Fire Chief Staff
By Robert Avsec
Getting the right mix of vehicles in your fire department’s fleet portfolio is important for a variety of reasons. Vehicle cost is a primary factor, as most departments are struggling to make every dollar count in today’s fiscal environment. Many departments are looking to use smaller and less-expensive vehicles such as SUVs, pickup trucks and vans to augment or even replace some of the tactical functions of a larger fire apparatus. Those vehicles are being used for three major roles:
- Supervisory response vehicles for chief officers, EMS field supervisors, fire inspectors and fire investigators.
- Quick response vehicles for EMS response, wildland firefighting and light rescue response.
- Mobile command posts that can provide basic command post functions for smaller-scale incidents.
Any fire department’s decision on what type of vehicle to purchase should start with a good needs assessment. Before selecting a vehicle option, answer these nine questions:
- What tactical functions will the vehicle be expected to support?
- Will there be medications and other EMS supplies that require climate-controlled storage?
- How many people will typically require a riding position where they can be properly seated and belted?
- Will the vehicle be carrying equipment that must be properly secured?
- How will personnel gain access to secured equipment?
- Will the vehicle be transporting personal protective equipment and clothing?
- What will be the vehicle’s typical response area — urban, suburban or rural?
- What’s the area’s topography? Will the vehicle require four-wheel drive capability?
- Will the vehicle be used to tow trailers for hazmat, technical rescue or mass casualty equipment?
Certain EMS supplies will need a climate-controlled atmosphere to protect them against the effects of heat or cold. Medications can be especially sensitive to temperatures that fall outside room-temperature range. Increased emphasis on temperature in ambulances will translate to non-transport EMS vehicles as well.
Personal protective equipment that becomes contaminated with products of combustion from any structure fire or biological substances like blood or body fluids should not be transported in a seating area — there is even a movement to eliminate this exposure in fire apparatus. The SUV or pickup with cloth seats and/or carpeting is even more susceptible to retaining any toxins or infectious agents that may be on the PPE.
If the role of the vehicle includes incident command functions, can more than two persons be seated for larger incidents where conversation is needed? While some favor the command box/board at the rear of the SUV or pickup, most all-incident commanders begin commanding from the driver’s seat. When sensitive conversations are needed, or extreme heat, cold, rain, wind or snow are present, will the interior offer adequate space for the commander and other command staff members?
Lastly, we as firefighters love to pack as much stuff as possible in and on our rigs. It’s very easy to exceed the gross vehicle weight of an SUV or half-ton pickup truck with equipment and supplies. This is a key safety measure. Be sure to weigh everything you’re looking to put on or in a vehicle first so that you can select the vehicle type that can tote the load.
Fire departments can select an SUV, pickup truck or van to meet their small vehicle needs. Having a good needs assessment completed greatly enhances a department’s ability to select the vehicle that gets the most utility for the best price.
Buying fire SUVs for your department
The SUV has gained a large presence in fire department fleets, especially as a supervisory response vehicle or quick response vehicle. SUVs typically get high marks for their stability and handling, which is to be expected given that the vehicle is designed and engineered for passenger use.
Proper storage and security for equipment carried in an SUV can be a challenge. Many departments will remove all but the two front seats to make more room for equipment storage, but the ability to install mounting brackets for equipment can be hampered by the presence of plastics used in the vehicle’s interior. Then there’s all that glass that puts your expensive equipment in plain view of would-be thieves.
The good news is that there are many after-market, heavyduty pullout trays designed and engineered specifically to address this issue. A pullout tray provides the capability for safe and secure storage of equipment, as well as ease of access to that equipment. Window tinting technology has come a long way, which can help with keeping equipment out of sight, as well as preventing sun damage to equipment. Also, perforated window film is a good application for vehicle rear or side windows that provides protection against ultraviolet rays and can be used for posting public safety messages on a department’s vehicles.
Buying pickup trucks for your fire department
The driving characteristics of pickup trucks have improved greatly as the general public’s demand has increased. Both three-quarter ton and one-ton models of trucks are in use by fire departments as staff vehicles and quick response vehicles. Although many manufacturers have curtailed their production of extended-cab trucks, most manufacturers offer models with expanded cabs and a half-door or four-door models with a short bed.
One advantage the pickup truck holds over the SUV is that it is more customizable. Cargo bed shells now come in a wide variety of configurations that include side-access door panels so that all equipment doesn’t have to be accessed solely from the rear. The same after-market, heavy-duty pullout trays available for SUVs also can be used to address the access issue for equipment stored in the truck’s cargo bed area.
Pickup trucks also offer more versatility as a tow vehicle for trailers that a department may use for support equipment such as:
- Hazardous materials response
- Medical mass casualty response
- Technical rescue response
- Fire and life safety education house
Buying a 4×4 van for your department
Another vehicle option gaining popularity, particularly in the private sector, is the medium-sized cargo van, such as those manufactured by Mercedes-Benz and Ford. This newer generation of cargo van can provide a fire department with the ride of an SUV and more available storage space than a pickup truck. And vans now come manufactured with 4×4 capability or can be converted to a 4×4 as an after-market option.
Mercedes-Benz manufactures its popular Sprinter cargo van in a 4×4 model that uses a 188-horsepower diesel V-6 engine. The base Sprinter’s 161-horsepower four-cylinder diesel can’t be paired with four-wheel drive. Car and Driver Magazine has this to say about the four-wheel-drive Sprinter van:
“The 4×4’s distinct abilities were made apparent, however, on one of Mica Creek’s logging roads, where we had radios in hand to alert us of any logging trucks coming the other way. Bumpy, cragged, and slashed with deep ruts made by gargantuan machinery, the road would have made a Jeep Wrangler blush.”
Whitefeather 4×4 Van Conversions, Northwest Quad Vans and Quigley Motor Company are just a few of the companies in North America doing 4×4 after-market conversions for vans. These companies and others like them can convert practically any size van into a four-wheel-drive unit.
As with large apparatus purchases, the key to getting the right chief’s or quick response vehicle is knowing exactly what your department needs that vehicle to do before the test driving and tire kicking begins.
Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy.