Last Updated on February 2, 2023
Everyone knows the familiar and distinctive sounds produced by fire trucks. Or are they called fire engines? Some people use these terms interchangeably, but they are actually two different vehicles. What started out as little more than a water tank on wheels has evolved into several complex forms of firefighting vehicles. Now, there are different types of fire trucks and fire engines.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) refers to both vehicle types as fire apparatuses. The NFPA applies standardized names and characteristics for each type. Below, is a list of the 10 most popular apparatuses.
- Fire engines
- Fire trucks
- Wildland engines
- Water tenders
- Aerial trucks
- Tiller trucks
- Heavy rescue trucks
- Fire command vehicles
Many people imagine fire trucks as spraying water and deploying ladders, but these trucks and engines have been modified over generations. Today, each has become purpose-built and equipped to suit the needs of a wide range of firefighting departments.
The fire engine is the most straight-forward evolution of the first firefighting apparatuses in North America. In the past these were horse-drawn wagons equipped with a water tank, hoses, and a pump. The pump was powered by an engine, and that is how fire engines got their name.
Today, fire engines come equipped with a few more items, such as specialty nozzles and tools, but they’re still a single-purpose machine. They usually arrive first on-site to provide water from a tank until a fire hydrant can be connected. These units are also called bucket brigades, pumpers, and have been recognized as triple combination rigs because they have three fire control essentials: tank, pump, and hose.
To be considered a fire engine, the vehicle must meet certain minimum requirements for tank capacity, pump flow, hose length, and personnel capacity.
Besides being categorized as fire truck or fire engine, the apparatuses are also placed into seven more specific types. Each of these seven types have meet specific criteria.
For example, a Type 1 fire engine has a minimum tank capacity of 300 gallons, a minimum tank flow of 1,000 gallons per minute (gpm), a minimum of 1,700 feet in hoses, and carries at least four personnel. A Type 2 engine has a lower minimum with a tank flow of 500 gpm, 1,500 feet in hoses, and transports three people.
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Types 1 and 2 are the largest units and reserved primarily for urban areas. As the Type number increases, the vehicle size decreases. However, the lowered minimums don’t always mean the size of the vehicle decreases. The application of the apparatus often dictates size. Units deployed to rural areas are smaller but carry more water and less hoses, since the use of fire hydrants are not integral to their firefighting schema. An example would be a Type 4 fire engine which has a minimum tank capacity of 750 gallons.
The conventional fire truck escorts firefighters along with essential tools like fire extinguishers, ladders, breathing apparatuses, hydraulic rescue tools, and floodlights to the scene of a fire. The exact equipment being transported depends on the needs of that specific fire department.
Fire trucks serving urban populations tend to be larger (Type 1 and 2). Many of the other firefighting apparatuses are based off the design of the conventional fire truck.
Similar to a fire engine, wildland engines are a single-purpose machine designed to control fire by applying water at high pressure. The major differences is that wildland engines are designed to traverse rough terrain and transport more water relative to their size.
Wildland engines also have a great range in size with the smallest—Type 7—having a maximum gross vehicle weight range (GVWR) of just 14,000 pounds. Types 5, 6, 7 are built on medium-duty trucks, the Ford F-650 (Type 5), the Ford F-450 and Ford F-550 (Type 6), and the Ford F-350 (Type 7). Types 3 and 4 are built on heavy-duty trucks and have no maximum gross vehicle weight rating.
Wildland engines are also known as brush trucks, grass wagons, patrol trucks, boosters, and A-wagons. Though the last term is also applied to a hazardous materials apparatus, which can pump foam or specialized agents to address particular types of fires.
A water tender (or tanker) is similar to a fire engine, but comes with a weak pump and far less hoses. The purpose of the unit is to transport water—as much water as possible—to the scene of the fire, for another firefighting apparatus. The pump and hoses are only for the onboarding of water and then to pump to another truck. These tankers do not have the spray capacity to fight fires.
A specialized type of water tender is an airport crash tender. They utilize a dry chemical fire retardant, which creates a stream of firefighting foam, gaseous fire suppression tanks for electrical fires, and a higher-power pump. All of these qualities differentiate it from a traditional water tender.
Aerial trucks come equipped with the iconic ladder extending from the top rear of the machine. The ladder extends telescopically to reach upper stories of buildings. These are popular in high-density jurisdictions and help deploy firefighters and water to higher stories. The ladders also provide an escape route for people stranded on those upper levels.
