By JOHN S. TOWNSEND
Industrial incidents involving hazardous materials can happen in any plant or community where products are being transported by truck, rail or pipeline. This issue’s focus on apparatus resources for responders causes me to ask, how much is enough? Are budgets for adequate and proper foam, hazardous materials monitoring and response tools and fire protection engineering lost when budgets for apparatus are set?
In the not too distant past, fire trucks especially those found in industrial departments, were strictly utilitarian in nature. Many of them were “homemade,” being the product of the ingenuity of the volunteer firefighters and the sophistication of the local shop facilities. These trucks were not all bad either; many of today’s technological innovations started out as “a neat dodge” in some local shop and were created in response to a specific perceived need. The present day compressed air foam systems (CAFS) are a good example of this. Subsurface injection is another example. It was developed by firefighters who worked in facilities that handled or processed large quantities of petroleum and petroleum products. These workers were, therefore, possessed of extensive repertoire of practical experience gained by years of dealing with the problems inherent in fires involving tanks containing flammable liquids and they envisioned a means of combating these conflagrations effectively without the risks associated with laddering a burning tank.
The apparatus created by these innovators to use these techniques was purely functional; no frills and this trend can be seen in the industrial apparatus on line today. Those home grown mechanics knew that they would have to depend on what they were building and they built it to last and to function without fail every time; cosmetic considerations came later. The result was what might be called a “basic fire engine.” It was a truck chassis equipped with a pump, a hose bed, a water tank and a ladder rack and sometimes a deck gun. That was about it. The side boxes contained the usual regimen of firefighting accoutrements such as nozzles, foam eductors, monitoring equipment, axes and protective gear. These engines were simple to operate; one simply hooked up, engaged the pump (via a PTO or a split drive box) and read the pressures off of the compound gauge on the intake and pressure gauges on the outlets. There might be a tachometer, but not always, and a small light to enable readings at night completed the panel. Add a coat of red paint, a few red lights and a siren to the rig, and we were off to the races. Electric valves and remote controls were conspicuous by their absence; if you wanted a valve opened, you grabbed hold of the handle and actuated it. No remote push buttons here. Simple and rudimentary as such apparatus was, it worked and there are still such vehicles on the line in small rural departments. In many cases, they are still operating efficiently after decades of service. These vehicles are not only functional, they are relatively easy to maintain and repair, usually by means of standard, and widely available, parts found in the local auto parts dealer or truck stop.
Contrast this equipment with the average custom built fire engine on the apparatus floor of most municipal fire departments; the control panels have more lights than a small sized Christmas tree and gauges to the point that the dashboard looks like the cockpit of an airliner. The instructions for the electrical system fill an entire volume as do those for the hydraulic system, the pump, the ladder tower and a few other high tech devices. The whole thing is encased in enough chrome and bright metal to decorate a Las Vegas casino. The body work is superb and entire to the point where even the most minor maintenance chore requires more time to get to the site than to perform the actual job.
As apparatus has increased in complexity and cost, the frequency of fire calls has decreased dramatically as building codes enforcement and fire prevention programs gain acceptance. Whereas the fire department of yesteryear was exactly that, an organization dedicated to extinguishing fires, it has now become responsible for responding to emergencies of all types including medical calls. The annual report of one city fire department shows that medical calls account for a bit more than 70 percent of the runs made by the fire department during the last year. This seems to be reflective of national trends, yet the same apparatus is dispatched for medical runs as is sent to a full-fledged conflagration. Thus one (at least) of these 75,000 pound “chariots of fire” is doing nothing more than serving as a high end taxi for the manpower needed to assist the paramedics on an ambulance run 75 percent of the time.
I have never quite understood the common practice of dispatching a ladder truck or engine to assist paramedics with a heart attack victim and then being unable to get that vehicle into the location where the victim is located. The argument that I have been given is that the crew might get a fire call while they were assisting the paramedics. This may be true but I really do not think any firefighter I ever met would actually abandon a helpless patient and run off to a fire call. I certainly hope we have not arrived at that point. If additional manpower is needed on an ambulance call, why not use a small van to transport the responders? The operating cost would be much less, the van is certainly more maneuverable and probably faster than a 75,000 lb fire engine and the apparatus would still be at the station ready for use, by a covering crew.
