You probably no longer blink an eye when an electric car passes by on the road. More novel battery-powered vehicles are soon joining the parade to help operators achieve their sustainability goals. Electric ferries are coming to Puget Sound and hybrid electric airplanes are being tested in Washington. Now, several Pacific Northwest fire departments have ordered their first electric fire trucks.
Portland Fire & Rescue is scheduled to take delivery next month of the first electric fire engine in the Northwest. Last week, the Redmond, Washington, City Council approved an order for an electric fire truck too, which will be the first in Washington state when delivered in two years.
“We are really excited to be part of the unveiling and moving forward into this type of fire engine throughout the country,” Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman Rick Graves said in an interview.
Graves acknowledged there is also some trepidation in the fire service about the incoming battery-powered pumper truck given the high stakes in the profession and short track record of the electric apparatus.
"There are some people that are open arms and can't wait for it and there are some who are looking at it with quite a bit of concern," Graves said.
The builder, Wisconsin-based Pierce Manufacturing, addressed the reliability issue head-on in its marketing materials.
"Pierce electric fire trucks offer the same reliability and functionality as all traditional apparatus," the manufacturer said on its website. "Electric fire trucks are designed to maintain the high level of operational standards firefighters demand with no compromises."
The Volterra rig primarily drives and pumps on electric power alone but has a diesel-powered backup engine that kicks in when the battery pack is depleted. That makes the design kind of like the concept of a plug-in hybrid electric car. The manufacturer remains cagey about the range of the low-emissions vehicle, saying that it is capable of "a full-shift operation" on electric power.
The electric fire truck's outward appearance is virtually the same as a traditional model. The main difference is the addition of a slender, floor-to-ceiling battery stack behind the crew cab and in front of the water pumping machinery.
The Redmond City Council voted unanimously without debate on Feb. 7 to approve the $2.3 million purchase of its first electric fire engine, including the installation of necessary charging infrastructure. The price tag is more than double the sticker price of a comparable conventional pumper truck. The city council briefing materials noted that a nearly $600,000 diesel emissions reduction grant from the state Department of Ecology will defray some of the large cost differential. The fire department said it also secured donations from various corporations to offset more of the cost and believed it could get additional outside funds before the rig was delivered.
Portland Fire & Rescue said it received a discounted price on its initial electric rig as part of a launch customer deal in which Portland will gather performance data to improve Pierce’s future production. Graves said the new Volterra pumper will be assigned to the downtown headquarters station, which is Portland’s busiest.
The Redmond and Portland city governments said the purchase of their electric fire trucks would contribute to meeting climate goals. Redmond's goal is particularly ambitious: to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Portland's goal is to reach net-zero for carbon emissions by 2050.
Redmond Mayor Angela Birney praised other attributes of having an electric fire engine, including reduced fuel costs, engine repairs and noise.
"Quieter operations also help our first responders communicate at the scene of an incident and keep our Redmond community safe," Birney said in a prepared statement.
Redmond estimated it will take two years for the city to receive the electric fire truck it ordered because each Volterra unit is built to order.
Pierce Manufacturing has competition in the electric fire truck niche. At least two other manufacturers, Austrian-based Rosenbauer and Wisconsin-based REV Fire Group are pitching electric fire engines to Western cities. Like the Pierce Volterra, the other models on the market are hybrids with diesel backup for the battery pack.
The Los Angeles Fire Department put an electric fire truck from Rosenbauer into service last spring. The first production model electric fire truck from Pierce entered service with the Madison Fire Department in Wisconsin in 2021. Charlotte, North Carolina, and Toronto, Canada, have ordered electric pumpers from REV Group.