Maintaining Your Fleet in a Down Economy

The economy still has not recovered, and during 2012 fire departments across the United States will be asked to stretch their budgets. Nothing is untouched during these trying times, from personnel to apparatus replacement to preventive maintenance programs. Maintaining a fleet, in particular, is a challenge in a down economy. Some departments plan for contingencies; others do not and need to come up with ways to keep frontline and reserve apparatus from falling apart. No fleet manager wants to compromise firefighter safety by putting rigs on the street that aren’t in the best condition.

It’s Reality

Budgets have been cut. We are all being asked to do more with less. The down economy has impacted maintenance departments across the country. According to Mitch Halgren, fleet manager for the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, cuts have led to a “reduction of administrative staff positions and reductions of parts inventories in favor of ‘on-demand’ deliveries of needed repair parts.” Although on paper, on-demand deliveries may make a shop look more efficient, Halgren says, “An out-of-service fire apparatus and an emergency vehicle technician (EVT) having to move to a second project in order to retain some efficiency in shop operations is not always wise.”

Speaking of parts, Brian Brown, bureau chief of fleet services for the South Metro (CO) Fire Rescue Authority, says as a result of the bad economy, “Material costs have risen dramatically over the past years while most municipalities, counties, and special district fire department revenues have drastically declined.” He cites fuel cost increases as trickling down to other areas. “Most fleet operations that I have spoken with are looking at adding anywhere from 30 to 60 percent for fuel costs in 2012,” he says. “Now relate this to the increased cost of petroleum products—for example, engine oil, transmission fluid, grease, tires, oil seals, spray lubricants, and so on.”

In Sedgwick County, Kansas, Boyd Powers, shop foreman, light equipment shop, says his shop was asked to participate in an exercise where it would prioritize the repairs performed at the shop and determine which were in the lowest 20 percent that it could stop performing in 2012. “After a lot of thought, I determined there were no repairs that we could stop doing that did not impact the safety of the vehicles and the people driving them,” he says. “Any complaint we receive, from wiper blades to transmission failure, either prevents the vehicle from being used or used safely. The budget people were not happy with this answer.” Powers offered a compromise. “Our highest priority vehicles are the emergency vehicles, and our lowest priority vehicles are the various sedans and vans used throughout the county,” he asserts. “If something has to be cut from coming into our shop, it would be the maintenance of however many sedans and vans it would take to trim 20 percent from our shop budgets.”

He adds that this would mean those vehicles would have to go to outside vendors for repair, reducing the shop budget but not the county budget. “I’m sure the budget people expected to find fat in our maintenance program, but there isn’t any,” he states. “My thoughts on the 2012 budget are that if you say you can skip something, you probably will be skipping it, so be careful what you volunteer.”

No Easy Answers

There is no simple way to address these budget crunches. Apparatus age, and as they age they experience more mechanical problems that must be addressed. “We all know that a newer fleet requires less maintenance and is more fuel efficient to operate,” says Brown. “The problem lies in the capital portion of the budget. Is there any money to purchase apparatus? If so, which ones do we replace? That’s why it’s imperative for the individual over the fleet operation to produce life-cycle cost analysis reports for each unit.”

Brown also suggests an internal fleet audit/survey be performed periodically to diagnose the current fleet operations business plan. “All departments have multitier relationships in the organization that affect all divisions in the department,” he observes. The best way to approach those relationships, he says, as well as their fleet operations, is with trust and mutual respect. “Open and honest communication gives the customers, both internal and external, an opportunity to understand the end users’ needs.” According to Brown, this allows a department to develop fleet services and support programs that are best suited to meet its needs, “thus providing the fleet staff the opportunity to communicate the business plan through problem solving, quality support programs, and the highest possible vehicle availability at the lowest life-cycle cost,” he adds.

Along the lines of an internal audit/survey, Halgren says research is key. “Do the background homework necessary to substantiate both your apparatus replacement and your parts inventory,” he asserts. “Calculating the cost of not having these two critical areas may seem like a daunting task, but the end value to your presentation to your department head is significant.”

Powers says EVTs play a major role in keeping everything running longer and are a fleet manager’s most important tool. “Stay in tune with your people regarding problems they are facing as a result of extended mileages, and don’t just make it their problem. If they fail, then the fleet manager fails,” he says.

Get Creative

Firefighters are used to coming up with unique solutions to problems. Although shifting things around on paper to pass a budget makes sense, fleet managers and EVTs often have to devise practical solutions to budgetary problems as well. Powers cites one such solution.

“Instead of keeping ambulances in service longer, we chose to start an in-house ambulance remount program where we replace the ambulance chassis at a given mileage interval and refurbish the ambulance bodies so when they are completed they look and perform like new ambulances,” says Powers. “We are able to do this for about half the price of buying new ambulances. We are currently building the last one. When it is completed, we will have remounted and refurbished 24 ambulances for a cost savings of well above $1 million.”

