BY CHRIS Mc LOONE
It isn’t often you get to sit down with someone who’s been with a company from its inception. It’s also not often you find yourself in the presence of a person who can say he built the fire truck in the room that hails from 1975.
When you do, you sit down with him right away. In this case, the person is Bill Foster, a mainstay in the fire service, and the venue was Spartan’s 25th Fire Truck Training Conference.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Foster’s involvement with Spartan Motors started at the very beginning. “The last day that I worked for Diamond REO truck was May 18, 1975,” says Foster. “And, there were 2,500 of us who were out of a job when Diamond REO closed up. There was a whole bunch of us who didn’t have jobs who went to looking at what we could build, and the fire industry was low-hanging fruit, to me, because they basically would only make 300 or 400 trucks per year of a custom nature, and the total industry would only build a couple thousand, so it was much easier than the over-the-road business to get into because the demands weren’t that great. But, there were a lot of specialty things customers were looking for.”
Foster says that as the company grew, the need to have service and the ability to repair and maintain them became difficult because there were no service facilities that knew anything beyond over-the-road trucks. “There’s a lot more to it,” says Foster, citing water tanks, pumps, lighting systems, and other items as examples. “All those areas that need attention require a fire truck training conference to train on all those things,” he adds.
FIRE TRUCK TRAINING CONFERENCE
To that end, Foster is also the man who recognized 25 years ago the need to provide technicians with an opportunity to get the education they need to stay abreast of new developments as fire apparatus evolve and to stay up to date on their emergency vehicle technician (EVT) certifications. “The first one we did was in Olivet College 25 years ago, and some of the same vendors were there,” says Foster. “We had an auditorium and a row of trucks on the boulevard.” Today, there are 15 tracks for attendees to get a well-balanced education on engines, suspensions, brakes, and steering. “Brakes and steering are still some of the number one items to support,” says Foster, citing the number of incidents that occur annually involving brake and steering issues.
1 Bill Foster. (Photos by author.)
In a nutshell, Foster says the core mission of the Fire Truck Training Conference is to “give people education on all of the new methods of repair and operating electronics and testing and using the self-diagnostic devices that are installed in onboard diagnostics (OBD) so that they can do a better job quicker.”
Since the conference’s inception, Foster says the biggest change in fire truck maintenance is the elimination of the soot that comes from a diesel engine where it must be collected and then burned off. “You get cleaner air out of an exhaust system today than you’re breathing,” he says. “You still have products of combustion coming out of it. We don’t smell it, but it’s still there. The last change was to put the SCR behind the diesel particulate filter.”
On the electronics side, Foster says multiplexing is another big change. “Instead of mechanical relays, we’re going into solid state and products that last years instead of days of operation,” he states. “So, the components and the electronics are huge, but you have to understand how to troubleshoot them. You don’t use a test light anymore; you have to use a meter. And, you have to know how to properly handle them so you don’t damage the circuits.” Well-trained EVTs are key here. “The EVT is huge, and we have to keep educating that EVT so he can perform at his best,” says Foster. “There are a lot of new things for him to deal with and understand. Many EVTs were good wrench turners but haven’t been electronically blessed. Some of the electronics are hard to understand. We have to educate EVTs so they understand electronics and know how to deal with it.”
2 Attendees at Spartan’s 25th annual Fire Truck Training Conference look at one of the many trucks on hand at the event, in this case Spartan’s IPS-NXT.
3 The first chassis manufactured by Spartan in 1975. An FMC cab was trimmed out and installed by Spartan and delivered to the FMC Fire Apparatus Division in Tipton, Indiana, in 1976. The rig’s first owner was the Covington (OH) Fire Department.
A QUARTER CENTURY LATER
Today’s fire apparatus have become more and more sophisticated, and the speed at which they are evolving increases every year. This conference provides an opportunity not only for technicians to prepare for their certifications but also to meet with industry partners to learn more about the products that go into the apparatus firefighters ride every day.
To that end, the 2019 conference offered 294 attendees 46 classes to choose from, including sessions designed for the operator, engineer, or equipment officers who want to learn basic operation and maintenance at an introductory level; maintenance technicians at the service repair level; and heavy repair technicians interested in receiving hands-on, in-depth, technical training. Having 46 classes for 294 attendees means classes could be small. According to Foster, that is by design. “We’re running 15 tracks at a time, and the advantage of that is to have lower numbers in the classrooms so you can get face time with the instructor and hands on. That’s important.”
4 Attendees get hands-on training on chassis components.
Additionally, attendees have the opportunity to take their EVT certification tests at the conference. At the 2019 event, 323 EVT tests were taken.
At an awards ceremony as the first full day of classes closed, Foster presented the William F. Foster Excellence and Outstanding Service Award to Gary May. During his remarks after accepting the award, May summed up the core of the Fire Truck Training Conference. “Nobody does this by ourselves,” he said. “Knowledge is no good if you keep it hidden.”
For 25 years, Spartan has worked to ensure that today’s EVTs are prepared as fire apparatus continue to evolve. To Foster, the support of the mechanics pleases him the most about how this training conference has evolved: “Without the mechanics and the support that they give us and the training that they want to receive, we can’t get to the point of making safer trucks.”
CHRIS McLOONE, senior editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 26-year veteran of the fire service currently serving as a safety officer and is a former assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has served on past apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and an editor for more than 20 years.