WHAT DOES OUTSTANDING customer service look like?
It looks a lot like Ferrara Fire Apparatus Inc after Hurricane Katrina cut a nasty swath through southeastern Louisiana on August 29, killing over 1000 and displacing hundreds of thousands.
President/CEO Chris Ferrara turned his 70-acre property in Holden, 40 miles northwest of New Orleans, into a massive relief center.
Many firemen were out in the field, fighting fires and rescuing people trapped by the storm surge. They didn't have time to take care of their own families or themselves, so Ferrara sent a team into the field and asked them, “What do you need? We're here to help you.”
For the next two months, Ferrara's facility accepted 18-wheeler loads of food, boots, helmets, and other critical fire-department supplies. There were many days when the last Ferrara employees didn't leave the facility until after midnight.
“We were happy to help out,” says Blaine Richard, the used truck manager and service manager. “It was nice to return the favor to the people who buy from us every day.”
Ferrara radically altered its approach to service and redirected personnel to accommodate fire departments with trucks that were damaged in the storm surge, which buried many of them in six to twelve feet of water.
“We had to give them a bath and do non-corrosive treatment to neutralize the salt,” Richard says. “We wanted to take care of these guys who had lost everything they had, to try to get them up and running again.”
Richard says that when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came into the hard-hit areas of southeastern Louisiana, it didn't want the fire departments to buy new vehicles to replace the ones that had been totaled, preferring that they lease or rent first. He says Ferrara became the headquarters for trucks and equipment donated by other departments from around the country.
“They'd call us up and say, ‘Hey, I have a truck I want to give. Who needs one?’” Richard says. “So we'd call all our salesmen in the field and ask, ‘OK, who needs it the most?’ We would put the two departments in contact with each other, because we wanted the donating department up north to know who they were giving the truck to.”
Ferrara employees helped selflessly, despite having their own problems. At least two lost their homes due to damage caused by fallen trees. Others had difficulty getting out of their homes. The areas around Holden were without electricity for between four days and two weeks.
“Our work force made extraordinary efforts to build new trucks all the while working relentlessly to take care of the apparatus of the damaged and destroyed fire departments of the region,” Richard says.
By February, Ferrara was producing more trucks than it had before Katrina because fire departments were out of the recovery stage and interested in beefing up their forces.
In the same month, Ferrara opened up a new 46,000-sq-ft building devoted entirely to service and refurbishing. The new Service And Refurbishment Building has been a tremendous benefit to the department, which had been operating out of a tiny portion of the main manufacturing facility.
“We've seen a large improvement in the time we're able to get the units out of here, because we no longer have space issues,” Richard says. “We have a lot of goals. When trucks come in, we want to get them out in a timely fashion and to be right when they leave. We're averaging three to four month deliveries on the largest jobs, and we want to shorten that time as we move forward.
“Within this building, there will be two separate departments — one that does wrecks and re-furbs of two months' work or more, and a service department that does things like oil changes and valve jobs, the in-and-out jobs that will enable us to be more efficient: ‘Bring your truck in and if you need an oil change, don't leave. Stay here. And it'll be done while you wait.’
“The other day, I had a truck come in for a bumper repair. I told the owner, ‘You don't need to leave. Hang around the showroom and we'll be done in about two hours.’ And actually, by the time he came back, we had done three or four extra things. Our goal is to be customer-oriented.”
Ferrara also built a customer lounge to serve the checkout and delivery area, where customers perform bumper-to-bumper inspections of completed new vehicles. The lounge has a couch, television, large table, coffee maker and rest room. The inspection area also now has air conditioning and heat.
“We want them to make sure they're getting what they paid for,” Richard says. “This is a relaxing place where they can get away from the monotony and noise of the shop. If they want to make any changes, we have two employees who stay with them at all times. We'll write down the changes and put the truck back into production.”
The building process
In 1978, Ferrara was employed as a pipefitter, welder, and fabricator, also contributing many hours to community service by working at the Central Volunteer Fire Department in Baton Rouge.
Four years later, he founded a firefighting equipment and supply company, which he operated out of his home.
Today, Ferrara Fire Apparatus ranks among the nation's top five fire truck manufacturers. It has gone from a small manufacturing facility, which supplied brush trucks, pumpers, aerials, tankers, and rescue units to local and regional fire departments across the South, to a full-scale facility manufacturing commercial and custom fire apparatus for national and international markets.
“We've invented a lot of new products that set us apart from a lot of other manufacturers,” Ferrara says.
In the past nine years, those include:
▸The Strong Arm Project, a joint relationship with JLG/Gradall, the world's leading producer of mobile aerial work platforms and the leading producer of tele-handlers and telescopic hydraulic excavators.
