The current fire apparatus and economic trends call for new purchasing and funding rules.
In the past 5 years, apparatus prices have increased over 50%. That means the average $250,000 pumper in 2003 now costs over $400,000. At the same time, fire department budgets have held steady or grown mildly, at best.
Fairly soon, these two trends will collide in a common math problem. If your budget is not growing fast enough to pay for its costs and still purchase rapidly higher-priced fire apparatus, you’ll be forced to making some hard decisions about how you purchase and equip your apparatus fleet. After all, apparatus will consume an ever larger portion of your total budget.
This article will examine the hard choices most fire departments, especially small rural fire departments, will have to have to make to continue serving their community.
The 7 new rules of fire apparatus purchasing
If current trends continue and the impending collision of fire apparatus prices and budgets occur, fire departments will be forced to take 1 of these 7 new rules:
- Ask for more revenue. If you have the same operating expenses and want more costly fire apparatus, you’ll have to get more funds. This rule means showing your taxpayers, council, sponsors, etc. that you provide real value to them and what an investment in your fire department will mean to them. It may mean lower insurance premiums or better economic development for your community. Most departments have not developed the skills of presenting their economic value to their community, rather relying on the “feel good” idea of public safety and protection. The new environment means that your department will require the ability to establish your value and why you require the funding you request.
- Cut costs. If you’re stuck with the same budget, you’ll have to make room to purchase more costly fire apparatus. This rule requires some hard decisions about what is required to operate your fire department. A method to pay for more expensive apparatus is to reduce the day-to-day expenses and use those dollars instead to purchase apparatus. In other words, transfer budget dollars from daily operating expenses to major capital purchase expenses. What expenses can be purchased cheaper, reduced in its use, or eliminated from the operating budget altogether? The key to this rule is making hard decisions.
- Extend apparatus useful life. By extending your replacement plan, you’ll need to buy fewer apparatus. This rule requires selecting apparatus that will last longer and still remain safe. This rule means, for example, that you replace your apparatus every 12 or 15 years instead of 10 years. Or 20 years instead of 15 years. The key to this rule is to take a longer view on what you may need and design and select a truck that will last and perform safely for a longer useful life. This rule can help reduce costs by spreading the expensive apparatus purchase over more years.
- Consolidate apparatus functions. If you currently have two apparatus doing separate jobs, consider replacing the two apparatus with one apparatus designed to do both jobs – such as combining a rescue and an pumper. This rule will reduce your apparatus purchase budget. The key to this rule is again to have a clear vision of what use you envision for the apparatus.
- Cooperative buying. Consider purchasing specialty apparatus such as heavy rescues and aerials with another department and split the costs. This rule requires savvy leadership and far-sightedness. Most departments react negatively to suggestions of sharing apparatus with another department. A seldom used apparatus is expensive in today’s world and sharing with another department during your down time will help your budget.
- Consolidate. The economics of running separate fire departments is becoming harder. This rule means it may make sense to consolidate with another department to share resources and efficiencies.
- Buy used. Quality used apparatus can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a new apparatus. This rule means to consider out of the box thinking especially for seldom used apparatus. If the apparatus is safe and reliable, the cost savings can be the difference between having an newer apparatus versus having no or an older apparatus.
Current events and trends dictate an unsustainable future. Apparatus prices can not continue to increase forever against a backdrop of stable or shrinking budgets. Funding for new apparatus purchases has to be created in this environment – nobody’s budget is just growing fast enough to meet its operating expenses and still be able to purchase rapidly more expensive apparatus.
It’ll take some new rules and creative thinking to get the apparatus you need in today’s tough economic world.