- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

MENASHA, Wis.

Firefighting used to be all about speed: fast red trucks, fires that could quickly get out of control. The only thing the industry seemed slow at was 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.

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 in Florida just took possession of the first one, a bright lime-green model. Pierce said it already has a handful of orders from other departments.

Mr. 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:

• Thirty-five 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 less than 30 feet, down from 32 to 33 feet, and the wheelbase 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, Mr. 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 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Moore said. “Anything we can do to make them easier to service, that’s what we aim for.”

Ordering a firetruck 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.

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