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Delay, Defer and Reduce

"This department is being held together with bubble gum, baling wire and duct tape," says Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.

This video shows Dirk Steinhardt riding with Chicago Tower Ladder 14 last September. They were using a reserve rig when Dirk was there.

Ride along with Tower ladder 14 of the Chicago fire department responding to a fire. Engine 117, engine 113, truck 26 and a battalion were also on scene. It was actually a small electric fire. Truck 14 normally runs a new Pierce rig but it was out of service for some reason so that they had to use this older truck.

The rattles, groans, slow/dim/not working emergency lights when E252 responds (a the 1:20 mark) reminded me of another complication of multiple years of budget crisis.

The rate of vehicle replacement is slowed down, routine maintenance is deferred and shop staff are reduced. 

A Spiral of Increasingly Worse Performance and Critical Failures

The optimum time to replace a vehicle is when its total costs, averaged over the vehicle's lifetime, are at a minimum. That is determined by looking at the operating expenses, maintenance, downtime and deprecation.

The New York State Comptroller shared data they accumulated on local government automobile maintenance costs:












During a 1980s budget crisis, a suburban Virginia county tried to get more than 200,000 miles from all vehicles. For police cruisers, the cost-per-mile maintenance approached $0.30 per mile.

The sweet spot for Ford Crown Vic police cruisers used by some large law enforcement agencies was 50,000 miles. After that point, major maintenance expenses (transmission, air conditioning compressors, electronics, etc.) would start accumulating.

Putting all of the factors creates the "Economic Life" of a vehicle:











What happens when a municipality tries to keep apparatus well beyond their economic life?

Pictures by Gordon J.Nord, Jr. of the front-line Tower 14 at a greater alarm fire December 14, 2011.

Source Chicago Area Fire.

Mike "FossilMedic" Ward

Comments - Add Yours

  • Jim F.

    Nice piece, Mike. All over the country, fire departments are putting off apparatus purchases because they are living on subsistence budgets, with only enough money to pay personnel and operating expenses. (As we know, many are having a hard time even doing that.) Apparatus gets pushed off for “another year”…but at this point that “another year” is like 5 years and, as a practical matter, there is no end in sight. The video of the Chicago platform was particularly telling because as bad as the condition of some front line fleets, the reserve fleets are even worse. That square cab E-One was probably a mid-80s vintage rig, making it about 25 years old. And one other point about reserve rigs: In many fleets, especially aerials, the best reserves are in use virtually every day and accumulate as much — if not more – than some frontline rigs, blurring the line between frontline and reserve.

    • Mike “FossilMedic” Ward

      Thanks Jim,

      Good point about reserves being used every day.


  • Dalmatian90

    Mike — my one cautionary comment is citing 30 year old data for car maintenance.  50,000 miles in 1982 is radically different from 50,000 miles in 2012.

    Remember showing my ’97 S-10 to my step-grandfather.  He had a trucking company in the 1940s-1970 and in the early years they were doing full rebuilds of their engines at the same mileage my truck specified changing the spark plugs.I’m not advocating 200,000 mile cruisers, but my own gut would say today’s sweet spot between capital costs and maintenance is timing it so you get do the 100,000 mile maintenance routine + one more set of tires, say about 130,000 and retire them before new sneakers are needed.

    • Dalmatian90

      I should add my fire company Ambulances are traded strictly every four years — specifically to take advantage of maximizing the trade in value.  

      When we began the service, the state rate setting procedure favored expenses heavily over saving for capital reinvestments.  Call volume fluctuated significantly in the early years as departments around here were transitioning from all volunteer to paid day crews; the worse possible scenario would be low expenses and high call volume (due to daily mutual aid runs) which would result in a lower rate followed by a low call volume year. We had call volume changes some years of around 30% when neighboring towns put on paid crews, or others would have the final daytime volunteers burn out.So trading frequently and keeping steady expenses through a municipal lease finance managed rate setting risk for us.

      But I don’t see a strong market for large numbers of cruisers!

    • Mike “FossilMedic” Ward

      Thanks Dal,

      Good point.
      I am looking for more contemporary data, but did not have it. There is more data on police cruisers than fire apparatus from a fleet management perspective.

      FDNY is still replacing fire apparatus at around a ten year cycle.


  • F. Doyle

    I’ll agree with all of  the vehicle data. our local sheriff’s dept tried just going for engine/transmission rebuilds/replacements   70 – 100,000 miles as they were seeing those were the highest areas of maintenance costs. Don’t know if they are still doing it though. 
    As disturbing side note was seeing the guys riding standing up and dressing while responding in deference to the “Everyone Goes Home” program they are putting out there. The reserve truck had open jump seats without bars/gates. Not one to cast stones as I rode tailboard/standing in open seats many times, but see the error of my ways.

    • Mike “FossilMedic” Ward

       Thanks F.Doyle for the post.