If you’re a commercial tire dealer, you may be overlooking a relatively simple and lucrative business opportunity. Chances are good you drive right past a potential new source of sales every day and never even give a second look.
That potential customer is right in your local fire station.
Why is the opportunity to sell tires for fire trucks overlooked? For starters, some tire dealers may assume that all fire departments are run by municipalities, and so tire purchases are handled only through the city. Others might believe that all fire departments have direct contracts with tire manufacturers.
Granted, that is the case for many fire departments, but not all of them. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. has direct contracts with municipal fire departments, and its dealers get commissions for servicing those contracts. But some fire departments handle their own tire purchases through a local dealer, and the municipality is not involved at all. Ron Likley, assistant chief of a small-town fire department in Ohio, says he buys tires for all of his fire trucks through a local independent dealer because he cares about supporting local businesses. So, don’t assume there’s no opportunity.
To find out how the fire department in your area buys tires, just ask. Take a few hours out of your day to pay a visit.
An Educated Customer
Once you get out there and investigate, you may discover a source of new profits for your business. Overall profitability depends on many factors, one of which is frequency of emergency calls. How many calls a station gets on a regular basis determines tire utilization rates. Some fire trucks wear out tires in a year or less. Others can run on the same set of tires for the entire life of the vehicle. Every situation is different.
One thing that rarely changes, though, is the emphasis that fire departments place on their tires. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1915 standard for fire apparatus preventative maintenance states that tires should be removed from service if they are defective, have cuts in the sidewall that penetrate to the cord or a tread depth of 4/32-inch or less on the steering axle or 2/32-inch on a non-steering axle.
So, fire apparatus maintenance techs, if trained properly, know the value of proper tire maintenance. Every day, Andy Hontert, a full-time emergency vehicle technician at Likley’s fire station, checks inflation pressures and inspects the tires on all of the vehicles. He tells management when tires need to be replaced and makes recommendations. And he doesn’t recommend buying the cheapest tire available. Like most fire department techs, he knows that tire failures on emergency vehicles can have life-threatening consequences.
Michael Burroughes, product manager at Michelin Americas Truck Tires (MATT), a division of Michelin North America, says that fire trucks are generally better maintained than traditional commercial trucks. “Since the vehicles are parked a great deal of the time, workers tend to inspect them on a regular basis,” says Burroughes.
“These are very educated customers,” agrees Al Cohn, technical marketing manager for commercial tires at Goodyear. “Tires are very well maintained. They know inflation pressures and they won’t use worn tires.”
So, there may not be ongoing service opportunities like a tire dealer might enjoy with a truck fleet, but there are other opportunities beyond just big tires.
In his station, Likley has three fire engines, one 100-foot aerial platform, one heavy rescue vehicle, one water tanker and one Humvee for grass-fire emergencies. All of that equipment will need tires sooner or later. And though Likley says the department responded to only about 270 fire calls last year, its EMS vehicles, which use 10-ply tires, can go on as many as 12 calls a day. And more frequent calls mean faster-wearing tires.
Winning the Business
At its core, winning business from fire departments is no different from winning business from any other customer. It starts with knowing what’s important to them. When fire department personnel consider tire purchases, they are looking for a few key attributes. Knowing those attributes and emphasizing them should help you earn respect and repeat business.
Probably the most important features to fire department personnel are load carrying capacity and stability. Likley says that, when Hontert considers tire purchases, he looks for “a quality, all-season tire that will handle the weight of the apparatus.”
Fire industry trade journals report that today’s fire trucks are getting bigger and heavier, carrying more water and hose, longer aerials and more equipment. Some fire departments carry 750-1,000 gallons of water, 800 feet or more of five-inch-diameter supply hose and 400 feet of 2.5-inch hose on their pumper trucks. Add to that the weight of the steel tank holding the water. Then add engine weight. An engine on a large fire apparatus can weigh approximately 2,600 pounds. Even small fire trucks have engines weighing in at around 1,300 pounds.
When vehicle weight exceeds tire load or axle weight ratings, the apparatus becomes unstable, and that’s unacceptable to these customers. When responding to an emergency call, fire fighters have to get there reliably and safely. It’s literally a matter of life and death.
Of course, tires on these heavy vehicles have to maintain adequate pressures to carry the load. “Inflation pressure is more critical here than at any other time,” says Guy Walenga, commercial products engineering manager at Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire (BFNAT). “An emergency vehicle cannot be down for a tire that has been destroyed because of overloading or underinflation.”
Offering a tire with a high load-carrying capacity is a given. But, also let these customers know that better stability can also be achieved by reducing vehicle weight. For example, switching from steel to aluminum wheels can save up to 200 pounds on a typical two-axle pumper.
Lower Center of Gravity
Reacting in part to the industry’s weight-reduction needs, Michelin is assessing the appropriateness of its X One super wide radial tire for emergency vehicles, including fire apparatus. “A key attribute of the new-generation, low-profile, wide base tire is reduced vehicle weight,” says Burroughes. “And that’s critical on these vehicles, which are really pushing the threshold of tire load-carrying capacity.”
Burroughes believes that fire trucks using the X One may benefit from an increase in track width on the rear axle, which can improve handling and result in an overall improvement in vehicle stability. “We’re assessing the application throughout the course of this year,” he says.
Stability is also impacted by a vehicle’s center of gravity. If the center of gravity on a fire truck is too high compared to the width of the rear tires, the vehicle will be unstable and could even roll over.
Some departments purchase lower-profile tires with stiffer sidewalls on the front and rear to broaden the vehicle base and improve stability. To get the same effect, a tire dealer could recommend 11R22.5 tires on the front and rear axles instead of 11R24.5 tires. Recommending low profile 275/70R22.5 tires will lower the center of gravity even further. In some cases, a dealer can recommend low profile tires combined with lowered front or rear suspensions.
Keep in mind that fire departments will go to great lengths which include purchasing advanced technologies to ensure safety and reliability. Likley uses a Crossfire tire pressure equalization system made by Lincoln, Neb.-based Dual Dynamics, on all of his dual-wheel vehicles. It’s an added safety measure that allows the fire apparatus to get to an emergency in case of rapid tire pressure loss. “If one tire loses pressure, the system will equal out the pressure from one tire to another until we can get to the scene,” says Likley.
His Humvee, too, is equipped with self-inflating tires and an on-board compressor. The vehicle, mainly used for grass-fire emergencies, sometimes has to drive through soft soil to get to a fire. “We can deflate the tires down to 20 psi to get a bigger footprint to go through the soft ground,” says Likley. “Then, we can re-inflate the tires once we get out of the area.” A solid rubber core within the tire prevents the outer rim from cutting the sidewall during deflation.
“Dealers that do well in this market learn about their customers and what they do with their vehicles,” says BFNAT’s Walenga. Dealers need to know where these trucks operate to sell the proper tire, he adds. “Are they always on city streets? Will they stray onto gravel roads, into the woods or in soft soil?” These are questions dealers should ask, Walenga says.
And don’t forget the value of word of mouth. Consider this: Hontert is a member of the Ohio Association of Emergency Vehicle Technicians. At the association’s regular meetings, technicians from all over the state talk about tires and discuss their experiences with different brands and tire dealers.
Hontert uses intelligence gathered there to recommend a dealer. And, more often than not, the dealer he recommends has taken the time to get to know the ins and outs of emergency vehicles.
It all comes back to that important face-to-face meeting. “Confirming the application means knowing where they go on a regular basis by talking to them,” Walenga says. “A dealership can distinguish itself by offering a professional and complete package that is emergency-service applicable.”