Getting creative doesn’t mean cutting corners, though. “Stay the course, and don’t take any shortcuts,” says Brown. “Taking shortcuts in any fleet operation is a recipe for disaster. This includes proper training and certifications for the mechanics who are doing the work on the apparatus.” Brown cites liability as one reason not to cut corners with the mechanics. In fact, he includes external vendors being used by the fire department for any repairs. “It’s only right to have all the proper training and certifications in order for the department’s mechanics, as well as any outside vendor that’s being used, to avoid any potential liability,” he says. He adds that properly trained fleet staff can perform jobs quicker and more efficiently than those that are not. “Yes, proper training costs and involves mechanics not turning wrenches,” Brown asserts. “But it also means doing the job right the first time and saving money in the long run.”

Start at the Station

According to Brown, being proactive with a department’s preventive maintenance schedule is the foundation for reducing apparatus downtime and increasing availability. “Look at it this way,” he says. “The two most important things to rehab on the fireground are your people and your equipment. If a department takes care of its apparatus by doing daily and weekly truck checks in the firehouse as well as having proactive fleet maintenance preventive maintenance program, then the apparatus will take care of the department when called to do so.” He adds that while this might sound easy, it isn’t always. Citing recent and past accidents resulting from improperly maintained fire apparatus, he says, “Big cities with big fleet operations still had big problems keeping the apparatus safe and response-ready. It doesn’t always come down to money.”

Check the Long-Term Costs

Many municipalities across the country have asked all their departments to find ways to reduce costs. For fleet managers, before just cutting items to comply, it is important to consider how what you are doing will affect your department later, and the overall fire department ultimately. “Cutting back on maintenance, specifically staffing to provide that maintenance—either on the shop floor or in the office—of fire apparatus is the opposite of what is needed,” says Halgren. “If your replacement budget is reduced, the workload increases. Extending apparatus lifecycles or canceling purchases altogether is a short-term budget fix that only looks good in a spreadsheet. No municipal executive wants to be the one to explain to a family that has lost a loved one or their home that their loss ‘could have been prevented if …. ’ ”

Powers adds that every change you make comes with consequences, some of which can be costly. When his shop was asked to stretch its budget, it learned that Ford had increased the recommended preventive maintenance interval for severe duty applications to 5,000 miles. The shop had been servicing ambulances at 2,500 miles and had already had one EVT position taken away. So, it made the change to 5,000-mile intervals and realized some savings.

Concurrent with this change, the department has been replacing all of its diesel ambulances with gasoline ambulances. The problems the department encountered with diesel engines were disappearing, but it did learn that the gasoline engines were consuming a lot of oil. “When we contacted Ford regarding this, it advised us that if we ever needed to get an engine replaced under warranty, not only did we have to service the trucks every 5,000 miles but also every 200 hours.” This was fine, except that the ambulances were averaging 450 hours for every 5,000 miles. To comply with the 200-hour recommendation, the department started servicing the ambulances at 2,500 miles again. “The fuel dilution that all the idling causes with the engine oil was making the oil thinner, and the engines were using more of it,” says Powers. “Everything about maintaining emergency vehicles had been tried and tested. Making changes to cut costs up front could certainly cost more down the road.”

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.

Sample Apparatus/Vehicle Replacement Guideline

Excellent Condition

  • Less than five years old
  • Fewer than 800 engine hours
  • Fewer than 25,000 miles if not used in stationary application
  • No known mechanical defects
  • Very short downtime and very few operating expenses
  • Excellent parts availability
  • Very good resale value
  • Meets all present NFPA 1911 2007 Edition safety standards

Very Good Condition

  • More than five but less than ten years old
  • More than 800 but fewer than 1,600 engine hours
  • More than 25,000 but fewer than 50,000 miles if not used in stationary applications
  • No known mechanical or suspension defects present
  • Low downtime and above average operating costs
  • Good parts availability
  • Good resale value
  • Meets NFPA 1911 2007 safety standards

Good Condition

  • More than ten but less than 15 years old
  • Some rust or damage to the body or cab
  • More than 1,600 but less than 2,400 engine hours
  • Some existing mechanical or suspension repairs necessary
  • Downtime and operational costs are beginning to increase but not terribly above the average
  • Parts are still available but getting difficult to find
  • Resale value decreasing
  • Meets all NFPA 1911 2007 safety standards

Fair Condition

  • More than 15 but less than 20 years old
  • Rust, corrosion, or body damage apparent on body or cab
  • More than 2,400 engine hours
  • More than 75,000 but fewer than 100,000 miles if not used in stationary applications
  • Existing mechanical or suspension repairs necessary
  • Downtime is increasing and operational costs are above the historical average
  • Parts are becoming harder to find and/or obsolete
  • Very little resale value
  • Does not meet all NFPA 1911 2007 safety standards

Poor Condition

  • More than 20 years old
  • Rust, corrosion, or damage to the body of cab impacting use of the apparatus
  • More than 2,400 engine hours or 100,000 miles
  • Existing mechanical or suspension problems affecting operation of the apparatus
  • Downtime is exceeding in-service availability
  • Operational costs are exceeding the resale value of the apparatus
  • Parts are obsolete
  • Does not meet all NFPA 1911 2007 safety standards

Courtesy of Brian Brown

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