North American vs. European fire apparatus: Breaking down the differences

Understanding the diverging evolution of crew cab and chassis, equipment layouts, pumping systems and more


Why are there so many differences between fire apparatus in North America and those in Western Europe? The diverging evolutions can be traced to a variety of factors, including response areas and priorities.

Questions of apparatus size, safety features, general design, and cost have dominated debates about the “right” way to spec and build apparatus. There are several ways to look at each factor.

Let’s consider how fire apparatus has evolved on “both sides of the pond” – an exercise that can prove beneficial for a fire department’s apparatus design committee as it makes critical decisions about the organization’s next apparatus.

"When it comes to fire apparatus design theory, we focus on studying any good design and understanding the 'why' behind it," writes Avsec. (Photo/Getty Images)

Crew cabs and chassis 

The first critical task that fire apparatus must be designed for is the safe, effective, and efficient transportation of firefighters to and from the emergency scene. And it’s here that we see a major difference in the approach to cab design by North American fire departments and their European colleagues.

Some estimates have 60–70% of all fire trucks sold in the U.S. and Canada being built with custom cabs and chassis. Fire apparatus design committees in those two countries are presented with a dizzying array of cab options (e.g., short cabs, medium cabs, long cabs, raised-roof designs) as well as alternative configurations.

In contrast, European fire apparatus manufacturers offer fewer chassis and cabs, and the options presented are usually configured specifically or exclusively for tactical firefighting purposes. Most chassis and cabs for used for European apparatus are more accurately defined as “commercially available trucks” that are then modified for fire apparatus use.

A driving force behind European fire departments using this approach is that those fire departments, and the communities they serve, have “hometown” chassis manufacturers within their country (e.g., Iveco in Italy, Renault in France, Mercedes in Germany, Scania in Sweden) that are popular and easily serviced. And while some larger European fire apparatus builders do offer customization using a variety of chassis styles and brands, it is still more common to see regional fire apparatus manufacturers serving their customer fire departments using a locally favored brand that is designed specifically for a department’s needs and response area. 

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Occupant safety

European commercial cabs have benefitted from many years of being crash-tested and certified, so the preference of European fire departments to use a commercial chassis comes with a distinct safety advantage. Many years later, as global chassis manufacturers became more common, such safety testing would eventually make its way to North America. Eventually, that same safety testing became part of fire apparatus crew cab design. (It bears noting that many years passed before those commonplace safety standards in Europe became an integral part of fire apparatus crew cab design for North American fire apparatus.)

In Europe, it is not uncommon for a fire apparatus manufacturers to take a commercial cab design and add crew seating and additional space. In a bit of a twist, fire crew seating at the front of the chassis – like that found in custom crew cabs on North American fire apparatus – has gained popularity with European fire departments.

Because fire departments in the U.S. and Canada have accepted nationally recognized vehicle standards (e.g., NFPA 1901: Standard on Automotive Fire Apparatus) – as opposed to the country-by-country standards often seen in Europe – it comes as no surprise that fire apparatus manufacturers have found North America to be a unique location for the growth of the specialized fire apparatus market.

NFPA 1901 is broad in its scope and creates a market for fire apparatus that’s driven by a standard yet still guides fire departments and manufacturers into a market that allows for customization. In Europe, where standards and requirements for fire apparatus can vary from country to country, smaller regional markets have a greater effect on the design of fire apparatus. And it’s that simple truth that accounts for many of the visual distinctions between North American apparatus and European fire apparatus.

That point brings us to the safety-driven cultural design requirement for fire apparatus in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In both those countries, the fire apparatus design requirements seek to reduce the risk of falls that can occur when firefighters climb above ground-level on the apparatus (other than mounting or dismounting the apparatus).

To accomplish this, the fire apparatus in those countries avoids the use of the North American-style hose beds and equipment storage areas (e.g., upper coffin compartment) to reduce the climbing risk. Therefore, the fire attack hoselines and supply hose are stowed in lower positions and carried within the lower bodywork. Additionally, long tools and ladders are mounted so that a firefighter can safely access such equipment from the ground or the use of automated lowering systems.

Firefighting equipment and hoses

Once the fire apparatus arrives at the emergency, one can easily see how equipment and hose deployment and pump operations have evolved differently between North American and European fire departments.

