All fired up: This Gujarat-based firm is making ‘NewAge,’ innovative fire trucks
Founded in 1960 in Gujarat’s Surendranagar, NewAge Fire Fighting introduced a series of product innovations over the years, which helped increase the response time of firefighters and reduced the stress they undergo.
A four-month rigorous training in Japan inspired Shetul Shah to fulfil the long-standing wish of his family enterprise, NewAge Fire Fighting Co Ltd, to branch out into manufacturing fire trucks.
Shah, a third-generation entrepreneur, recollects that it was the dream of his grandfather, who had founded the firefighting equipment company, to get into this pivotal segment of the firefighting industry. “He was always keen that NewAge should enter this field (of manufacturing fire engines) because it is considered as a pinnacle for any company in this segment. However, it required a whole lot of focus, concentration, study and resources at one’s disposal,” says the 43-year-old, who is also a director in the company.
Founded in 1960, the Surendranagar, Gujarat-based company has been in the business of manufacturing a variety of firefighting equipment — such as fire hoses, hydrants and foam equipment — for over six decades. Though they started off with casting of non-ferrous items (copper alloys), the company got into this manufacturing segment within a year. Fire trucks or fire engines were the missing piece the entrepreneur wanted to add — to fulfil his grandfather’s dream and become an all-in-one firefighting equipment manufacturer.
The path to fulfil this ambition was carved out in 2001 when Shah went to attend a training module in Japan.
NewAge was distributing some products of Tokyo-headquartered Tohatsu Global, and the Japanese company wanted its distributors to get training to operate its fire pumps at its factory. That took Shah to Itabashi-Ku, a ward in the capital of Japan. “The area in Tokyo is very similar to Mumbai, in terms of the narrow bylanes. I saw them designing a vehicle that looked at the important aspects related to navigating through such tight spaces. What I saw and learnt there kindled my desire and shaped my plan on how I want NewAge to be a fire truck manufacturer,” says Shah.
The minute details he saw being implemented on the fire truck vehicles in Tokyo gave the entrepreneur “clarity that I did not want to be like the manufacturers in the market.” He was keen to offer a revolutionary product that could benefit the firemen and assist them to be better at their work.
“I have seen firemen attending a call. They are always under a huge amount of stress. The reason is not due to fighting the fire or saving lives, but about operating their equipment. They are so concerned about that. Look at the fire vehicles we have. There has been no improvement in the vehicle for years. What was there in the 1990s was being manufactured in 2000 as well. I was very sure that we have to bring about a change in the industry,” he says, recollecting his thoughts that shaped his ambition.
Winds of change
Shah recalls how his observations about the practical difficulties firefighters faced encouraged him to think about innovations that were the need of the hour. On a visit to a fire station, he saw firemen attending to a call. “When they reached the location and tried to roll out the fire hose, the door of the compartment got jammed. They had to break it open to take out the hose, connect it to a pump and then start dousing the fire. Those moments were very agonising for all of them,” he says.
That was another cue for the entrepreneur. In some five months, his company introduced the concept of replacing the hinged doors on a fire truck with roller shutters. Shah says that though such a concept was used all over Europe and the US, it was never done in India because of the higher costs.
“As we were new in this domain, it was very difficult to convince customers to pay us more than what our competitors charge for the innovation. So, in our initial phase, when we introduced these types of features on our trucks, we did business at no profit, no loss. We kept the prices at the same level as our competitors,” he says.
The rolling shutter innovation got an overwhelming response from firemen. Shah claims they started telling their seniors that they wanted roller shutters in the fire trucks instead of doors.
In 2010, Shah saw another opportunity to bring further improvements to the fire truck. Until then, the superstructure of the truck was made of mild steel with aluminium sheets pasted around it. This made the truck itself heavy. Loading it with water and equipment added to the weight and reduced its speed and performance. “So, we got our design team to work on removing the steel structure and using only aluminium,” says the entrepreneur.
