All fire departments should have a program in place that requires daily inspections of in-service fire apparatus. However, there are departments around the country that do not have inspection programs. They are playing dangerous games with the lives of the firefighters and the citizens they are sworn to protect.
Daily inspections are most commonly referred to as pre-trip inspections, and proper inspection programs provide forms that list all the things that need to be checked, inspected, and initialed on a daily basis.
Two years ago a Boston Fire Department ladder truck lost its brakes, careened down a hill and struck a building, killing the officer. It was discovered during the course of the investigation that the department did not have a maintenance shop and only fixed the trucks after they broke. Also the department did not require daily inspections of the apparatus. When trucks needed to be repaired, they were sent to outside vendors.
Following the fatal accident, department officials hired an outside consultant to review their maintenance practices.
The consultant reported that the department:
- Did not have a professional fleet manager.
- Did not have a vehicle inspection program.
- Did not require a daily inspection report.
The department did have a procedure in place to report vehicle defects, but it was not being used because firefighters feared that apparatus could be out of service for long periods of time. Some repairs took more than four months to complete, and in one instance the apparatus was gone for almost a year.
Another issue the consultant pointed out was that there was no in-house technical expert to determine what service might be needed. Also, when an apparatus did come back from a vendor, there was no formal inspection to determine if the work had been completed.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1911 Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus requires that a department have a preventive maintenance program in place for apparatus. In addition, the department must follow maintenance cycles recommended by manufacturers of apparatus and apparatus components.
NFPA 1911 contains items that are referred to as "out of service" criteria. Those items are adapted from Title 49 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 393. When an inspection is being performed on an apparatus and one of those items is found, the vehicle must be taken out of service.
Title 49 CFR Part 396 requires that anyone who does brake work be certified by the "motor carrier." Fire departments are not motor carriers, but the department is going to be held accountable should an accident occur. Citizens expect that fire apparatus will be maintained and operational when an emergency arises.
In addition to NFPA and federal regulations, manufacturers have maintenance requirements that need to be followed. Oftentimes the maintenance inspection intervals are minimums, and the department may have to increase inspection timelines because of weather, the environment, emergency calls or use.
The daily inspection form typically has a series of boxes that must be checked in compliance with the inspection program. Does your department have guidelines that describe what the inspector (driver/operator) should look for on a vehicle? Does your department have guidelines when something is found that meets the "out of service" criteria? Who has the authority to take a vehicle out of service or let it remain in service because it is not a safety issue? Do you have an SOP in your department that pinpoints who has the authority? If not, you should create one.
When a department does have an accident, attorneys are going to ask for copies of the vehicle maintenance program, the daily inspection sheets, the repair orders, and a copy of the "out of service" SOP. The department will be judged against all of the standards that are in place, the manufacturers' requirements and other requirements applicable to the accident.
One department had the air bag suspension changed on its aerial device months ago. During the course of repairs, the brake chambers were removed from the brackets to remove the air bags. The truck was returned to the station, and the vehicle was put in service. Several months later an aerial inspection firm was inspecting the chassis and discovered that one of the brake chambers was not bolted to the brackets. It was just hanging in the air.
The mechanics had not checked their work when they were done. The firefighters had not done a daily or weekly inspection for several months. This department was extremely lucky. What is really significant about this incident is that in that state, the drivers are required to have commercial drivers licenses, which require a "pre-trip" inspection prior to operation.
Recently, another department had work done at a competent shop they had used for years. When the lieutenant was driving the truck back to the station, the left front wheel, in addition to the front hub assembly, came off the truck at 30 mph. The wheel careened down the street, almost hitting a pedestrian.
The shop received a very irate phone call from the chief demanding immediate intervention. The truck was towed back to the shop, and the shop supervisor and owner investigated and discovered that the mechanic had not properly torqued the hub nut and did not use the locking tab for the nut. The mechanic also confessed that he did not test drive the truck after performing the work.
It was fortunate the pedestrian was not injured or killed. It is extremely important to test drive any unit, large or small, after performing any work. Also, ensure the test drive is documented and initialed by the person that test drove the unit.
Many accidents are attributed to operator error. Departments may place newly hired people in the driver's seat without any training. A driver cannot be expected to handle a 70,000-pound aerial truck without specific training. The majority of operators do not know how to check brakes, and brake adjustments must be done by a certified mechanic.
Recently, a driver was charged with vehicular homicide and was acquitted. However, he was convicted of careless driving and running a red light. But the civil action has started and may take years to resolve. There are many examples of driver operator accidents. My point is that these accidents and the resulting lawsuits can usually be avoided with proper training.
It's the responsibility of everyone in every department to focus on safety and documentation, whether it's daily or weekly apparatus checks at the firehouse; preventive maintenance or repair at the fleet shop or private vendor; working on the fire ground; or responding to a call.
Always pay attention to the training and certification required in each area and make sure the proper individual is in place. Cover all of your bases with documentation that accounts for all areas of your department. Too often we focus on the large picture and become complacent and miss the small details. But those small details can come back to haunt you.
Start by taking the first step, doing what is right for your department and your community. You'll sleep better at night.
Editor's Note: Brian Brown is bureau chief of fleet services for the South Metro (Colo.) Fire Rescue Authority. He has over 30 years experience in fleet services, with more than 20 years in fire apparatus fleet services, and is a former president of the Colorado Fire Mechanics Association. His certifications include Master Automobile Technician, Master Medium/Heavy-Duty Truck Technician, Emergency Vehicle Fire Apparatus Technician Level I and Level II, Emergency Vehicle Technician Management I, Fire Fighter II, Fire Instructor I and Hazardous Materials Responder Technician.