Most North American fire apparatus is designed to accommodate preplanned hose loads for rapid deployment upon arrival. Most European fire apparatus use an “enclosed transit” design where the hoses and firefighting equipment are mounted and stowed within the vehicle. The deployment and configuration of hoses and equipment occurs at the scene and is based on the size-up of the incident.

Pumping systems

For European pumping fire apparatus, the engine output power is typically matched to the pump performance requirements, meaning the relative energy (hp) to drive the pump determines the engine size (hp needed) and chassis component combinations (big enough to accommodate that engine) to be used. The firefighter often stays close to that minimum requirement.

For North American fire apparatus, it’s common (some estimates put it at 20–25%) to see fire apparatus with high-horsepower engines and large transmissions that significantly exceed the minimum power requirements for the pump to perform as expected. (These two factors alone have a significant impact on the size chassis needed and the gross vehicle weight for a piece of pumping fire apparatus.)

A typical piece of European pumping fire apparatus, however, has a rear-mounted pump with a minimum number of discharge valves (two to four), where the pump operator sets the pump pressure and then adjusts each discharge’s output with "turn-down" valves.

Whereas the design of North American pumping fire apparatus is based on the use of pre-connected hoselines, the tactical approach for European fire departments is a blank pump (no pre-connected hoselines) with hoses rolled and stowed in the exterior lower compartments, which can be set up on site to handle a specific situation.

Aerial fire apparatus

As we saw with pumping fire apparatus, standards and performance expectations have sent the designs for aerial fire apparatus (e.g., ladders, platforms, scopes) in Europe and North America in somewhat different directions. Many European fire departments prefer a more compact design for 100-foot (32-m) aerial apparatus because they value a smaller and more maneuverable package. A common type of aerial device is a turn-table ladder with limited ground ladders and more truck-mounted "below-grade" performance capabilities.

The requirements of NFPA 1901 for a 100-foot aerial device (e.g., more ground ladders, equipment and tools) creates a need for a larger apparatus chassis. The “foundation” for aerial apparatus designs used in North America can be found in NFPA 1901’s requirement that aerial fire apparatus must carry a minimum of 115-feet of ground ladders (NFPA 1901, 8.8.1.2).

Those ground ladder requirements make for a typical North American aerial fire apparatus body that’s larger, higher and more “boxy,” which limits the capability of the aerial device for use in below-grade operations.

The term “rescue aerial” is quite common in the European design process for aerial fire apparatus. Whereas aerial fire apparatus designs in the U.S. and Canada use the base vehicle (chassis) to stabilize and level the aerial device (ladder or platform), many European-designed units use the chassis to stabilize but level the device (ladder or platform) using the device itself.

Thus, the expectations for a European "rescue aerial" have evolved to create a device that sets up and levels quickly, and can raise, retract and extend at a faster pace to reach and evacuate victims.

Aerial platform design

The design of aerial platforms in North America has evolved in response to fire departments and their desire to hold significant weight at the tip while providing breathing air, electricity, scene lights, dual monitors, and tools in the basket to create a working platform. In Europe, the aerial device is designed more specifically to be a “rescue aerial.”

The operating environment in which the aerial apparatus will be expected to operate placed has a significant impact on its design. Designs for North American aerial platforms must take into consideration weight capacities, water flow requirements, and ancillary tool stowage because many fire departments in the U.S. and Canada view their aerial platforms as the “Swiss army knife” of fire apparatus.

Because of the “rescue aerial” philosophy that’s prevalent in Europe, their platforms commonly have articulation capabilities in the fly section to get over parapets. Thus, European fire apparatus designers and manufacturers find it a more difficult to design the egress access ladder found in North American standards because of the popularity of various articulation designs.

What can we learn from our European colleagues?

While their operating environments and fire apparatus design theories may be different, there is much that can be learned by fire apparatus designers on “both sides of the pond.” Components from both continents (e.g., like roll-up compartment doors, Storz hose connections, large-diameter hose, and compressed air foam systems (CAFS) have become global in fire apparatus design and construction.

So, what’s the takeaway from our discussion today? For me, the saying “Not weird, just different” seems very applicable. When it comes to fire apparatus design theory, we focus on studying any good design and understanding the “why” behind it.

The designs for fire apparatus are constantly evolving, and every year we see a variety of innovative approaches to fire apparatus and firefighter safety. The lessons of safety applied to design, along with innovation in the world of fire apparatus truly being a global endeavor, should resonate with fire apparatus designers and fire departments alike. 

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