Fire truck design: Is black the new chrome?

Robert Avsec

You may see it as a crime against all things sacred to the fire service or as radically cool and modern. No matter your opinion, they live. It's fire trucks stripped of (gasp) their chrome and tricked out in flat black.

Is this the future? Is this the death of chrome as we know it?

I posed these question to several of the major fire apparatus manufacturers and was assured that, to borrow from the famous Mark Twain quote, reports of the death of fire truck chrome are greatly exaggerated. The vast majority of fire apparatus is still being specified, designed and built with chrome in all the right places.

"I'll start out by saying that a large majority of the fire apparatus we produce and see specifications for these days still have plenty of chrome finish to them," says Jason Witmier, product manager for KME-Kovatch's aerials division. "But, there is a slowly growing group of users who prefer an alternative finish to chrome. The alternative finish is still a small percentage, and the finish varies. The black matte … is most likely a Line-X– or Rhino Lining-style of finish."

According to Witmier, it's not so much the black matte color that the customers are after, it's the durable paint finish that can hold up to more physical abuse from the fire scene and road debris.

Protective barrier
"We're seeing this predominately in high-run departments and paid departments where the [purchasing] decisions are made more by the fleet [management] people who are responsible for maintaining the apparatus," Witmier says. Those fleet managers are looking for a durable finish that they don't have to worry about repairing or touching up in the future. He says KME-Kovatch is seeing requests for such coatings primarily for bumpers, headlight assemblies and grilles.

Ken Sebo, a product manager at Pierce Manufacturing, gave a similar status report for what customers are looking for when they specify fire apparatus.

"The body painting and exterior accessories, e.g., bumpers, grilles and light fixtures, are still being specified using chrome as the finish," Sebo says. Pierce, he says, first started seeing more customers who were looking to better protect the pump panel — on both sides of the apparatus — from physical damage using a black vinyl coating.

"Today we're responding to more customer requests to protect those areas with Line-X because it's more durable than the black vinyl coatings we've been using," Sebo says. "Many of those same customers are also specifying that we use that same protective coating for the interior walls of storage compartments and other vertical surfaces on the fire apparatus."

So I guess it's safe to say that firefighters won't be removing chrome cleaner from their station's inventory anytime soon. But new fire apparatus is being built with newer finishes and protective coatings that should help extend the service life of fire apparatus and make apparatus upkeep and maintenance easier.

And that's a good deal for firefighters, their departments and the stakeholders who pay for the apparatus.

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