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Firetrucks: a feat of engineering and manufacturing

We saw them constantly on the TV news during Australia’s horrific bushfire season, so what’s involved in operating a fire truck? We look at the equipment, specs, and driving techniques

Eurocargo 4x4_1.jpg

Thousands of trucks around Australia are taking a well-earned rest in their fire sheds after copping a hammering during the long hot spring and summer of 2019-2020.

Rough dirt tracks, dust, heat and all sorts of understandable driver mishaps in the dark took their toll on many of the basic workhorses of the firefighting services around Australia.

But as far as we are aware, most of them came through pretty well, despite the circumstances. It’s a testament to the amazing expertise of our truck and equipment engineers and manufacturers that they did.

So what’s involved in a fire truck? Let’s have a look around one, using as an example the backbone of the NSW Rural Fire Service fleet, the Category 1 tanker – better known as the ‘Cat 1’.

In this case it’s a 2017 Isuzu FTS 139-260 4×4, which this writer spent a lot of time in over summer.  

You don’t have to be a plumber to use these!


The FTS is rated to 14 tonnes gross vehicle mass, and fire trucks aren’t off the hook in having to pull into weighbridges, unless they are responding to an emergency under lights and sirens.

The water tank carries about 3,600 litres. That can be used up in just a few minutes if you are defending buildings under attack, or it could last all night if you are mopping up a backburn and being very careful with your water use.

The turbo 8-litre, six-cylinder engine produces 260 horsepower (194kW) with 770Nm of torque, and that grunt is plenty for most jobs. The truck sits comfortably on 100km/h on the bitumen, and has no problem getting up most steep bush tracks.

Pollution gear is cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) with exhaust diesel particulate diffuser (DPD).

This one has a six-speed Allison fully automatic transmission. There is a downside of the auto compared with a six-speed synchro box – in first gear, low range, the auto creeps downhill on the dirt faster than low range first gear in a manual, and therefore requires more brake pedal.

But an upside of the auto is that it’s safer and easier to do a ‘stall recovery’. A stall recovery is a tricky manoeuvre that’s needed when you are crawling up such a steep and slippery fire trail that the truck just won’t go any further. The natural tendency in a manual is to go for the clutch, which means the foot brakes might not hold. To get out of this potentially dangerous predicament you leave the clutch alone and let the truck stall in gear to help hold it; keep your foot on the brakes; then tickle the clutch only just enough to jam the gearstick into reverse; turn the ignition back on; take your foot off the brakes a millisecond later; and let the truck drive itself slowly back down the hill.

This Isuzu is permanent four-wheel-drive, with about 30 per cent of the power going to the front wheels on the bitumen.  

A fire truck is not much use without water


Most Cat 1s go pretty close to the weight limit, and it’s not surprising when you consider all the gear on board.

The GAAM pump can take water either directly from the truck tank, or by pulling a lever it can draft out of a swimming pool, creek or dam and be directed back into the tank or direct to the hose lines (or both using another lever).

To get suction you often have to use an electric primer – which makes a horrendous noise – to ‘prime’ the system by getting the air out of it. Suction hoses are reinforced so they don’t collapse.

But the easiest way to draw water is from street mains via a standpipe plugged into a hydrant, letting the mains pressure push the water through a soft rubber filler hose.

The outlets range from 65mm for transferring water to other trucks, to 38mm for property protection, to 25mm for routine use through the rubber hose reels or ‘percolating’ canvas hoses, which are designed to leak water and therefore not burn through.

There are lockers for the hoses, fittings and nozzles all down the left side on this truck, which makes it safer for grabbing the gear out in a hurry with other vehicles around. Firefighters must generally all get out of the truck on the left side for the same reason. 

Portable pump and 8-stud disc wheels

In the lockers on the right side there’s the gear that’s not needed in such a hurry, including torches and head lanterns, first aid kit and defibrillator, chainsaw gear, drinking water, snacks and of course coffee and tea for those well-earned breaks.

In lockers on the top of the tank is the breakdown gear including chocks and cheater bar, bags of absorbent for soaking up fuel at vehicle accidents, air hose, bolt cutters, and so on.

Strapped down tightly on top of the tank between the locker boxes are all sorts of tools including axe, brush hooks, shovels, etc.

Last but not least there are four of the simplest but also one of the most important pieces of equipment on the whole truck – the ‘McLeod Tool’, better known as the rakehoe. You hardly ever see these being used in the dramatic images on TV but a truck would be naked without them.

The rakehoes do the hard and unglamorous work of cutting metre wide tracks down to bare earth, to safely light up one side with a drip torch (which uses a mixture of diesel and petrol). Lighting up on one side of a fire trail or rakehoe trail is the bread and butter of both backburns into an approaching wildfire or hazard reductions, which are controlled burn-offs of ground fuel in the off-season.

You often hear people getting these terms mixed up, for example they might complain about not enough ‘back burns’ being done to reduce fuel loads, when they actually mean ‘hazard reductions’ or ‘controlled burns’.

Anyway, the routine is always the same after a back burn or a hazard reduction – they have to be ‘mopped up’. That means tramping around at least 10 metres off the trail – and occasionally up to 50 metres during the last extreme fire season – to put out smouldering logs and trees and anything else that could flare up the next time it’s hot, dry and windy and could  jump the track. This involves a lot of hard work with rakehoes and dragging hoses around. 

You hope you never have to unroll these heat shields or pull these fire blankets over yourself


The Isuzu has good air-suspended bucket seats in the front for the driver and officer in charge, and plenty of leg room. It’s unavoidably squeezy in the back with a full crew of six (including the driver and officer).

There are four different types of radios, controls for operating the pump from the inside, levers to activate tanker protection sprays, fire blankets, fire screens that roll down from the top of the windows and windscreen, reversing camera, dash camera, GPS – and of course a good air conditioning system.

Then there are the buttons for the lights and sirens, which are needed when responding to an emergency call or report of bush alight. Drivers are allowed to break some road rules if the lights and sirens are going and they are taking ‘reasonable care’.

But there are other road rules which cannot be broken under any circumstances. They include school zone speed limits, stopping at red lights (you can then drive through them if it’s safe), stopping at blind intersections, stopping at intersections where the RFS vehicle doesn’t have right of way, and of course stopping at pedestrian crossings.

There’s not much point getting ‘red light fever’ as a driver anyway – once you arrive it’s often a case of ‘hurry up and wait’. It could be a false alarm or senior officers are still working out the tasking at a big fire, for example.

Indeed fire trucks can often spend a lot of time just staying put – so they need the idling revs cranked up to at least 1,000rpm to make sure the radios and beacons don’t drain the battery. 

You’re in trouble if you have to pull up the red tanker protection handles
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