply large diameter hose (six inch) as well as the standard 2? inch hose lines. All of the large diameter discharges were fitted with "unisex" couplings. Then came the clincher; how did you get all this large diameter hose back on the rig? No problem, open another compartment and there was a hydraulic contrivance that wound the hose up through a pair of rollers to drain the water and lifts them to the hose bed.

After that I was invited to enter the "cabin;" this engine was a four-door "crew cab" design and the rear seating area would accommodate five firefighters in seats designed to accommodate SCBA and other PPE items, all this in air-conditioned comfort.

Now, I could go on for a very long time extolling all the new and improved attachments to this demonstration rig but I really wanted to call attention to the costs associated with some of these things and raise the question about whether they are they necessary or just "gadgets"? Does the appa-ratus really need to have them or are they "frills" that do little but run up the price and increase maintenance cost.

Any time you considered the purchase of a major piece of apparatus there was a consequent impact on the budget. This impact is usually best described as being "major." Apparatus salesmen were some of the world's best "pitchmen" when it came to adding on to a basic unit, yet some of the "add-ons" were essential or at least very advantageous. For example, The ladder racks on the demonstration engine. There was absolutely no way that an engine crew could unload ladders from this rig from the ground given the height of the rig and the location of the ladders. To put the ladders in the traditional position on the side would have blocked access to the equipment in the side boxes until the ladders were removed. If the completed unit was going to be too tall for the ladders to be easily reached from the ground then the power racks are a "must."

The same was to be said for the device that picked up the hose after a response. The traditional 2?-inch hose was hard enough to handle when it must be loaded into a hose bed, especially after an incident when personnel were tired. The hose was wet and may have contained some residual water. The higher the bed, the harder the task became. Now with the advent of large diameter hoses and consequently larger (i.e. taller) hose-beds the task of picking up and loading becomes almost impossible especially for a crew already exhausted from the effort of response activity. The hose winding equipment is almost indispensable.

On the other hand I had some doubts about the high priced foam proportioner. Do we really need three decimal accuracy? I inquired of the demonstrator how this electronic marvel was utilized, and he told me that when foam was required the pump operator simply pushed a button that put the proportioner in the circuit and then he "inputted" a pre-programmed foam concentration that he wished to use (say three percent). If all went as designed, the electronics added concentrate to the water at the right proportion and we were able to self-adjust for additional lines being opened or others being shut down. I asked how the operator would handle a situation in which there was not enough foam concentrate being added to make good foam. This could be due to having water with a high mineral content ("hard water"), "brackish" water containing salt, a change in the brand or type of foam concentrate or the presence of some material involved in the incident that reacted adversely with the foam. The answer I received was, "Oh just turn this dial a bit to add more concentrate to make foam of the right consistency." Isn't that what we did on my old engine with the "in-line" proportioner? It all boils down to the judgment of the nozzle man and the pump operator. While I admit to being of the "slide-rule era" I really cannot see that the difference in performance was anywhere equal to the difference in price. The old cast iron eductor was sturdier and much simpler to maintain. Best of all, it did work.

Air conditioning was another matter entirely. When I served on my first engine, automotive air conditioning was almost unknown. The only unit in town was in the local ambulance. If you had sug-gested air conditioning, the fire truck the idea would have been relegated to a place alongside the fur-lined potty. Fortunately, wiser minds prevailed.

An emergency responder's value at an incident site is based on what he can do and how long he can do it. Heat rapidly weakens response personnel, even those who are in good physical condition. The addition of SCBA and other PPE, especially encapsulating suits, greatly decreases the ability of the responder to function; and excessive heat buildup can and does induce dehydration and heat stroke followed by heat exhaustion. By making it possible for responders to arrive at the scene in a non-stressed condition they could devote more actual energy to the response effort. By having a cooling-off space available, recuperation time is reduced and oftentimes actual heat stroke and heat exhaustion were prevented. If it did occur at least it could possibly be mitigated. There are, to be sure, parts of the country where air conditioning is not cost effective, necessary or even desirable but for the most part it is well worth the cost in terms of the welfare of the responders on the ground.

There were other things on this demonstration engine that were not even thought of when my old "home-brew" engine was built. One of the most effective was the large roomy enclosed crew compartment, big enough for a small square dance, with year round air conditioning and seats constructed to accommodate responders wearing SCBA. This made it possible for crewmen to complete suiting up enroute to the incident, reducing response time somewhat and allowing them to hit the ground ready to begin operations upon arrival at the incident site. These specially designed seats also served to help prevent injuries from the SCBA back packs in the event of a traffic accident or other mishap.

The sum total is that crews need to arrive safely at the incident site in a rested and non-stressful condition in order to maximize their effectiveness as responders.


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