The Strong Arm is a revolutionary firefighting vehicle developed, engineered, and designed exclusively for heavy-duty continuous use in the extreme adverse conditions that firefighters across the world are faced with each day.
The Strong Arm is a powerful firefighting tool with precision movement in critical conditions: advanced hydraulic control systems provide surgical type movement when needed; blitz-type foam applications are possible via the 52 individual aqua-jet nozzles that produce 1500 GPM; the 5th Man Nozzle delivers a 50' wide protective foam blanket; all Strong Arm functions are achieved via a radio remote control unit; and its 200' operational range provides full freedom of movement.
Ferrara says that it eliminates putting the operator in harm's way. It provides forcible entry, with raw power in the tele-boom and load-sensing hydraulics that deliver 40,000 lb of force at the tip.
He says it penetrates most roof and wall construction materials, including 6" reinforced concrete block walls.
“It extinguishes fires differently from the way they have been extinguished before,” he says. “It supports fire departments all over the world. It's a product that is innovative. We haven't seen anybody in the fire industry take that approach.”
▸The Igniter and Inferno custom fire chassis.
These chassis offer a 43.1-degree angle of view — the result of 4100 square inches of windshield area — and allow the driver to see the ground as close as 8 feet, 2 inches from the front of the cab.
“Inferno and Igniter chassis give the best visibility out of any cab chassis that's out there in the market today,” Ferrara says.
The cab is made of a 3/16" extruded aluminum superstructure, with interlocking 6061-T6 extrusions that provide an extra degree of durability and strength, along with 3/16" 5052-H32 aluminum panels on all flat areas.
“From a safety standpoint, we feel it's one of the safest chassis out there, with its 3/16" aluminum structure,” he says. “We consider ourselves to be the heaviest product made in the industry. We're known to be a heavy-duty builder with durability — products that last a lifetime, so to speak. Traditionally in our industry, a lot of manufacturers have lessened the body and cab materials in their design and way of manufacturing. We've gone the opposite way and have stayed with heavy-duty products. Our bodies stand up better than anybody else's out there. To our knowledge, we're the only manufacturer that tests a fire body to the extreme that we do.”
The proof sits in the lot behind Ferrara's facility. It's a 28' Inferno chassis with an aluminum extruded body that was subjected to a 66,000-lb load and held up superbly in a 2000 test.
Ferrara started with the industry's ECR29 crush test, administered by a Professional engineer & fire expert from Mississippi State University. The frontal impact test — designed to determine whether there is any cab intrusion — featured 3736 lb, representing a speed of 18-19 mph. Then 22,000 lb was placed on the top, representing a rollover. Richard says there was “only minimal damage to the front of the cab.”
But Ferrara wanted to go beyond that, so he added 4400 lb. Then another 27,900. Then another 11,700, for a total of 66,000. Richard says there was “minimal buckling on the A post at the top. Nothing on the inside of the cab was intruded. All doors opened and closed.”
As a point of reference, Ferrara placed those same 66,000 lb on an old company van that wasn't being used. The van was squashed like it was made of cardboard.
“Chris was elated with the results of the test,” Richard says. “So this truck has been sitting here since we performed the original test, so all of our customers could see the actual cab that was tested.”
Ferrara says that beyond the innovations, his company takes pride in being what he says is the world's only custom builder of fire apparatus.
“We're the only manufacturer that offers stainless steel bodies, extruded aluminum bodies, and modular design bodies,” he says. “We have so many different bodies that we can be more diverse to customers. We can go into a customer base and build exactly what they're looking for.
“It presents a lot of challenges from the engineering standpoint. You have to engineer every fire truck. Naturally, you're going to have the same type of engineering design into a base model, but this takes it to another extreme for us. In manufacturing time and engineering time, it takes a lot more to actually build and design and finish a product that the customer is going to accept.”
Says Richard, “Chris really prides himself on truly being a custom manufacturer. If you look at our production line, there are no two trucks alike — unless they're going to the same department as a multiple order.”
In March 2005, Ferrara delivered 11 pumpers to the city of Houston, adding seven aerial ladders and five pumpers in 2006. New York City purchased six units last year. Palm Beach County in Florida has been among Ferrara's most loyal customer since 1994, and now has 85 units in service.
Ferrara did $93 million in sales in 2005, and Ferrara says he expects steady growth.
“We'll double our sales in the next four to five years,” he says. “Our vision and focus is obtaining more customers throughout the US, in addition to our increasing overseas business.
“We have the first Strong Arms going into Turkey. We have trucks in the Bahamas and a contract for Nigeria. We've sent five industrial pumpers to China's largest oil refinery, CNOOC, and Shell Petrochemical LTD in Guangdong Province. Combined with all of that, we see a substantial increase in our business going forward.”