When Battalion Chief Tim Dawdy recently got his new district vehicle, he endured some good-natured teasing from his coworkers. His 2014 Ford Escape is smaller and certainly not as rugged-looking as the Ford Expedition that he retired after 15 years of use.
The Escape, however it may look, is better suited to his job at Clark County Fire & Rescue, he said, and reflects a fire service in flux. While the industry is still dominated by the big, red fire engine, fire protection districts increasingly look to save money by diversifying their fleet of vehicles.
"I like it more and more every day," Dawdy said. "It's just so much easier to drive."
As a battalion chief and spokesman for the district, he doesn't have to be among the first to arrive to an emergency.
"I don't need to drive fast. Where would I drive fast to?" he said.
The compact utility vehicle is still equipped with the four-wheel drive that allows him to navigate through hilly country roads and snow-covered streets; the updated emergency light bar and reflective lettering makes it visible at crash sites; it's easier to parallel park when he has to go to meetings; and the smaller size encourages him to store only what he needs.
Most important, he said, it costs less. The Escape gets 22 mpg, compared with the 9 mpg for his old Expedition. When the district first purchased that vehicle in 1999, fuel in Washington state averaged $1.35 per gallon. Back then, the fire commissioners wanted him to have a big vehicle.
Things have changed.
The Escape cost nearly $7,500 less than the updated 2014 Expedition. Auto buyers are also trending toward compact crossovers, like the Escape, and away from full-size SUVs, according to data from Ford.
Ways to be more practical and economical are constant topics of discussion at meetings, Dawdy said, where higher-ups toss around ideas about what tools to use and how they could do business differently.
"Is it possible to have a swing crew on an engine? What are the possibilities for the future?" Dawdy said.
Downsizing vehicles is just one of many cost-saving measures prompted by the economic recession.
"We really had to examine hard what we do," he said.
Although there will always be a place for fire engines, he said, sometimes a smaller vehicle can do the job just as well — if not better.
Quest for efficiency
For about three years, Fire District 3 has used a Chevy Tahoe rather than a fire engine to drive to medical emergencies, which make up about 65 percent of the area's emergency calls. Parked at headquarters in Hockinson, Rescue 31 saves the district in fuel and maintenance costs. The station went from servicing its engine twice a year to once a year.
"Overall, we're trying to find cheaper ways and more efficient ways to deliver the service," said Chief Steve Wrightson.
Some firefighters, used to being in the engines, were skeptical when the idea was introduced, said Wrightson, who's been in the fire service for nearly four decades.
Fire engines are "part of the fire service tradition," he said. "Traditions can be hard to change."
Firefighter-paramedic Nolan Meyer liked the idea of Rescue 31, but appreciated it more once he started using it. It's less stressful to drive, and it gets him down narrow driveways much easier than an engine.
The firefighters see it as another tool in their toolbox. "One's not necessarily better than the other," said Firefighter Andrew Blomdahl. "From the start we were told that the fire service is always changing. … You have to learn and adapt as you go."
All three District 3 stations also have squad trucks, a vehicle that's smaller than an engine designed to respond to medical calls and brush fires. With four-wheel drive, it's easier to drive up inclines in icy weather.
Meyer pointed out that when he began working at District 3 seven years ago, he didn't have as many useful tools as he has now, such as the LifePak 15. It's a portable device that measures a person's vital signs, such as their heart rate, oxygen levels and breathing efficiency. Emergency medical services technology continues to advance, and the protocols change all the time, he said. There's one in every vehicle, including Rescue 31.
It's not just the fleet that has diversified, it's the tools inside them.
The firefighters at Station 31 keep their turnouts in the center of the engine bay, ready to climb into whichever vehicle is dispatched to a call.