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Emergency equipment safety a major priority Company emphasizes excellence in service despite challenges

David Russell, president, Fire & Safety Services in South Plainfield.-(AARON HOUSTON)

New Jersey residents should know that if a Pierce fire truck arrives at their house in an emergency, they are in good hands, David Russell said.

“We treat every truck that we sell and service as if it is going to be coming to our own family’s homes,” Russell said.

Or being used by his own employees.

More than 90 percent of Russell’s workers at Fire & Safety Services in South Plainfield are also active or former firefighters.

Fire & Safety Services, established in Piscataway by Walter Runyon in 1964, has become the leading emergency apparatus supplier and service provider in New Jersey.

Russell, the current president, said the employees’ connection to the service is a big reason why.

“I was a volunteer firefighter for 12 years — my father, Bill, for more than 35 years — both in Metuchen,” Russell said.

The business grew steadily in its first decade. Then, in 1977, it became the northern representative for the state for Appleton, Wisconsin-based Pierce Manufacturing, the largest fire apparatus manufacturer in the nation.

Bill Russell took over the business in 1982, and just two years later, Fire & Safety Services was representing all of New Jersey for Pierce Manufacturing.

David Russell joined the family business in 1999 before it outgrew its Piscataway facility and relocated in 2008 to a more than 18,000-square-foot facility on four acres in South Plainfield.

Then the real work began in the wake of the national recession. Safety services are not immune to the impact of economic downturns.

Clean air

An average fire call is just about 30 minutes long, David Russell, president of Fire & Safety Services in South Plainfield, said.

“However, we are guided under the same Environmental Protection Agency and Department of

Transportation regulations that truckers are.”

Russell said that the required emissions standards since 2004 have both increased the size and cost of fire trucks, adding up to $50,000 in additional costs every couple of years due to new regulations.

“While I am all for clean air, there are certain segments that probably should have exemptions,” he said.

Fire & Safety Services did sell a hybrid fire truck to the city of Trenton nearly five years ago.

“But those trucks have to be operated on a regular basis or the batteries go stale.”

“The fire market is rather cyclical,” Russell said. “Right now, we are slow growing due to a hold on the market a few years ago, when we saw a lot of departments doing major repairs on vehicles rather than buying new ones.

“Our service side did well during that time period, but our sales side did not.”

When working with each community fire department to figure out what its specific needs are, Fire & Safety Services is also at the mercy of precarious operating budgets.

Russell said waiting to purchase new trucks or conduct preventative maintenance could cost communities and taxpayers more in the long run.

“Fire trucks, especially, require a certain level of preventative maintenance in order to make sure that the vehicles run according to the manufacturer’s design and warranty,” Russell said. “When that line item got cut in budget negotiations, now they are finding they are facing higher bills.”

There is some good news. New Jersey moved away from public bidding to cooperative purchasing opportunities shortly after Hurricane Sandy, allowing fire departments the ability to choose their manufacturer.

“They do, however, need to show that they have conducted their due diligence and that, by going with another manufacturer, they are indeed saving money,” Russell said. “While there are some checks and balances involved to prevent favoritism, it’s good for the towns to be able to provide continuity of training, service and parts.”

Russell said that, while he expects to see average business growth of about 5 percent each year moving forward, a lot can change — and the industry already is facing some tough challenges.

“It’s common throughout the country to have difficulty in finding talented in-house and road technicians,” Russell said. “We’ve tried working with some of the state’s vocational technical schools and organizations, but for every 20 people you look at, maybe one is adequately skilled.”

The issue, Russell said, is that many programs concentrate their curriculums on the electronics that are present in many of today’s cars and trucks.

“A lot of what we do on fire trucks is still old, mechanical work,” Russell said. “My managers are having to spend a lot of time with people trying to develop the mentality that, if something doesn’t work, not to ask, ‘Now what,’ but to say, ‘This is what I think I should do next.’ ”

Consistently changing state and federal regulations also have not made working in the industry any easier.

“I get new updates every two weeks,” Russell said. “It seems we have politicians making policies for sound bites and not based on pragmatic decision-making that’s going to have long-term benefit.”

Increased regulations will continue to put more pressure on the fiscal demands and responsibilities of communities, Russell said.

“You hear some people say, ‘We are doing more with less, so we need bigger vehicles,’ and then you hear some people say, ‘If I could have twice as many specialized vehicles, that would be perfect,’ ” Russell said. “However, it is costing more and more every year to build fire trucks.”

Emergency apparatus prices can vary between $250,000 to more than $1 million, but an average fire truck will cost at least $700,000.

For Russell, though, as long as Fire & Safety Services can meet its target numbers — and keep its employees happy — he will be successful in business.

“There are 855 end users between the fire, emergency services and police departments in this state, and there are 683 purchasing authorities,” Russell said. “Of those potential clients, we have sold to nearly 80 percent, and have serviced the vehicles of even more.

“Yet, we are still one of the few businesses that cover our employees’ health care 100 percent. During the recession, we did not lay anyone off, reduce anyone’s health benefits or put anyone on part time status.

“A lot of the people here have known me since I was 12, and I do not intend to disappoint them now.” 

Biz in brief

Company: Fire & Safety Services

Headquarters: South Plainfield

Founded: 1964

Revenue: Between $7 million and $10 million

Employees: Fewer than 50

One More Thing: David Russell’s father, Bill Russell, still comes into the office three days a week. “That’s his idea of retirement,” David Russell, the company president, said.

Meg Fry

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