Aerial trucks are available with either a fixed telescopic ladder or a rotating telescopic ladder. A rotating telescopic ladder provides rotation at the ladder access point, so the ladder can extend in any direction, whereas fixed telescopic ladders only extend in one direction—toward the front of the vehicle.
Aerial trucks are sometimes called platform trucks or ladder trucks. The latter term, however, can also be applied to a truck designed to carry multiple ladders, but doesn’t have an attached ladder stemming from the top of the vehicle. Whether a ladder can be hydraulically or pneumatically lifted; all ladders require manual setup.
A quint is a combination truck; it provides the functions of fire pump, water tank, hose bed, ground ladder, and aerial ladder. Being equipped with both a water tank and an aerial ladder is really unique among firefighting apparatuses. Quints require an aerial ladder or elevating platform, a water tank with a capacity of at least 300 gallons, and at least 40 cubic feet of room for equipment storage.
Quints allow fire departments to send just one vehicle instead of both a fire engine and a fire truck. Although, quints do not carry more people, so that choice decreases the number of on-site personnel.
Also known as a tractor-drawn aerial, tiller ladder, or hook-and-ladder truck, the tiller truck is similar to an aerial truck in that it comes equipped with a turntable ladder. However, the ladder is mounted to the rear of a semi-trailer truck.
A semi-trailer truck has a point of articulation, so it offers better maneuverability than other Type 1 and Type 2 firefighting apparatuses. This is useful when reaching upper stories in tight, urban areas. Tiller trucks require two drivers—one for the front portion of the truck and one for the rear. The two sections can’t easily be separated as commercial semi-trailer trucks can. Specialized tools and a lot of time are needed to separate the two sections.
And tiller quints combine the five functions of a quint machine with the semi-trailer truck of a tiller truck.
Heavy rescue trucks
These are the vehicles that get deployed to traffic collisions, building collapses, and other disasters, as well as to fires. They carry much equipment, but most notably battering rams for forcible entry, flood lights and flashlights, sledgehammers, shears, shovels, saws, hydraulic spreaders (commonly referred to as the jaws of life), prybars, ropes, chains, winches, pumps, generator, stretchers, blankets, and first aid equipment.
The acronym stands for mobile intensive care unit, and these are very similar to an ambulance. Each comes equipped with advanced life support (ALS) equipment and transports paramedics to fires and other emergencies to offer life-saving support.
Fire command vehicles
This is the vehicle that gets driven by the senior officer of the fire department. They are similar to police cars, in that they are often equipped with lightbars, sirens, radios, and other specialized equipment. Many departments use modified SUVs or pickup trucks as their command vehicles. People dub these vehicles as a fly car or the fire chief’s car.
Similar in purpose to the fire command vehicle is the squad car, which is a car owned by a fire department and used primarily for transporting firefighters, though not restricted to being driven only by the senior officer.
Unusual types of fire trucks
Besides the kinds of firefighting apparatuses listed above, fire departments can convert any vehicle for firefighting purposes. Departments sometimes convert boats, helicopters, ATVs, electric carts and tanks.
One department uses a six-wheeled Polaris ATV designed for getting into remote, mountainous places and comes equipped with a 75-gallon water tank, pump, hoses, a five-gallon foam cell with foam nozzle, and various safety equipment.
The fire department serving Grand Central station in New York has used a fleet of electric carts customized for firefighting and medical emergencies. This includes a 200-gallon fire engine model with a 300 feet of hose. They use a a rescue model with forcible entry tools and turnout gear, and an ambulance model that comes equipped with a stretcher, oxygen tanks, defibrillators, and first-aid supplies.
Within history, firetrucks sometimes operate in warzones. In the ‘90s, a WWII-era Soviet T-34 tank was equipped with two MiG-21 jet fighter engines. The engines fired water that ran through the jet engines to create a blast of high-powered steam to put out fires when Saddam Hussein set fire to the oil and gas fields of Kuwait.
Another example of firefighting tanks includes a Soviet T-62 battle tank equipped with a 50-round rocket launcher that shot flame-retarding projectiles.
Firefighters every day and in every place find their way to serve the community. With the different types of fire engines and fire trucks, there is plenty to choose from. No matter what the drive, saving lives and protecting the community is always the end result. Find your ideal fire apparatus by beginning your search in the right place.