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Should The Future Be Influenced from the Back Step?

By Bill Adams

The future of fire apparatus is seldom shaped or influenced from the back step. My personal opinion is black coats are seldom asked for their opinions and recommendations about their workplace—the fire apparatus they work off of. For people not collecting social security yet, the back step alludes to the days when a rig’s crew rode there, aka the tailboard and the rear step. Black coats means the crew—the rank-and-file firefighters regardless of gender, experience, age, volunteer, or career.

“The Future of Apparatus and Components” is the theme of this posting of The Rig. Apparatus pundits will prophesy about the industry. There will be some excellent commentary. Most observations will come from past-their-prime fire chiefs, manufacturers, white-haired retirees looking for second careers, and self-proclaimed industry experts. Some have hidden agendas. Few observations will come from the back step. That’s sad.

The recent alignments and acquisitions of manufacturers by their competitors will top the commentary with predictable statements addressing the narrowing field of apparatus manufacturers. Others may reflect on the number of fire truck functions that can be incorporated into one rig.

Some safety pundits will promote the newest and greatest changes to those “nationally recognized minimum requirements for fire apparatus” that manufacturers and fire departments “voluntarily” comply with. I wonder if fire departments really want or can afford those changes. What do black coats think of them?

There will be some new innovations, designs, and ideas that will improve the safety and proficiency of firefighters. They are welcomed. Their “inventors” should be commended. There is no criticism of manufacturers who introduce new products to make firefighters’ jobs easier and safer. Everyone wants to believe new products are introduced solely for the betterment of the fire service in general and the black coats in particular.

I believe somewhere between the engineer’s drawing board and backing a new rig into the barn, the back-step crew has been omitted from the decision making process—most of the time, but not all the time (see The Rochester, NY Fire Department’s Apparatus Purchasing Committee) Although I’m a former white coat and a retired apparatus salesman with white hair, my observations are that of a black coat who used to ride the back step. There is no advocating eliminating the crew cab, or removing the cab roof altogether or moving the steering wheel back to the right-hand side. I am not promoting the return of 2½-inch supply lines and tin helmets with long rubber coats and pull-up boots.

The good old days are gone; they’ll never return. Common sense should not have left with them. Black coats can contribute greatly to practical improvements in fire apparatus design. They physically use the rigs on a daily basis. An innovation or design does not necessarily have to be some new, super expensive, microprocessor-controlled invention. It could be as simple as redesigning or relocating an existing accoutrement, making it safer and more efficient to use.

Too often the people who design and purchase fire apparatus forget firefighters are the most expensive “part” of a fire truck. Firefighters are not expendable. They are not always easily repairable. They come with no guarantee. Replacements may be hard to find if they become worn out and retire.

A small measure of the success or failure of those who designed and purchased a rig is whether the black coats like it. If black coats can proficiently work off the apparatus without inadvertently injuring themselves, the designers and purchasers did an acceptable job. If the crew’s tasks are accomplished more efficiently, easily, and safely than on their previous rig, the designers and purchasers did a good job. If it’s harder and takes longer to accomplish tasks on the new rig, they failed.

Blackcoats are not universally correct in their evaluations. In scenarios where financial constraints force the consolidation of apparatus, the disdain for losing traditional mission-specific rigs such as engine and ladder companies may cloud firefighters’ judgment. Management and labor disagreements may affect sound reasoning and perception. Black coats must accept that the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) has final say in what apparatus design is purchased and the manner in which it will be used. That’s life.

It is immaterial if black coats like or accept the functions a new apparatus must perform or the size of the crew assigned to it. Common sense dictates they should have, at the least, been asked their opinion about both. Prudence dictates that black coats should have input in “laying out” a rig they’ll have to use. My hidden agenda: if a firefighter has to physically climb onto the rig to reach a primary piece of equipment, whoever designed and purchased the rig didn’t do a very good job.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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