Rebuild vs replace: firefighting brush trucks

Robert Avsec

The song remains the same. Fire department leaders across the country are faced with a diminishing level of financial resources while the demands for service continue to grow. Maintaining adequate personnel levels and service-worthy fire apparatus are a large part of their budget challenges.

One area of this delicate balancing act involves a low-frequency, high-risk vehicle: the Type III or Type VI engine, also known as the brush truck.

Many areas of the country, particularly those affected by sustained drought conditions, are seeing increased use of these vehicles. And when a brush truck sees service it's typically a hard run — operating in dusty and dirty conditions, over undulating terrain and in all types of vegetation can really take a toll on these vehicles.

With the cost of new vehicles continuing to rise, one alternative that many departments are turning to is refurbishing an existing vehicle.

Cost and comfort
"Refurbing an existing brush truck — or any fire apparatus for that matter — is an attractive opportunity for many departments, especially if they've been satisfied with the vehicle during its first life," said Brian Reyburn, vice-president at Firetrucks Unlimited. "We're all creatures of comfort and firefighters are no different. If the apparatus had a solid first life and still meets the operational needs it was designed for then refurbishment is a very cost effective means of giving new life to a trusted piece of equipment."

Those thoughts were pretty much seconded by other apparatus manufacturer representatives. "If the vehicle itself is still reliable to get the firefighters from point A to point B, keep the truck and look at refurbing the back end," said Jack Moore, brush truck sales manager at W.S. Darley.

According to Reyburn, the cost to refurbish a brush truck is a third of that of a new vehicle.

"We see many departments that use refurbishing as a vital part of their fleet management, especially when they can refurb three pieces of apparatus for the cost of one new vehicle," said Reyburn. "They might not refurbish everything, but instead of buying two new pieces [of equal value] they might decide to refurb three trucks and purchase one new one."

Dennis Aguayo, apparatus broker at Adirondack Fire Equipment said, "Refurbing a unit is very cost effective. Most of the time a refurb will not extend the life of the chassis. This is why I would recommend a new chassis, if the budget permits."

Two levels
The U.S. military has a long history of refurbishing everything from tanks to aircraft to ships.

"The military has long followed their Service Life Extension Program for their fire apparatus," Reyburn said. "They find it particularly useful with brush trucks and ARFF (Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting) vehicles."

NFPA 1912: Standard for Fire Apparatus Refurbishing is the applicable standard for the refurbishment of all motorized fire apparatus. The standard defines two levels of refurbishment for fire apparatus.

  • Level I. The assembly of a new fire apparatus using a new chassis frame, driving and crew compartment, front axle, steering and suspension components, and using new components or components from an existing apparatus for the remainder of the apparatus.
  • Level II. The upgrade of major components or systems of a fire apparatus with those that comply with the applicable standards in effect when the apparatus was manufactured.

Brush trucks receiving Level I refurbishment (NFPA 1912, Chapter 5) must meet the applicable requirements of NFPA 1906: Standard for Wildland Fire Apparatus.

Additional upgrades
Level I refurbishing is most common for smaller brush trucks (Type VI engine) that use a commercial chassis. The refurb vendor takes a new chassis and remounts the water tank, pump and other applicable equipment from the old chassis. The unit can receive new technologies like a backing camera system or LED lighting.

Level II refurbishing is most commonly done to Type III engines on both commercial and custom chassis. The refurb requirements are extensively outlined in NFPA 1912 and in addition to the requirements listed above, may include:

  • Installation of new emergency and non-emergency lighting technology.
  • Installation of new safety technologies like new seat-belt and crew protection technology.
  • Installation of new operational technologies like CAFS, ultrahigh-pressure pumps or auxiliary pumps.

For those unfamiliar with ultrahigh-pressure pumps, they deliver high discharge pressures — 1,400 to 1,600 psi — with low volume. They have proven themselves to be extremely useful with brush trucks and ARFF apparatus. The pump effectively triples the effectiveness of water by dramatically increasing the production of finely divided water droplets, which increases heat absorption.

Most apparatus refurbishments take between 90 and 120 days from start to finish.

"This timeframe will likely be shorter for a Type VI engine refurb or even a Type III engine for that matter," Reyburn said. "It's always better to plan on it being that 90 to 120 days and then getting your truck back sooner, especially if you're refurbing a first-line piece of apparatus that you have to replace while it's gone."

Taking a good look at your refurbishment options and available vendors in your area can be an important part of your department's fleet management system — especially when every dollar counts.

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