David Soyka reports on how this company comes to the rescue of public and private emergency response agencies here and abroad.
The term “fire engine,” meaning a machine for throwing water to put out a fire, dates back to the 17th century, though the first actual device that performed this function is believed to have originated in the second century B.C. Of course, the technology has improved considerably since then, and a variety of specialized apparatus has been developed to extinguish certain kinds of fires under specific conditions. Today’s fire apparatus are designed to meet not only nationally established safety and performance standards, but also the needs of the specific areas they serve. For example, urban fire trucks typically are designed with a tight turning radius for improved maneuverability in congested cities, suburban apparatus may be designed for both fire suppression and medical calls and rural vehicles may require all-wheel drive or pump-and-roll
capability to operate in off road environments.
It was the recognition of this demand for vehicles customized to a local department’s needs – that “no two fires are identical and no two fire departments alike,” in the words of founder Chris Ferrara – that transformed Ferrara Fire Apparatus, Inc. from a literal garage-start up into one of the leading manufacturers of built-to-order fire trucks for global public and private clientele.
The company’s start almost 30 years ago followed the old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Chris Ferrara was a pipefitter/fabricator by trade, but also a volunteer fireman in rural Louisiana. His fire department was in dire need of a water tanker due to the lack of a central water supply in his community; however, what was also lacking was funding to purchase the vehicle. Ferrara put his fabrication skills to work and, along with the other volunteers, built the tanker at a considerable savings. This got Ferrara to thinking and in 1979 he founded a firefighting equipment distributorship he operated out of his home. Having success selling equipment, a firetruck service, warranty and repair center was added to the business, and ultimately Ferrara expanded into a manufacturer of custom fire apparatus.
What fired-up the company’s growth was Ferrara’s vision to produce what other manufacturers would not: true custom fire apparatus designed and built to meet a specific customer’s needs. This basic concept was followed by many industry innovations from Ferrara, such as the Inferno custom chassis that provides significant improvements in handling, visibility, safety, ergonomics and comfort. The safety features of the Inferno include its Smart Wheel steering wheel with fingertip controls and its roll cage design, full length door pillar extrusions and interlocking roof extrusions to protect both the front and rear occupants. The Inferno far exceeds ECE-29 industry certified crash test requirements for frontal impact and vertical load, having withstood a 66,000-pound vertical test load on the cab (300 percent of the vertical load criteria). Optional features of the Inferno include all-wheel drive, independent front suspension, electronic roll stability control and an airbag protection system that protects all of the outboard-seated passengers in the event of a vehicle rollover. Ferrara was also the first in the industry to design and manufacture a “ladder-through-the-tank” storage system that protects ladders from the elements, eliminates the need for a hydraulic ladder rack and allows for increased compartmentation on the vehicle.
Driven by its focus to meet customer needs and provide industry-leading innovations, Ferrara is recognized as the fastest growing fire truck manufacturer. Ferrara offers a comprehensive range of custom-built fire apparatus including aerial ladders and platforms, rescues and haz-mats, tankers, brush trucks, industrial pumpers, command centers, rescue trailers and other specialty emergency vehicles. The company stands behind the products it builds with its service and warranty department and was the first manufacturer to provide fire departments with a 24-hour emergency service hotline. Apparatus manufactured by Ferrara are used by some of America’s largest municipal fire and rescue departments including New York, Houston, San Diego County, San Francisco and Detroit.
In addition to its domestic business, Ferrara is expanding into international markets. According to Les Alexander, president, “We’ve received significant interest from several international markets, most recently from China and Turkey. We are currently working on a multi-truck program for Istanbul, Turkey, where they are purchasing 10 of our Strong Arm fire apparatus. Increased international sales, plus the fact that we’re continuing to pick up contracts with larger metropolitan customers in the United States – Indianapolis, Ind. being one of the most recent – allows us to continue our history of growth.”
“Everything we make is custom-built,” Alexander points out. “A lot of people in the industry claim to be custom builders, but we truly work with our customers to design the vehicle they need and build that vehicle to those unique specifications. We are also one of the only manufacturers in the industry to offer the variety of materials from which to build a customer’s apparatus – extruded aluminum, stainless steel, or galvanized steel.”
He adds, “There’s no repeatable production process because no two trucks we build are the same unless they are part of a multi-truck order for the same customer.”
