September 12, 2007 in Business

Answering the call

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Cab assembler Randy Kluge, left, and manufacturing supervisor Paul Draxler, right, discuss plans for a new Velocity PUC truck, background, at Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, Wis. Pierce Manufacturing Inc.’s latest innovation makes vital parts like water hoses more accessible. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

MENASHA, Wis. — Firefighting is all about speed: fast red trucks, fires that can quickly get out of control. The only thing the industry seems slow at is changing its vehicles.

But now, a leading fire truck manufacturer has remade the tired, red standard truck to reflect the changing nature of the job, which has gone from simply putting out fires to more often providing on-the-scene medical attention. Analysts say the demand for fire trucks is stable and unlikely to change, so changes to the nation’s fleet will come gradually.

Pierce Manufacturing Inc.’s latest innovation makes vital parts like water hoses more accessible. It also makes the trucks more easily serviceable and provides more space for medical equipment.

The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that every 20 seconds, one of the nation’s more than 30,000 fire departments responds to a call. In 2005, there were 23.25 million calls — and more than 60 percent were for medical aid. Only 1.6 million — less than 7 percent — were for fires.

Firefighters provide the bulk of health care needs before people are taken to hospitals or emergency rooms, said Rich Duffy, assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

“I think over the last 20 to 30 years, fire departments have moved from being first aid providers to emergency medical technicians to full-blown advance life support paramedic response,” he said.

All of these changes mean trucks must evolve as well, said Mike Moore, director of new product development for Pierce, a division of specialty vehicle maker Oshkosh Truck Corp. The company, based near Appleton, spent five years working on its newest truck — called the PUC or Pierce Ultimate Configuration.

Miami-Dade Fire And Rescue just took possession of the first one, a bright lime-green model. Pierce said it already has a handful of orders from other departments.

Moore said research showed that departments want more space for equipment, beyond standard hoses and protective gear. Now they want medical and rescue tools.

“I’ve never had a fire department say, ‘We’ve pulled off all our equipment and we need a smaller truck,”’ he said.

So the company came up with several changes that may not be visible to the average person. To firefighters they stand out:

“35 percent to 40 percent more compartment space than traditional models — with trays that pull out and shelves throughout the vehicles.

“The length of the average truck is under 30 feet, down from 32 to 33 feet, and the wheel base is shortened by 1.5 feet, which makes them more maneuverable.

“Hoses are in trays at chest height, for quick access. Other fire trucks have hoses several feet off the ground, meaning firefighters must climb onto the truck to reach them.

“The water pump activates in two steps instead of nine.

A big change has been reconfiguring the water pump, which pumps up to 1,500 gallons a minute through the hoses, Moore said. Now it sits under the cab of the truck, rather than behind it, in a separate enclosure and under a jungle of plumbing. When it needs to be serviced, mechanics don’t have to sort through all that plumbing. They can just tilt the cab up. Pumps need regular service because of wear caused by silt, debris and other items that come with water sources, Moore said. The changes mean a truck may now be out of commission for only four hours versus several days to a week.

“The trucks need to be on the front lines, protecting communities. That’s what they buy them for,” Moore said. “Anything we can do to make them easier to service, that’s what we aim for.”

Ordering a fire truck is not like selecting a car off a dealer’s lot. Two years can pass from the time a municipality decides to get a truck until it starts making calls. Fire departments seek bids, citing what they want in their vehicles and take the best offer.

Prices vary depending on options. Pierce said its vehicles range from $150,000 for smaller ones to $1 million for larger, more complicated trucks. Custom pumpers — which the PUC is considered — range from $250,000 to $600,000.

The trucks last about 20 years, and for smaller communities one truck may be all they have, he said. That’s why departments spend a lot of time sorting through options and visiting manufacturers. It’s common to see up to 100 firefighters at Pierce’s headquarters each day, inspecting trucks and looking through options.

Pierce holds about 35 percent of the fire truck market and is considered the leader in technology and innovation, said Steve Barger, a research analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets in Cleveland.

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