Technology and electronics are essential when integrating components into apparatus.
There are very few “mechanical-only” parts, as everything has a technical (i.e., electronic) component. This has made operation easier and training time quicker. There is still a need to have an understanding of how the various components interrelate and operate. While reliability is very good, there are occasions where the operator needs to have a plan B. That requires good knowledge of the inner workings.
This is easier said than done. To make the various components easier to use (and more reliable, I might add), the complexity has increased. The engineering required to make various parts function as intended requires someone with an engineering degree to really understand the inner workings. One might argue that a firefighter, engine operator, or officer does not need to know how something works, only that it will work. As long as everything goes according to plan, this is fine. But, there needs to be a backup strategy so that the emergency can be handled expeditiously and the recipient of the service does not suffer any additional effects.
Know the Equipment
Knowledge of the equipment is the most essential aspect of being prepared for the unexpected. I realize that today’s fire service professionals have a lot on their plates. Between all the added responsibilities and increasing run volume, time for preparation is becoming more and more rare. But, those asked to perform specific duties as part of their core job must become extremely competent at their work. This means that there must be a prioritization of responsibilities and a commitment by both the organization and the individual to be focused on the basic elements of the job.
All of this is not only for the engine operator. There are basic skills and knowledge that everyone on the department should know—from firefighter to officer. Of course, the depth of knowledge will be different. It also may require specialization by individuals with very focused information regarding particular components of the apparatus. Often individuals have a special interest in smaller parts but not the entire vehicle. They may look at the foam system, for example, as something they want to learn more about. They could be a valuable resource if things go “south” during an emergency event. Do not discount the advantages of using everyone’s strengths and the power of involvement.
Planning for the Unexpected
Of course, it may not always be possible to have the technical knowledge and skills available on the scene of an emergency to initiate emergency repairs should something fail. There needs to be some thought put into establishing options as to what is realistically possible with the resources available to the department. There should be some redundancy built into every operation within reason. It is understood that not everything that is done during the course of an emergency can be planned and predicted. It is also understood that some organizations are taxed with their resources. Even with this consideration, contingency plans can be established. It could be as simple as having a backup piece of apparatus in position to quickly replace another vehicle that may be having some difficulties. If a pump fails to engage and personnel cannot make a quick enough adjustment or figure out the problem, switching to another truck may be the best option.
This involves forethought and dispatching adequate numbers of resources. If the initial dispatch is not sufficient once first arriving units make a quick assessment, they must have the authority to request more of what they need or could need. Minimizing delays and getting resources on the way as quickly as possible should be the culture of an organization as opposed to one that does not encourage quick actions by its members. Units can always be cancelled and placed back in service should they not be needed, but the time wasted by not making a call could have negative consequences.
Training is a critical part of any operation including the operation and use of apparatus. Those committing to the position of driver/operator must learn as much as they can about their vehicles and practice enough to gain the competence that will give them not only confidence but the ability to adjust when things go awry. This applies to new engineers as well at those who are more seasoned. The purpose is to not only become competent but to remain competent. Training should occur mostly in ideal situations, not at 3:00 a.m. But as we should all know, we cannot predict when something may go wrong. Through training, we can best prepare.
The training is also related to the apparatus and components. The vehicle and components manufacturers should provide the necessary documents that will allow you to understand as much about their products as possible. They should also provide instruction regarding use and maintenance. Regular and routine practice improves skills but only if done in accordance with accepted best practices and the manufacturers’ recommendations. The manufacturers are willing to help, as they want their products to perform as they are designed. Anything they can do to improve reliability and functionality is good for their business. Don’t be afraid to ask.
How would you rate your department on truck checks and maintenance? Good, quality programs that promote daily truck checks and regular and routine preventive maintenance are less likely to result in a malfunction during an emergency. Personnel must be convinced of the importance of not taking shortcuts or failing to do the things intended to improve performance and reliability. It is always best to find a flaw off the fireground. It is much easier to repair something when not under the pressure of mitigating an emergency. Investments in maintenance are money well spent. As the father of the American fire service, Ben Franklin, said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He also is purported to have said that you should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Today’s vehicles are arguably the most reliable and easiest to operate ever. The same can be said for most, if not all, of their components. These factors should not lull departments or their personnel into thinking that nothing can ever go wrong. The fire service is expected to be good every time out the door. People call when they perceive that they have a problem that they cannot fix themselves. Organizations must be ready and have built-in redundancy so that one little hiccup does not cause the operation to stop. Be prepared not only with your initial response but with what options are available if things don’t go as anticipated. Have a plan B.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.