How to buy government surplus fire trucks

A retired government vehicle can often be what a smaller, financially struggling fire department needs


This article, originally published in 2013, has been updated.

The leaders of most U.S. fire departments are struggling to make ends meet these days. Smaller departments, and particularly volunteer fire departments, are facing real challenges when it comes to having apparatus that's ready for duty. 

The cost of apparatus — for both new and used fire apparatus — continues to go up, while local tax revenues and donations are down.

A mobile command vehicle available for purchase. (Photo/GovDeals.com)
A mobile command vehicle available for purchase. (Photo/GovDeals.com)

I wrote Considering the ‘new normal’ for fire apparatus when we were only a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are still many unknowns concerning what the post-coronavirus world is going to look like. One part of that article touched on the topic of the pandemic's impact on the U.S. economy and the negative impact it was having on the budgets at all levels of government

Reuse and refurbish

One admirable trait of Americans is our ability to see “one man’s junk as another man’s treasure.” Just look at the number of antique shops, thrift stores and auctions in your community – and don’t forget yard sales!

The good news for fire departments looking to meet their equipment needs without draining the checking account completely is that there a many federal and state programs that offer useable surplus items, including vehicles. And just as thrift stores help individuals to “make ends meet,” those programs can be a valuable resource for those departments looking to stretch their vehicle-procurement dollars. These programs provide information via the internet on items for sale, application processes and auction sales.

The Latin phrase "pro bono publico" means, "for the public good." Small wonder then that those words are part of the symbol for the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus Property (NASASP). The 56 State Agencies for Surplus Property (SASPs) that make up NASASP believe it is better expanded to include, "for the public good for the welfare of the whole."

Those SASPs have partnered with the U.S. General Services Administration with the goal to save taxpayer dollars by extending the useful life of federal excess or surplus property. Is there a better way of giving these used assets a second lifecycle than by getting them into the hands of those public and private organizations that are dedicated to public service, like fire and EMS departments? 

Where to look

State and Local Surplus Property, found at USA.gov, provides a state-by-state listing for surplus property sales and auctions by state and local government.

Public Surplus touts itself as being more than an auction site and has some capabilities specifically designed to improve the buying process for public agencies.

The site provides a minimum information set for each item listed that would give any fire apparatus fleet manager the information they would need to make an initial decision whether to bid on a vehicle. The minimum information set is good and many of the items I looked at went above and beyond with detailed maintenance histories and photographs of the vehicle's exterior, interior and compartments.

GovernmentAuctions.org serves as a clearinghouse for local, state and federal auctions. Customers can access the listings of live and online government auctions. Once customers find items they want to bid on, they visit the online auction sites to carry out the bid process.

The day I looked for fire apparatus at GovDeals.com, I found 25 vehicles ranging from a 1989 Simon Duplex fire apparatus mobile command vehicle to a 2008 Spartan Crimson 1500 GPM engine with CAFS and a 750-gallon tank.

Military vehicles

DLA Disposition Services ESales site manages the sale of surplus Department of Defense (DoD) property deemed appropriate and safe for public use. That property is first offered to the Department of Defense, transfer to other federal agencies, or donation to state and local governments and other qualified organizations. Reuse means big savings.

The inventory changes daily and includes thousands of items from air conditioners to vehicles, clothing to computers, and much more. The ESales site’s services enable the user (You must first create an account) to:

  • Browse auctions by geographical region (availability is based on Eastern Standard Time)
  • Submit bids (bids must be submitted in USD currency)
  • Access sales documents
  • View auction results

Every military vehicle that is going to be sold, auctioned or donated must be demilitarized before it can be handed over to a civilian. The actual process is determined by the type of vehicle, and in general, all weapons and communication systems must be removed. DLA assigns a demilitarization code to every item that has been through the process.

Some vehicles, like Humvees and jeeps, are never demilitarized for sale to civilians. They have been deemed unsafe for over-the-road driving by the U.S. Department of Transportation. They are repaired until they're no longer usable, and then destroyed.

Picking up the goods

The DLA Disposition Services has its headquarters in the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in Battle Creek, Michigan. DLA Disposition Services property is kept at one of two types of locations.

First, property can be located at a DLA Disposition Services site that is usually near a military base. Second, property can be located at the originating military base. Property that is located at a DLA Disposition Services site is available for inspection during the dates and times given in the IFB catalog. You can locate the nearest Disposition site here.

Property that is located at the military bases is not normally available for inspection but will have an extensive detailed property description in the IFB catalog.  

The paperwork

Every item that has been assigned a demilitarization code must have an end-use certificate, officially known as DLA Form 1822, before the item can be released. You must have a current driver's license and proof of U.S. citizenship when filling out the application forms for the DLA Form 1822.

You may also be required to file a statement of intent — how will your department be using the vehicle once it's released to you — at the same time you apply for the Form 1822.

Buyers are generally responsible for removing vehicles from the location where they are stored. In many cases, this will involve removing the trucks by loading them on a trailer.

Buyers will need to provide a driver's license and proof of insurance. All sales are final.

It's good to have realistic expectations when buying surplus military vehicles. These workhorses may have been driven many miles and operated in extreme conditions, and they may be damaged in places you can't see.

Purchasing surplus equipment may not be the right option for every fire department. But for those with specific needs and limited cash, surplus vehicles maybe the answer. 

[Read next: How to buy apparatus accessories (downloadable eBook)]

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