Spec'ing and buying trucks is never an easy task. And the more complicated the equipment, the more challenging it becomes. Take fire trucks, for example. Not only are they expensive (up to $750,000 for specialized pumpers) and complex (fleets trying to color-code valve attachments for hoses actually run out of colors on occasion), keeping them road-ready is truly a matter of life and death.

Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services, which serves Vancouver, British Columbia, has developed some new approaches to the problems associated with spec'ing and buying complex trucks.

“Our apparatus replacement strategy is twofold,” explained Tom McEwen, Vancouver's division chief and the man in charge of spec'ing procedures for the city's fire department, at a recent meeting of the Fire Department Safety Officers Assn. “First, we work off a lease program managed by the city. We've developed a usage formula that helps us determine the expected life cycle for a piece of equipment. Our fire engines, for instance, are expected to last 15 years: 12 years on active duty and 3 in reserve.”

To get a low fixed payment, the fleet calculates lease payments over a 12-month period, and then amortizes the value of the truck over a 15-year period. “We add a 6% surcharge to cover the lease plan's administrative costs,” McEwen said. “It gives us much lower equipment acquisition costs.”

Before replacing a truck, the fleet goes through a “justification” process, ensuring that all the parties involved in the decision — drivers, maintenance personnel, safety officers, training officers, senior chiefs, and government officials — are on the same page.

Drivers comment on vehicle maneuverability, cab ergonomics and how easy controls are to decipher and use. Mechanics look at ease of component removal and vehicle service, reliability, plus OEM support and parts availability. Safety officers examine seating arrangements, seatbelt types and ergonomics. Training officers make sure if new technology goes onto the vehicle that firefighters get training for it. Finally, the senior chiefs look at whether the vehicle meets the community's response needs and if it can handle the expected workload.

McEwen keeps a close eye on warranties. “OEM support is the crux of the deal for us,” he said. “We compare and evaluate warranties for all the different components.”

Truck design is carefully reviewed as well. Is the load distributed evenly over the chassis? Does it maintain a low center of gravity? Can it fit in the fire station? Many fire trucks come with all kinds of portable equipment — can the OEM put all of that in place?

“That's why we usually start two years ahead of when we're going to need to replace a piece of equipment,” McEwen added. “If we are replacing ‘like for like’ — a new truck built on the same spec as the one it's replacing — we can move ahead if we have the funding. If we are doing something new, we need to draft a report for the City Council to explain why.”

“New” includes explaining why pricier custom cabs are selected instead of garden-variety commercial cabs. “We're opening and closing doors much more frequently than most fleets. We found commercial cab doors were just falling apart from the stress,” he said.

McEwen noted that as Vancouver has grown, fire-call volume has increased by 50%. And it's a city in need of far-flung fire and emergency response.

Ray Holdgate, general manager and fire chief for Vancouver's fire department, pointed out that taking the time to figure things out down to the last few nuts and bolts makes for a better fleet in the end.