This helped them reduce the weight of the truck by 25%. The vehicle could now carry more water and equipment. That made the work of firefighters a lot easier. There was another advantage to this manufacturing process.
“As there was no welding on the truck’s superstructure, there was no problem of rusting.” As these trucks are exposed to water all the time, rusting is common, and more so in coastal areas. NewAge’s innovation gave the trucks a better lifespan. “After we did it, everyone started getting rid of the steel structure and insisted on an aluminium one. That innovation became an industry trend and led to more clients looking at customised solutions from us,” he says.
Such special requests led the way for another transformation in the market. In order to control fires in high-rise buildings, the company introduced a new type of boom tower to enhance the reach of firefighters.
A fire truck is usually brought as close to the fire as possible and a hose is used to discharge water or foam. This act becomes more challenging when the fire is in a high-rise. Firefighters have to use a ladder with extendable booms to get closer to the fire and effectively direct water or foam from the hose. NewAge solved this problem by fitting booms with CCTVs and thermal cameras. Fire crew can monitor the feed from inside the truck — from a safer distance — and take appropriate measures to direct water more precisely.
After NewAge started manufacturing trucks in 2018-19, the company got its first order for two units from the Surat fire brigade. Later, they received around seven more requests. At present, the company has over 20 orders. Their customers include government agencies and private entities.
A truck can cost Rs 80 lakh to Rs 4 crore depending on features, pump capacity, types of equipment and other features.
What has drawn the fire departments to their product is the CCTV cameras that can record an entire firefighting operation. “They use the footage to train others, explain how things can be done more efficiently and how to avoid common mistakes,” Shah says.
Shah claims that being a first-mover with such a product in a market prone to many fire hazards was an advantage. Manufacturers who had already been a part of the industry did not want to step out of their comfort zone. “The industry was not mature enough. There was a demand-supply equilibrium. The manufacturers did not think about upgrading their services.” This was another reason NewAge was able to make a mark in the industry.
Sanjay Bajaj, CEO, Bajaj Mill Stores Consultants & Engineers, which specialises in trading equipment for high-rise buildings, attests Shah’s claims. The market evolved after NewAge stepped in with innovations, says Bajaj, whose company has been a dealer of the manufacturer’s products for 35 years. “The quality of the products offered by them sync with the advanced requirements of the market. Every building needs to have fire safety standards in place. The fact that they keep adding few products every year or so ensures that their coverage is varied and all encompassing,” he says.
In fact, as far as new services are concerned, NewAge got a contract from the Airports Authorities of India in February to deliver 36 crash fire tenders. Each costing Rs 6.5 crore, these specialised fire engines are used in aircraft rescue missions and firefighting at aerodromes, airports and military air bases.
“We will manufacture this for the first time in India. Until now, it was completely imported from either Europe or the US. A crash truck is typically used in airports during a plane crash. There are some very stringent performance requirements that we need to meet,” Shah says.
The company has to deliver the products within two years after a prototype is approved. Shah looks at this opportunity as a moment of pride for the entire Indian fire truck manufacturing community. “We have managed to beat European manufacturers who were dominating the market.” He sees this opening many more avenues for the industry.
NewAge wants to broaden its horizons and set up manufacturing units in the UAE, Europe, and China.
Shah has a clear vision for the company. In FY23, NewAge’s revenue stood at Rs 280 crore; he wants to take this to Rs 350 crore by FY24. “We have a plan that by 2028, we want to have our company doing a turnover of at least Rs 700 crore. So, we are setting up new manufacturing facilities, increasing manpower and looking for products that will boost our turnover. We are looking at new export avenues as well. So, we have a plan for the next five years,” he says.
The manufacturer is keen to stay ahead of its time and evolve with the market. But its core objective — making lives easier for firefighters — will be a constant. “Firefighters, as life savers, often don’t get enough credit the way doctors do. We have made it our goal to make their life easier so that they can go about their task more efficiently. That drives all our innovations,” adds Shah.