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Municipalities Face Growing Sticker Shock when Replacing Fire Trucks

Local and national fire officials say evolving technology and safety standards have been driving up cost.

Municipalities have been in a state of sticker shock as they begin pricing new fire vehicles.
(Bill Koplitz/FEMA)
(MCT) — Forks Township, Pa., officials are the first to admit that it's been nearly 20 years since they last shopped for a rescue vehicle and a ladder truck for firefighters.

But they were no less alarmed when they discovered it would cost about $3 million to replace two key engines — an amount that is roughly a third of the township's entire operating budget.

Forks isn't alone. Municipalities across the Lehigh Valley have been in a state of sticker shock as they begin pricing new fire vehicles.

The Easton Fire Department's newest pumper truck cost about $500,000 when it was purchased in 2012.

The department is looking to add a similar pumper to its fleet. This time around it will cost an estimated $563,000, Easton Fire Chief John Bast said.

Local and national fire officials said evolving technology and safety standards have been driving up cost.

"It's very, very expensive. You're talking about a lot of steel and a lot of high tech equipment that goes into a fire truck today," Forks Township Finance Director Jim Farley said.

The price of fire trucks has been increasing at a rate of 5 to 7 percent per year, according to Ken Willette of the National Fire Protection Association.

"All of those increases in safety and technology come at a cost," Willette, manager of the NFPA's Public Fire Protection Division, said.

Standard features today include:

  • "Speed governors" that prevent the driver from going over a certain speed.
  • Steering control that gives the driver better ability to keep the vehicle upright and on the road during a skid.
  • On-board vehicle data recorders similar to black-boxes in airplanes. The device records data such as vehicle speed, acceleration and deceleration, whether the anti-lock brakes were engaged at any time, seat belt status, date and time. The information is stored on a 48-hour loop.
  • Air bags to protect occupants during crashes.

Standards Driving Costs

Willette's organization is responsible for NFPA 1901, a set of safety standards for automotive fire apparatus that's updated every three years.

Although the standards are not federally mandated, most fire truck manufacturers adopt them and it's unusual for a manufacturer not to build to the NFPA standards, Willette said.

The standards were recently updated and will be available for public review until late 2016, when the committee that approves the standards reviews the public comments and decides whether to make any changes.

One change that had been considered but was rejected by the committee was whether to increase the width of the seats inside the truck where firefighters sit.

"On its face, you think, 'What's the big deal?'" Willette said, but firefighters often wear heavy clothing and equipment. Sometimes the bulk requires them to use seat belt extenders.

Studies have shown there are a "fair number" of firefighters who don't fit into the seats comfortably, yet the NFPA committee decided against increasing the size of the seats.

Firefighters across the country appealed the committee's rejection in June, so it's expected to be discussed again next year during the committee review, Willette said.

The committee that approves the standards must also consider the cost and labor involved for manufacturers to implement the changes.

Widening seats would involve a major cost to manufacturers, requiring them to completely redesign the interior of their vehicles, Willette said.

In addition to the technology, most trucks are customized based on the size of the communities they serve, the landscape and architecture there.

Forks officials said one of the cost drivers with the ladder truck they want to purchase is that it will need a ladder long enough to reach some of the warehouses that have started to pop up in the township's industrial district.

Because of the custom features and new technology that comes on the new trucks, Bast estimates it will take approximately 340 days from the time Easton submits its specifications for the new pumper truck until the truck is delivered.

The trucks are highly customizable, allowing officials to choose details such as the type of seats used, the type of lights and even how the hoses will be stored.

"The one thing we asked for in the last few trucks were heated mirrors because they don't freeze up in the winter," Bast said.

Manufacturers do have basic models available, but Bast compared them to the base model of a regular passenger car, saying some of the materials used might not hold up as well as the higher end, customized models.

In Forks, officials want to replace a Spartan fire truck by 2018 at a cost of $750,000. The ladder truck would be replaced by 2020 at a cost of about $2.5 million.

Both trucks will be 20 years old by the time they are put out of service.

Willette estimates smaller municipal fire departments probably replace their trucks every 10 to 20 years.

A 2011 "Fire Needs Assessment Report," the most recent available, from the NFPA estimated that nearly half, or 46 percent of all fire department engines and pumpers were at least 15 years old.

Easton is on a schedule of replacing old vehicles every three to four years, Bast said.

The Easton Fire Department recommends replacing pumper trucks every 10 to 12 years and aerial ladder trucks every 15.

In addition to the two vehicles they are looking to replace and the pumper they hope to repair, Forks owns two pumper trucks, one from 2008 and the other 2013.

They also have a utility truck that was purchased in 2015.

It used to be common for a fire department to keep a truck for up to 30 years, "but those new electronic components just don't last that long," Bast said. He compared the new trucks to smart phones.

"The first cell phones that came out were all analog. Now we have smart phones that have more computer memory than what they used to fly to the moon, but they just don't last as long," he said.

Finding Funding

As the price of fire engines rise, municipalities, which as a matter of fiscal practice try to avoid tax hikes, have struggled to find ways to pay for new equipment.

Forks Township, which has a volunteer fire department funded by taxpayer dollars, has between $300,000 to $400,000 set aside in its annual budget for capital improvements.

Last year, the township used some of that money to purchase a new police car and paid a portion of the cost for a $60,000 smaller vehicle for the fire department.

But, there's not nearly enough money in the account to cover the cost of the large vehicles the department is currently considering, Farley said.

For that reason, fire officials are looking into the possibility of state grants.

The grants, which are for reducing a fire department's debt, can be applied toward the purchase of a fire truck, other equipment or to pay down building debt, said Ruth Miller, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency's Office of the State Fire Commissioner.

Last year, 2,491 fire Pennsylvania fire companies applied for the grants, with 2,401 being awarded a total of $30 million.

A breakdown of how the money was used was not immediately available.

Easton's fire department isn't volunteer, and operates on taxpayer dollars.

The City of Easton has enough money in its capital account to cover the cost of the pumper truck, Bast said.

The capital account is managed by city officials and is not specifically for the fire department, Bast said. It also covers equipment used by the public works department like dump trucks and back hoes.

Small fire departments might consider buying used.

"There are companies that purchase old apparatus and they will upgrade it and sell it. There is a considerable discount versus purchasing new," said Willette.

Some townships also try to repair older equipment, but that plan can turn into a money pit.

"The downside is that the older the apparatus, as you make that capital investment of tens of thousands of dollars, there is never a guarantee it's going to serve you for another year, five years or 10 years before it needs another investment," Willette said.

Lehigh Township purchased a used ladder truck earlier this summer for about $115,000, said Lehigh Township Supervisor Cindy Miller.

She wasn't sure how old the ladder truck was at the time the Lehigh Township Volunteer Fire Company purchased it, but said it was the first ladder truck the company ever owned, a purchase made possible by the discount offered.

"We were very fortunate they were able to get this buy," she said. "They bought it and repainted it to fit in with the fleet of equipment they already have."

Recognizing the increasing cost of equipment, Lehigh Township officials also began this year setting aside a portion of money from their capital fund to be used specifically for fire apparatus purchases.

The township set aside $130,000 this year, and plans to increase that amount to $135,000 next year, she said.

"This ladder truck for us, as far as large equipment goes, is our first purchase in a long time," Miller said. "You know fire equipment is extremely expensive. You just hope that it lasts for a long time."

©2015 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.