ARFF Service: a Relationship Business

By Troy Padgett,
Director, ARFF Products,
Oshkosh Corporation

Picture this: A brand new Air Force recruit finishes up his technical training, where he learns everything there is to know about repairing fire trucks. It wasn’t until he arrived at his first duty assignment that he realized there was much more to this job than what he learned in school. After all, he grew up in a part of the country where there were no fire trucks. If your house caught on fire, someone grabbed the garden hose while everyone else did their best to haul out the furniture. His recent education taught him the basics but in no way prepared him for what was to follow. In week two of his entry into the real world of aircraft rescue fire fighting (ARFF) vehicle maintenance, he got the “honor” of being assigned as the standby mechanic responsible for any afterhours repair needs at the fire department. Of course, he gets a call on his very first night.

One of the ARFF trucks broke down on the taxiway and had to be moved right away. As he drove in to “save the day,” he couldn’t help but worry that he had no clue what may be causing the problem with the truck. Fortunately, the firefighter that met him out on the taxiway had been the driver of that particular vehicle for a very long time and knew a lot about his rig. He pointed right to an air valve on the engine and said, “There’s your problem, sonny.” He was absolutely right, and the repairs were made in short order.

Yes, this is my story, and that night I learned a valuable lesson about building relationships between maintenance teams and firefighters. There are many ways to tackle the maintenance needs on ARFF vehicles, but constant and open communication between the operators and mechanics is at the heart of all successful plans. As mechanics, we need to remind ourselves that our firefighter friends are using these trucks to save lives and property. This is not the lawn mower we are repairing. We have one of the most important jobs in the world-making sure the vehicles we are responsible for are always ready for the stressful duty they will face in an emergency.

Improving Relationships

So let’s look at just a few suggestions that may help improve these relationships.

Be present. In a best case scenario, each airport fire department has assigned mechanics on site dedicated to supporting the firefighting fleet. This allows for immediate reaction to any truck deficiencies found during the daily operator checks. Reacting immediately prevents a growing list of issues, which may hinder firefighting operations.

Unfortunately, reality kicks in and tells us that most airports cannot have a full-time fire truck mechanic on staff. In these cases, they use maintenance personnel assigned to a larger organization that also are responsible for all other pieces of equipment at the airport. All is not lost though. If these maintenance groups assign staff members a primary responsibility of supporting the fire department, those team members can take advantage of available training to stay proficient in the ever-changing world of ARFF maintenance. If this is the strategic plan, someone from the assigned group should arrange for a daily check-in with the fire department. During this check-in, they can correct any minor issues or make arrangements to correct larger ones. Either way, you will be able to promote the effort of minimizing defect lists.

Be educated. Training comes in many forms. Many of the daily maintenance challenges are easy to solve with a basic understanding of electrical, hydraulic, air, and mechanical systems. A background in heavy truck maintenance goes a long way when thinking about ARFF service. However, there are a number of systems designed specifically for aircraft firefighting that you will need advanced education to support. The million-dollar question is, “Where do I go for this advanced education?”

• Vehicle Manufacturers: Most ARFF vehicle manufacturers offer training on the products they sell. These courses range from a basic understanding of the product to advanced courses in electrical, hydraulic, fire systems, and so on. Information on courses is typically easy to find through a company’s Web site or through your sales and service representatives.

• Mechanics Associations: Many states or regions have formal associations to support emergency vehicle mechanics. These associations are excellent sources for continuing education. They keep up with the ever-changing trends in the industry and partner with groups to offer training.

• Certification: Much like the local Chevy dealer has National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certified mechanics, there is an opportunity for you to become emergency vehicle technician (EVT) certified. The certification process is very similar to the ASE certification with different specialties and levels of expertise. There is an ARFF-specific track in the EVT certification program. The ARFF track provides for certification Levels 1, 2, and Master Level 3. Each level requires you to successfully pass certain ASE tests along with the assigned EVT tests for that particular level. Spend the extra time for this, as it is a huge step forward in developing confidence between you and your customer.

Be a “go-to” person. Your customer wants to have a “go-to” person-a person the customer knows will want to help no matter what happens. Your personality plays a huge role here. Don’t worry as much about why customers had to call on you, but just be glad they did because they trust you to make everything right.

Simple principles? Absolutely. There is no better satisfaction as an ARFF vehicle mechanic than to know you have a personal bond with your firefighting partners and that they can depend on you to be by their side. So go ahead, reach out, and be that person. You will find yourself in a very rewarding relationship.

TROY PADGETT, director of ARFF products with Oshkosh Corporation, started in the aircraft rescue and fire fighting (ARFF) business in the early 1980s as a fire truck mechanic with the United States Air Force (USAF), eventually becoming a technical training master instructor. Since joining the civilian workforce, he has held management positions in training, service, production, and sales. He is also a former EVT certification test proctor and has served on the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) Aerial and ARFF Product committees.

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