Are American fire trucks too big?

Congestion and street width are just two of the factors that force us to consider the right size for our rigs.

Robert Avsec

Like many things in the United States, our fire apparatus has become super-sized. One look at the behemoths rolling up and down the highways and by-ways of America is all the evidence that one needs.

The cost of those massive firefighting machines has also become super-sized with the average price of a Type I engine being somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 to $600,000 and a 100-foot aerial ladder going for somewhere north of $1 million.

For more than a few years now, fire chiefs have had to answer the question from local government leaders and taxpayers, "Why do you need this big and expensive truck running up and down the road for mostly medical calls and car wrecks?"

With traffic congestion and rush-hour gridlock plaguing many of our large metropolitan areas and winding streets littered with parked cars common in suburbia, there is now another aspect for public discussion regarding super-sized fire apparatus: how wide should the streets be in our cities?

The issue boiled over in 2014 in San Francisco when the fire chief and a member of the city's governing body, the board of supervisors, disagreed over optimal street width. The supervisors want narrower streets to slow traffic and decrease crashes; the fire chief wants wider streets to accommodate the department's fire apparatus.

The supervisors suggested the fire department look at smaller rigs.

How Europe and Asia do it
The size and cost of today's fire apparatus are going to be a continuing source of debate, and yes, conflict for fire departments and their stakeholders. A more recent post on the blog CityLab.com began with the title, "It's Time to Redesign the Big Old Red Fire Truck. City streets are getting slimmer. Shouldn't emergency vehicles do the same?"

For many years I've held the opinion that European fire departments get a lot more bang for their buck from their fire apparatus. Fire apparatus used in Western Europe typically excel in these four areas.

  • They're highly maneuverable on the narrow, winding streets.
  • There is very little wasted compartment space.
  • They have a much smaller apparatus footprint than American rigs.
  • They carry most equipment in enclosed compartments protected from the elements.

A while back I wrote about today's generation of rapid response vehicle — the lighter, cheaper and swifter sibling of the Type I engine. Fire departments in Europe and Asia are using the RRV as a primary tool in their urban firefighting deployment strategy.

Fire departments in Tokyo and Singapore are two examples that have used different strategies to address three response challenges that are very similar to those faced by European fire departments.

1. Narrow streets
Unlike Europe with its legacy infrastructure that was built for carriages and ox carts, the streets and roads of many Asian cities are defined by limited amount of land upon which to build and explosive development that maximizes use of that available land.

2. Traffic congestion
With development comes people and with people come automobiles, especially in developing areas of the world that are just coming into their own with conspicuous consumption that's long been an American trademark.

3. Non-fire emergency responses
Both Asian and European fire departments have much more robust fire prevention program that heavily involve line firefighters. Those firefighters need economical and highly maneuverable apparatus to get into the community for their fire prevention tasks while being available to respond quickly to an emergency call.

Applied research
Many say that using smaller apparatus would negatively affect a community's ISO rating, resulting in higher insurance premiums for homeowners. That may or may not be the case according to some eye-opening research on the topic.

In 2006, Chris Orman completed an applied research project, "The Impacts of Changes in the use of ISO Ratings by Insurance Companies Serving North Monterey (Calif.) County," as part of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program.

Orman found that the majority of residential and commercial insurance underwriters have significantly changed how they calculate property insurance premiums. Those companies had either completely migrated away from using the ISO's Public Protection Classification or were continuing to the use it as only one of several factors for calculating premiums.

Today, insurance companies are more likely to employ a subzone rating factor system that is a theoretical risk evaluation that uses the actual property loss within a zip code. When using a subzone system, the insurance underwriter takes into account all property losses due to all hazards, like fire, flood, lightening, hail, etc.

According to Orman, "It appears that ISO is still being applied, but not stringently so. Insurance companies across the board believe that proximity to a paid fire station is of utmost importance…. Businesses and industry are not likely to factor in the capabilities of a local fire department because it cannot be assumed that the local fire department will be effective regardless if they have a PPC [ISO rating] of 5 or 1."

Every fire department states that their first priority is life safety. So why do fire departments continue to chase the holy grail of lower property insurance rates for their community by improving their ISO rating? The pursuit of which has fire department leaders purchasing fire apparatus that might not meet its operational needs.

"If life is indeed a greater priority over property, North County Fire District should look at its highest life loss problems. Currently, (and not identified by this study), vehicle accidents account for over a dozen deaths in the District's service area," Orman wrote. "Additional focus on this problem may be an effective option. Investment in equipment, training, and personnel to improve the mortality of accident victims may be beneficial."

So if your department's ISO rating is not as important as it was once thought to be, what's holding your department back from designing fire apparatus specs that better meet your operational needs, save money, and can be driven down the streets in your city or town?

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