How to procure fire apparatus: Simple solutions for volunteer fire departments

Whether new or used, apparatus costs are skyrocketing, and departments need to develop a plan


The image of the iconic red fire truck running red lights and sirens down Main Street is a pipe dream for many volunteer organizations. Many volunteer fire department apparatus are held together with bailing wire, duct tape and labor from the members to keep them running.

It is important for organizations to continually seek improvement of their apparatus, not only to help us better serve our communities but also because our apparatus help shape our image in the eyes of the citizens we protect.

Unfortunately, with the cost of new and even used fire apparatus skyrocketing, it is becoming increasingly difficult for volunteer fire departments to maintain a strong apparatus fleet. As such, let’s consider some ideas and programs that departments can utilize to improve their fleet. [Download an apparatus funding guide to keep with you and share with other fire service leaders at the bottom of this article.]

Laramie County Fire District #2 combined the capabilities of rescue trucks into its engines, allowing crews to arrive on scene of a vehicle crash with the tools necessary for both a fire event and an extrication.
Laramie County Fire District #2 combined the capabilities of rescue trucks into its engines, allowing crews to arrive on scene of a vehicle crash with the tools necessary for both a fire event and an extrication. ((Photo/Laramie County Fire District #2))

Conduct a risk assessment

The first step is to create a risk assessment of your community. Identify the risks within your community. How many engines, ladder trucks, brush trucks, water tenders or rescues do you need? Then ask again: Do you actually need those apparatus or do you just want them? Don’t let your image or ego or greed dictate your apparatus fleet. Use your risk assessment to distinguish between needs and wants.

At our organization, we identified the need for a balance of fire engines, water tenders and wildland trucks. Based on our staffing, we combined the capabilities of rescue trucks into our engines, allowing us to arrive on scene of a vehicle crash with the tools necessary for both a fire event and an extrication. We were simply unable to staff both a rescue and an engine, so building rescue pumpers fit our needs. For some organizations, building mini-pumpers that can attack a grass fire or respond to a vehicle crash might fit better. The key is to identify your risk and build apparatus that fit that need.

Form an apparatus committee

The design or purchase of new apparatus is not a job for one individual. It takes a team.

Acquiring new fire apparatus is an exciting event for many organizations. Take the opportunity to build teamwork and ownership in your organization by creating a committee of members, both old and new, to help design or search for apparatus. The experience and ownership this creates is extremely valuable for the organization.

State Forestry or Fire Marshal’s offices have access to federal surplus property and can screen and acquire used fire apparatus and trucks that can benefit your organization. Laramie County Fire District #2 received a ladder truck and a Sno-Cat through this program.
State Forestry or Fire Marshal’s offices have access to federal surplus property and can screen and acquire used fire apparatus and trucks that can benefit your organization. Laramie County Fire District #2 received a ladder truck and a Sno-Cat through this program. ((Photo/Laramie County Fire District #2))

Follow simple tips for procuring used apparatus

Due to the high cost of new apparatus, many organizations are forced to seek out preowned apparatus. Here are some suggestions if you are looking to acquire used apparatus:

  • Build relationships: First, build relationships with larger departments that rotate their apparatus fleet on a cycle. Many larger organizations replace apparatus on a 10- or 15-year cycle. By building relationships with them, you might have the opportunity to purchase or receive donated apparatus that will benefit your organization. Second, build relationships with local or regional apparatus vendors. Your local apparatus vendors can help you find the used apparatus from departments that are purchasing new apparatus.
  • Search the internet: Apparatus sales are abundant online. Actively search with your priority list to find the best apparatus for your organization.
  • Reach out: Speak to someone from the department that owned the used apparatus. Most fire departments pride themselves on integrity and will share the strengths and weaknesses of the apparatus.
  • Find a mechanic: Find a mechanic to assist you in reviewing an apparatus prior to purchasing. If you don’t have a fire mechanic, bring your local diesel mechanic with you when reviewing used apparatus.
  • Be creative: Many organizations purchase used apparatus based on other organizations’ fleets. Be creative and find apparatus that fits your need. Maybe it’s a retired airport fire truck that is all-wheel drive that would work great for a grass fire or a structure fire. Don’t be afraid to go after a vehicle that meets your needs just because it’s not a common vehicle type.

Bonus Resource

Bonus Resource

How to buy apparatus (eBook)

Download this FireRescue1 apparatus buying guide to learn key steps for product selection, purchasing and implementation


Identify funding sources

Considering the high cost of apparatus, new and used, it is critical that your department has a plan for replacing fire apparatus – and identifies the funding sources that can help. Here are some ways to help manage the finances:

  • Create an apparatus replacement plan: Let’s face it, small fire departments struggle financially. We have a small budget that provides little ability to fund an apparatus purchase. It’s therefore important to create an amortized apparatus schedule with estimated cost and date of replacement so your department can save money to achieve your goals. The plan will also help you seek support from your local political and business partners to assist in funding your apparatus. Plus, by saving annually, you create a reserve account that serves as your matching money for grants.
  • Apply for grants: FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighter Grants program is the best opportunity for receiving funding for new fire apparatus. Take the time to read the program guidance and identify the grants priorities. Hire a grant writer or seek assistance from your local high school teachers to help you write a competitive grant. (Learn more about grant applications from Senior Grant Consultant Jerry Grant.)
  • Consider state purchasing programs: If you are in need of command vehicles or brush trucks, a great source for purchasing chassis is through your state vehicle purchasing program. Most states have a vehicle procurement department that seeks bids annually for pickups, SUVs and similar vehicles. The state pricing can save you 30-40% off the sticker price of a truck at your local dealership.
  • Check federal excess property programs (FEPP): Your state Forestry or Fire Marshal’s office has access to federal surplus property. Through this program, they can screen and acquire used fire apparatus and trucks that can benefit your organization. Departments in our region have received ladder trucks, fire engines, heavy rescues, brush trucks, trailers and even a Sno-Cat through this program. For small departments, this is a great program for acquiring used equipment. Contact your state associations to learn more about the FEPP program.
  • Ask local businesses for help: Many local businesses receive a financial benefit through insurance premium reductions based on the capabilities of their local fire department. Build relationships with your local industry. In our community, the oil and gas industry is a valued partner that has provided assistance in purchasing equipment that benefits both their industry and our community.

Take your time to do it right

The purchasing of fire apparatus is an exciting – and scary – time for many organizations. Take the time to create a risk assessment and amortize your fleet so that you can be prepared when the opportunity comes to purchase or acquire new apparatus.

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GUIDE TO FUNDING SOURCES FOR VFD APPARATUS

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