‘Like a golf cart on steroids.’ NC fire chiefs experience a fully-electric fire truck

·5 min read

When the City of Durham made a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2040, many of the strategies, such as solar panels and electric cars, were obvious.

Less clear was what to do about the city’s fleet of diesel-burning fire trucks.

“This was the piece that our fleet management folks said would be the hard part,” said City Council member Javiera Caballero.

Caballero was speaking from the driver’s seat of an all-electric fire truck, one of only a handful in the world. The manufacturer, Rosenbauer America, brought it to Durham this week to demonstrate it for city officials and members of any other fire department in the region that wanted to see what the company calls the future of fire trucks.

“To see this in action is incredible, and I’m really excited,” Caballero said. “And I think the city employees are, too, because this was the piece — you hope it’s coming but to know that it is coming is exciting.”

Coming, but still not quite here. The truck in Durham, the RT for “Revolutionary Technology,” was built seven years ago in Austria as a concept model, and the pumps, hoses and other equipment aren’t configured for American fire departments.

Still, seeing an electric fire truck in person is a chance to get a feel for the idea and begin to think about how it would work in Durham, said Robert Zoldos, the city’s fire chief.

“Is this the fire engine for the future of Durham? No,” Zoldos said. “But it may be Version 2 or Version 3. So we wanted to start investigating this now before it gets too far past us.”

Rosenbauer has started to sell the all-electric trucks; the first went into service in Berlin, Germany, last winter, followed by one each in Amsterdam and Dubai. The City of Los Angeles will begin using the first American version early next year, and the company plans to begin building them at its plant in Minnesota in 2023, said Mark Fusco, vice president of sales and marketing.

The truck has a six-cylinder BMW diesel engine, but that’s used only to recharge the batteries. It kicks on automatically when the batteries are at 20%. In 440 fire calls in Berlin, the engine came on only twice, Fusco said, and both times it was as the truck was returning to the station.

Without a large diesel engine and powertrain, the Rosenbauer electric truck is shorter than other fire trucks and sits lower to the ground. When the truck is parked, the step in and out of the crew compartment is only 7 inches off the ground, which is safer and easier for firefighters carrying heavy gear. The hydraulic suspension will lift the truck up to 30 inches off the ground for high water and other obstacles.

The truck is also silent while parked and nearly so while in motion, so firefighters can “use their inside voices” on their way to a call, said Tripp Evans, president of the company that will sell the trucks in North Carolina.

Truck starts and stops quickly

But when Rosenbauer driver Steve John took Caballero and others for rides, what he wanted them to see and feel was the truck’s maneuverability. John sprinted from one spot to another and took turns hard as he circled the fire academy training grounds off East Club Boulevard.

In urban areas, fire trucks are mostly dashing from one intersection to the next, John said.

“Now, finally, batteries and motors are big enough to be able to power all this weight,” he said.

Zoldos said the truck is “very quick,” but also stops well.

“The most dangerous part of a fire engine’s response is at an intersection,” he said. “This can get to the intersection and get out of it really, really fast.”

Corey Mercer, Rocky Mount’s fire chief, says he’d never been in a fire truck that could maneuver like the Rosenbauer.

“It’s kind of like a golf cart on steroids,” Mercer said.

Apex fire chief Keith McGee said he has read about electric fire trucks in trade magazines and was eager to see one in person. The town wants to be forward thinking in terms of technology and environmental sustainability, McGee said, so an electric fire truck will be a good fit someday.

Asked if there might be some resistance from firefighters used to brawny diesel trucks, McGee laughed.

“There’s a saying in the fire service: 100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress,” he said. “We’re growing out of that now.”

Zoldos is sold on the concept of electric vehicles; his wife lets him drive her Tesla every now and then. He thinks his department will soon have options for electric pickups and SUVs as utility vehicles for battalion chiefs and others.

Durham will have to explore how to incorporate charging stations for full-size fire trucks and get comfortable with paying the higher up-front cost for electric vehicles. Fusco said depending on how it’s configured the Rosenbauer would go for $1.1 million to $1.2 million but that savings on fuel and maintenance would make up for the higher cost in three to five years.

Rosenbauer has competition; Pierce Manufacturing of Wisconsin claims to have put North America’s first fully-electric fire truck into service earlier this year, though the truck is on loan to the City of Madison. Fusco said his company is the first in the world to bring one to market and hopes to sell more in the U.S. soon. The company is taking its concept truck on an East Coast tour and is heading to Charlotte next.