Across the state, fire departments needing to replace their aging trucks are faced with significant price hikes and multi-year delivery delays due to backlogged manufacturers and supply chain issues.
Both supply and demand for fire trucks diminished in 2020 as vendors halted production and fire departments focused their attention on COVID remediation. But demand returned in 2022, and Connecticut municipalities joined lengthy waitlists and budgeted for increased cost estimates from vehicle manufacturers.
“At this point, you have to pay the higher prices,” said Norwalk Fire Department’s Assistant Chief Ed McCabe in a phone call with CT Examiner. “You have to pay what the industry is demanding because you’ve got to keep your firefighters in safe equipment. That’s the bottom line.”
In order to replace two pumper trucks – a fire apparatus with a permanently-mounted water tank – the Norwalk Fire Department originally requested $1.35 million for their 2023 budget. But cost estimates from manufacturers were higher than anticipated, McCabe said, driving the fire department to request an additional $489,225 at a special Board of Estimate and Taxation meeting on Tuesday.
“We weren’t entirely surprised because we know what the industry is demanding right now, and we know how much the prices have increased in that amount of time,” McCabe said. “But it’s frustrating for a municipality because obviously these are taxpayers’ dollars that we’re spending on this equipment.”
The approved cost of the two trucks combined jumped to $1,839,225 – a 36 percent increase from the original budget request.
McCabe said that because manufacturers bear the costs of supply chain issues, they typically reevaluate their prices every few months. He said manufacturing prices increased by three to five percent on February 1, adding an additional $45,000 to the department’s Tuesday request.
“Because we could not get the appropriation and get everything signed, sealed and delivered before February 1 – just because the city processes take some time – we’re also going to have to eat that increase unfortunately,” McCabe said. “All of these things add up in the end.”
In addition to increased prices, Norwalk jumped from their typical nine to 12-month delivery delay to a two to three year delay, as the city entered the back end of a long waitlist sparked by rising demand.
McCabe said that under the department’s vehicle replacement schedule, engines served 10 years on the frontlines before entering reserve status. But because of the delays, he said, older fire trucks remained in service longer than anticipated, putting a strain on the maintenance department and the vehicles themselves.
Jim Lyons, a sales representative for fire equipment distributor MES Shipman’s and a consultant for local fire departments, told CT Examiner that recent supply chain issues made the past couple of years the most challenging of his 30-year career.
But from a manufacturing standpoint, Lyons said, there was no one to blame. He said vendors experienced a major slowdown in 2020, and many laid off workers, unaware of the incoming rise in demand in the fire truck manufacturing industry.
“When sales started coming again, they could not get up to speed quick enough,” Lyons said. “With orders piling up on the other end, the backlog started.”
Lyons said there was no “cookie cutter” option when purchasing a fire truck as different communities often had different building heights, road widths and terrain. And because the vehicles were customized for each municipality, he said it was difficult for manufacturers to ensure set prices and arrival dates in contracts given unpredictable vendor costs.
“When I go to put a proposal together for a local fire chief, I have to tell them, ‘Here’s the price today, and I can guarantee it for about two weeks. Three tops,’” Lyons said. “Time is really against you right now.”
But on a phone call with CT Examiner, Avon Fire Department Assistant Chief of Operations Joseph Speich said he successfully worked with the town’s Board of Finance to avoid the February 1 increase, receiving two approved bond appropriations – one to replace a fire engine and one to replace a ladder truck – for about $3.4 million in total on January 11.
While Avon avoided the upcoming cost hike, the department still incurred a similar increase to Norwalk. Speich said that during initial discussions in 2021, the fire department estimated that the ladder truck would cost about $1.6 million. But the final price of the ladder truck through Pierce Manufacturing, he said, was about $2.2 million – a 36 percent increase.
Speich said Avon Fire Department considered all options before signing the contract, including keeping the current vehicles and paying for refurbishment.
“The most logical solution would be to replace both vehicles as opposed to repairing,” Speich said. “Cost of refurbishment is about $250,000 to $300,000, and at the end of the day – in five or 10 years – you still have to replace the truck. The refurbishment only lasts so long.”
Speich explained that in addition to increased workloads on vendors, federal funds to municipalities through the American Rescue Plan also increased prices and wait times.
“Since towns are flush with cash because of ARPA, many towns and cities are deciding to buy a fire apparatus, therefore increasing the workload on the manufacturers which also means we have to wait longer for our trucks.”
And according to Jeffrey Morrissette, State Fire Administrator for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, federal dollars are one of the only funding mechanisms available to local fire departments outside of their municipal budgets.
Morrissette said the Commission on Fire Prevention and Control – which operates under his department – did not typically provide grants to fire departments unless lobbied through the efforts of local legislators. And while federal funds were sparse, he said, Connecticut municipalities had some success with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grants.
“There’s limited funds across the United States, so you really have to be able to put together a very strong application to receive limited funds as it relates to procurement of fire trucks,” Morrissette explained.
Morrissette said that in addition to applying for grants, some local fire departments combatted inflated vehicle costs by pooling their resources with nearby municipalities.
“You may have two or three towns responding to one fire,” Morrissette said. “So, in one community, maybe you’re relied upon for aerial apparatus. Another may have more sophisticated extrication or rescue equipment.”
But whether they pooled resources, applied for grants or fronted replacement costs, Morrissette advised municipalities to carefully consider their options given the inflated market.
“I think they’ll have to look at their fleets, and determine and prioritize what’s most important,” he said.
In addition to Norwalk, both Darien and Fairfield’s Boards of Selectmen moved to advance their town fleets on Tuesday – Darien’s Noroton Heights Fire Department will receive a new pumper truck in 1.5 years through a $825,415 bond approval, and the Fairfield Fire Department expected a pumper by fall 2024 through a $980,000 bond approval.