Consequently, Alexander explains, “As a custom builder, we’re always trying to find ways to do things more efficiently and keep our costs down. We’re constantly looking at our manufacturing processes and working with our suppliers to stay ahead of the curve.” The company recently completed a 30,000-square-foot addition to its chassis prep and body manufacturing space to improve production flow and to meet growing demand for its apparatus.
Ferrara Fire Apparatus markets its products through both a direct sales force and a dealer network in the United States and in certain international markets. The company exhibits its apparatus at major industry trade shows such as the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference (FDIC) held annually in Indianapolis in the spring and Fire Rescue International in the fall, as well as regional trade shows and conferences. Ferrara also participates in international events such as Intershutz, the global fire and rescue trade exhibition held in Germany every few years.
Frequently, the company responds to requests for proposals for its vehicles. Alexander emphasizes that cost is not always the primary factor in awarding the contract. “It’s not just a cost-based decision, but also your ability to meet the customer’s specifications,” he points out. “This is very much a ‘people-business’ – we’re known by our reputation for spending a lot of time with our customers to get an exact fix on what they need and how we can best design and manufacture a vehicle to satisfy those needs. It’s a competitive advantage that we can offer customers the level of customization in their vehicle that they can’t always get from other manufacturers.” Through the Ferrara Web site, customers can look at recent deliveries, and also view current photos of their truck in production as it makes its way through the manufacturing process. These photos are updated regularly to improve the exchange of information between Ferrara and the customer.
Alexander also notes that Ferrara’s customer base continues to expand beyond traditional fire and rescue departments. “We sell the majority of our products to municipal fire departments, but we have expanded our product offerings to include emergency, rescue and command vehicles for police and sheriff departments, bomb squads, EMS, SWAT, Homeland Security, USAR, the National Guard, private industrial customers and others.
The development of new technological advancements and safety innovations are a part of a continuous improvement initiative at Ferrara. “As a manufacturer, we design our apparatus with the latest in safety features to better protect the firefighters riding in them,” Alexander says. “We are constantly looking for new and innovative products to introduce to the fire service.” One such innovative Ferrara product is the Strong Arm, characterized by Alexander as “revolutionary.” It has a 50-foot articulated arm fitted with a heavy duty stainless steel nozzle that can penetrate most roof and wall construction materials including six-inch reinforced concrete block walls and can deliver a 50-foot curtain of water or foam. This means that instead of putting a firefighter at risk, using the Strong Arm the building can be ventilated and the fire can be extinguished remotely by the fire fighter from the ground. The Strong Arm can also perform controlled demolition and has a lifting capacity from 2,500 pounds to 10,000 pounds for use in rescue situations.
Helping Those Who Help Others
Employing approximately 450 people at its 300,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and manufacturing facility in Holden, La., Ferrara Fire Apparatus is one of the area’s largest employers. Recent events near Ferrara’s home along the Gulf Coast have called upon a company that makes fire and rescue vehicles to come to the aid of departments in need of some assistance themselves.
“Leading the Way!” is not only a slogan used in the company’s advertising; it’s part of the corporate culture of Ferrara. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Ferrara stepped in to assist with the distribution of supplies and equipment to this devastated region. “Our facilities weren’t significantly damaged by Hurricane Katrina,” Ferrara says, “but many of our employees who live throughout the Gulf Coast region were directly impacted. In addition, much of the apparatus and equipment in that region was damaged during the storm, and as a company we went into overdrive to provide trucks and equipment that were in short supply in the affected area as quickly as possible. Being a good neighbor was part of it, but the company’s roots are in volunteerism and it’s just part of our mentality to do whatever is necessary to help the people who are helping other people.”
Similarly, when New York lost a number of its fire apparatus and emergency vehicles during the events of September 11th, Ferrara was there to provide assistance. Recognizing a need and wanting to help, the citizens of Louisiana and Ferrara employees raised funds to manufacture and deliver the first fire apparatus donated to New York City following 9/11. The “Spirit of Louisiana” fire truck was built by Ferrara to exact Fire Department of New York specifications and delivered before the end of that year. In fact, Ferrara manufactured a total of three fire trucks, which were fully outfitted with firefighting equipment and donated to FDNY on behalf of the citizens of Louisiana and Ferrara employees.
Ferrara Fire Apparatus is unique among many manufacturers in that it sees continuing demand for strictly “Made in the USA” products. “While some people are pessimistic about the future of manufacturing in this country, we see this as a fantastic time to be in this business,” Chris Ferrara says. “We’ve carved out a niche in the fire apparatus industry and the market has responded to us in a huge way.”