Since I was a young boy, I have loved fire engines. Everything about them excites and inspires me â€“ and much of my life has been spent researching them, learning about them, observing them, and photographing them. They are curious machines, all at once commonplace in our daily landscape, obnoxious when itâ€™s not your emergency, precious when it is, and a symbol of safety, consistency, pride, and history.
As any enthusiast will tell you, not all fire engines are the same, and just like cars and other durable goods, they have issues, popular designs, standards, and specific functions. From an urbanistâ€™s lense, fire apparatus, departments, and stations also say a lot about a city or region.
Growing up in Tampa, a medium-sized, historically urban city with moderate density, emergencies were notÂ regularÂ in daily life, but occasionally Iâ€™d hear a siren from a ways off and, knowing the direction of the two closest fire stations, could tell which way a truck was headed and whether it would come whizzing down my street. Engine 3 was first-due at my house; the only time I can remember needing them was when my grandfather fell and could not get back into bed on his own strength. In middle school, the neighborâ€™s deck caught on fire early one morning and several trucks from Tampa Fire Rescue crowded my street. During the 1980s and 90s, many fire departments switched to the â€œfire rescueâ€ terminology to acknowledge a growing demand on local emergency departments for EMS services rather than fire. Safety and construction innovations have made building fires easily detected and far less common, whereas medical trends have dictated greater skill and resources be sent to medical emergencies prior to reaching the hospital.
Getting older, I began to track fire and EMS calls more efficiently â€“ with online call logs. It was with great excitement that I discovered only Tampa and a handful of other cities make their call histories available for public view (others include Seattle, Houston, Nashville, and Orange County, Florida). I also began to photograph and video trucks and calls digitally, saving hundreds on film and developing costs. Most of my captures from the past five years are posted on myÂ flickrÂ stream.
Over time, Iâ€™ve dialed my hobby back to a slow drip. I simply have too little time in the day, and other interests vie for time and resources. I do enjoy keeping up with the industry, though, and delving more into fire service policy – of which there is plenty.
In the United States, there are a handful of major fire apparatus manufacturers. Almost none of these do significant business in Europe or other developed parts of the world and few foreign brands are purchased domestically. Ambulances are produced mostly by a separate group of businesses, and many secondary industries are supported by the regular replacement of fire and EMS vehicles and tools in this country every year.
The average lifespan of a pumper truck (called an â€˜engineâ€™ almost everywhere) is about 10 years, at an average cost of $300,000. Ambulances typically last 6-8 and cost $150,000, and larger, more specialized ladder trucks are replaced every 12-15 years, sometimes surpassing the $1m mark. In poorer cities with harsher weather, trucks may be cycled more frequently, or require more regular maintenance and upkeep. In Southern California, a region famous for perfect vintage car weather, fire trucks sometimes last 20 years in front-line status.
In Florida, Pierce is the predominant brand, supplying large departments like: Miami, Miami-Dade County, Tampa, and Jacksonville. E-One, based in Ocala, was very popular throughout the country in the 1980s and 90s, but now counts Hillsborough, Orange, Sarasota, and Pasco counties among its biggest customers.
The thing about fire trucks is â€“ theyâ€™re exciting. Theyâ€™re big and loud. They connote adrenaline, and critical timing, where minutes are parsed into pounding moments. Arsonists light vacant homes, cars collide in fantastic explosions, and people collapse for no apparent reason, knocked unconscious. Fire trucks are also beautiful â€“ washed and shined to gleam every morning, with reflective paint and graphics to indicate authority and caution. Around the world, fire trucks are red, but in many cities theyâ€™re a variation of red, or not at all.
Chicago, and many copycat suburbs, paint their trucks black over red, harking back to a design flaw from the Ford Model T assembly line. They also flash red and green lights, rather than just red, a nod to nautical navigation lights. Seattleâ€™s are all a deep cherry with a bold yellow stripe down the side. In Tampa, trucks have been painted pewter over red since 2008, a reference to the Bucs football team colors. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue is one of the few remaining departments that has kept a lime green scheme for nearly 30 years, after having white trucks. Regardless of hue, diagonal â€œchevronâ€ striping has become standard on fire and EMS apparatus, as it catches motoristsâ€™ eyes and mimics the caution message of road signs and barricades.
New fire trucks are borrowing a trend from the auto industry too, using LED technology to make their warning lights brighter and more crisp. GPS navigation and real-time computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) has also become standard across the industry. Radios are now used mainly for redundancy in dispatch and for on-scene communications.
At this point in my life, I’ve surpassed being embarrassed by such an odd hobby. I’ve found other people who feel the same way I do, although many of those are in the industry, driving the trucks or building them. In another life, I would have been a firemedic, trained equally in fire and medical skill, working for a municipal department. Still, it will always be a pure, elementary pleasure that is not dictated by money, ability, or maturity bounds, like so many other things are in life.