Keeping the wheels on your apparatus: Building a fleet replacement program
Sharing three lessons learned from the Tulsa Fire Department’s current fleet crisis
Chief Michael Baker presents “When the Wheels Come Off: Managing a Fire Department Fleet Crisis” at Fire-Rescue International on Wednesday, Aug. 24 at 11:30 a.m. Learn more and register here.
By Michael Baker
Nothing represents the community’s fire rescue service like a shiny fire truck. Children are amazed by their size, bright colors and the thrill of seeing them responding to the fire with lights and sirens. Most adults share in this excitement, and it is often the spark that lights the passion for joining the local volunteer fire department or beginning the journey toward becoming a career firefighter.
The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., describes the importance of fire apparatus in our nation’s culture with this perspective: “Before the 1850s, firefighting in urban America was performed by volunteer fire companies, [which] purchased their own uniforms and equipment without municipal funding. A fire pumper was often the company’s biggest investment and became a source of pride and identity.”1
Today, the apparatus fleet remains a fire department’s “biggest investment” outside of personnel, and the management of this investment is an enormous undertaking. After all, our apparatus are an essential tool for our profession, and ensuring their readiness and availability is the bedrock of our work.
An effective fleet management plan requires a coordinated effort among everyone, including the community’s residents, fire department members and support staff, and political leadership. But what happens when this coordination becomes disrupted? The Tulsa (Oklahoma) Fire Department is a strong example of what can occur when the wheels come off your apparatus plan.
What happened in Tulsa?
The Tulsa Fire Department serves a community of just over 400,000 in the northeastern portion of the state. The department has 724 members and responds from 30 fire stations across 292 square miles.
Similar to many metropolitan fire departments, the TFD found its apparatus budget weakened by the global needs of the city. Streets, law enforcement and numerous other projects all require a portion of the city’s general fund or getting support from infrequent capital funding plans.
The derailment of Tulsa’s fire fleet plan occurred in the mid-2000s when the city found itself with a failing street infrastructure that necessitated repairs. The fire department was ultimately required to postpone apparatus purchases for five years to assist in a street bond package. A five-year fleet purchase hold is manageable; however, five years turned into 11 years, with the department unable to purchase fire apparatus from 2007 until 2018.
Now in 2022, the department finds itself managing a fleet crisis.
How can a fire department emerge from a crisis of this proportion with limited funding, manufacturing timelines of close to two years, and a frontline fleet that is costing 100 to 150% of their original purchase price? It’s a monumental task, and the path forward is both complicated and challenging. However, the path can be successfully traversed when department and city leadership come together to solve the problem.
3 ways to turn the tide
Turning around a failing fleet requires a daily operational and governmental engagement. The dynamic nature of repairing apparatus that unexpectedly fail annual ladder testing, lose air conditioning units due to components that are no longer manufactured, or require engine replacements that exceed the value of the truck, is only explained with conversation, data analysis, and a total focus on the solution.
There are three broad areas that fire departments should focus on to both prevent and recover from a similar situation. These are topics that all members of the department, from firefighter to chief, should keep in mind when considering the status of a department’s stable of apparatus. For the Tulsa Fire Department, these lessons have been emerging over the past few years, but many of the lessons are deeply rooted in history.
1. Create a schedule: One of the most important components of a comprehensive fleet management program is to determine when to replace your apparatus. Regardless of if you are a volunteer or career department, you will not be able to finance, purchase or conduct any form of planning if you do not know when it is time for a vehicle to move from frontline to reserve or when it is time to simply replace.
The plan should be based on run volume, available funding, and an assessment of the needs within your jurisdiction. Ultimately, it should become a department policy with annual review or revision.
The Tulsa Fire Department is now using a 10-year replacement on engines. It will take the TFD at least four years to achieve this stability, as some engines are 20 years old.
2. Develop a financial strategy: In addition to a replacement plan, the department needs a financing strategy to ensure that when the time comes for replacement, leaders can engage vendors and begin the design process. This typically comes in the form of a municipal bond, general fund request, or a fundraising plan within a smaller community.
If you have purchased a fire apparatus lately, you know that the sticker price has increased more than 20% as the price of metal skyrockets and supply chain issues delay production times to 24 months or longer. Sometimes, you must sacrifice nice-to-have items for essentials.
Your fire board and government leadership will want to know what to expect. This leads to the third area of focus – politics.
3. Connect with the community: Reminding your community and elected officials about your department’s fleet replacement cycle and preparing them in advance for the big check that they must write for a purchase is a never-ending process. Combined with the items above, taking this step helps ensure that everyone involved is not only informed, but also able to grab some political clout from housing a new fire apparatus.
The TFD is fortunate to have a mayor and city council that are committed to helping the department ensure that the apparatus fleet is stable. Over the past few years, the department’s leadership and municipal leaders have found every available dollar to achieve a comprehensive apparatus replacement plan.
Pushing through to make it work
A fleet crisis is frustrating for everyone involved. We all want the best for the community but find ourselves facing a multitude of obstacles. The situation can impact on the department’s culture and the morale of the firefighters who work on aged apparatus every day.
Fortunately, here in Tulsa, we have a great team tackling this issue every day – a team that’s passionate about ensuring firefighter and public safety. If there is one positive element of the department’s current apparatus issue, it is that the members of the TFD do their best to ensure that the fleet is ready to respond, and that uninterrupted service is delivered to our community members. Yes, they are frustrated, but their passion for professional service and resilience is admirable. This is the only way to move beyond crisis.
Everything can change in a moment
We all know that it only takes a moment for the wheels to literally come off your apparatus. But if the situation in Tulsa has taught us anything, it’s that it only takes a moment to derail the stability of your fire apparatus fleet, with the wheels coming off the identity of the fire service. Now is the time to prepare and prevent a fleet crisis at your organization.
About the Author
Michael Baker is the fire chief for the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, leading a department of 725 members and 30 fire station locations. A 26-year veteran of the Tulsa Fire Department, Chief Baker held previous roles as chief of EMS, public information officer and fire captain. Baker holds a master’s degree in security studies (homeland security) from the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, and a bachelor’s degree in university studies (political science, sociology and emergency management) from Oklahoma State University. Chief Baker was selected as a 2016 EMS 10 award recipient for EMS Innovation by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.