The maintenance costs for one of these beautiful behemoths is astronomical and as a result many departments trade in their engines when the manufacturer’s warranty has expired rather than operate the highly sophisticated shop facilities that maintenance of such equipment requires and routine maintenance is often done by outside contractors. While this system assures the department of always having the “latest and greatest” in apparatus, it also means that the “lions share” (sometimes as much as 75 percent of the budget) goes to support a very small portion (sometimes less than 25 percent) of the response calls answered by the department.
In these times of economic parsimony, decreased funding and increased scrutiny of departmental budgets by management and taxpayers, we must ask the question “How much is too much?” How much is “gingerbread” and how much is really essential to the job at hand? Do we really need chrome plated front grilles and running boards? What about those chrome plated bells? Believe it or not, there are communities that still order them.
As apparatus has gotten bigger, it has also gotten heavier. Prior to World War II, all but the largest fire apparatus had single tires on one rear axle. This was in conformity with weight limits on roads and bridges in effect at the time. As trucks got larger they also got heavier and presently a good average figure for the GVW (gross vehicle weight) of a “run of the mill” engine is something around 75,000 pounds. Many of these vehicles have two rear axles to sustain this great weight. By way of comparison, the maximum GVW (as per federal regulation) of an eighteen wheeler is 80,000 pounds and this is spread over five axles and 55 feet of length as opposed to two or, at the most, three axles in the case of fire apparatus. This leads to the need to upgrade roads, bridges and other parts of the infrastructure to sustain this weight. Since the width of vehicles is pegged at eight feet or 96 inches (in some cases 100) to enable the navigation of streets and the length is controlled by the turning radius of the same infrastructure, fire apparatus has grown in the only way possible, upward. Where it once was a simple task for a couple of firefighters to walk up to an engine, take down a ladder from the side rack and walk away to deploy it, the increase in height of the apparatus has engendered hydraulic ladder racks to enable crewmen to remove ladders from racks that are several feet above head level and in some cases mounted on the roof of the vehicle. These racks are not cheap and they are not light. They also require additional maintenance and this costs money, a lot of money. Again the question, “How much is too much”?
While considering “how much is too much?,” consider whether the gargantuan size of today’s apparatus is really getting to be “too much.” At what point does it become “cost effective” in terms of both apparatus and crew members to dispatch two smaller engines than one large one? If this policy was adopted, there are certain advantages. One is that the smaller engines would, of course be more maneuverable and incur less operating cost, but there is also the added reliability factor conferred by redundancy. Even the mechanical marvels of the present day, wonderful as they certainly are, are susceptible to occasional mechanical malfunction and in the case of fire apparatus “half a loaf is better than none”. A second factor worth considering is that the smaller engines are usually constructed on commercial truck chassis. This makes it possible to use standard commercial parts for repairs as opposed to the more costly specialty items often found in custom built apparatus. Since the basic unit is a commercial truck chassis when these units reach the end of their service life as a fire response unit they can be converted to service as ordinary trucks with a good resale value. Again being cost effective and maximizing the return on the taxpayer’s money.
Now at this point, there are traditionalists who are ready to hang me from the yardarm. I have, according to them, committed sacrilege. I have kicked the sacred cow and advocated the overturn of a tradition that has saturated the fire service ever since the days when the rookies polished the nickel plate on the steamers and my great uncle made spending money mucking out the stables at the fire house. I plead “not guilty.” I do not advocate apparatus that looks like a combat loaded army vehicle from World War I. I do not want our firefighters driving down the road showing a great resemblance to the Clampetts on The Beverly Hillbillies, but practicality and fiscal responsibility do have their place in our deliberations regardless of what the salesman says. Our local fire department operates on a rotating replacement program. Every year the city council purchases a crop of new engines and every year one can tell which stations got one; these are the stations sporting the newly widened and/or heightened doors. Already there are intersections which the ladder trucks cannot navigate when automobiles are sitting in the opposite lane.
A few years ago, I went to one of our larger cities on the East Coast, and there I was informed that in the historical district fire apparatus had to enter from one side and leave at the other. Units could not turn around.
How much is too much? The question is no longer rhetorical from either operational or financial perspectives. Just how much “chariot” can and do we need to drive down the road? Equally important, how much “gingerbread” can we afford to put on it? Possibly more important, what other responder resources are not being provided to have the budget for apparatus with features we could go without and do the job effectively? The present economic situation may well force us to look at these factors and make sure we have all critical resources for safe and effective response to hazardous materials and other major incidents responders could face.