Fire departments exist for the purpose of responding to emergencies.
They are expected to arrive safely with the right amount of resources to take care of the problem. Even one slip up can cause an organization unnecessary challenges, so departments must be prepared to ensure reliability to the greatest extent possible. This would apply particularly to fire apparatus, as emergency breakdowns and extensive out-of-service time diminish reliability.
In many ways, modern apparatus have become simple to operate. Almost anyone with minimal instruction can get in a cab, push a few buttons, and be off. Once on the scene, a pump operator can push a few more buttons to engage the pump and have water flowing. Advances in technology can provide a false sense of security and lead to issues if those responsible don’t prepare. Everyone must consider this preparation a responsibility. Reliability is the responsibility of the entire organization, not just the fire engine drivers (drivers, pump operators, or whatever terminology you use), fleet managers, and mechanics.
Although apparatus may be simpler to operate in many ways, this in no way implies that the entire vehicle is not made up of a very complex set of components. While today’s apparatus arguably are very reliable, it is always possible that one of the components may fail. Because of the components’ complexity, departments need an expert in this area for repairs. The days of a backyard mechanic looking at a part and making a repair are gone. Special knowledge and tools are required.
Keeping Apparatus in Service
There are many things an organization can do to improve reliability and keep the vehicles in service. This requires a comprehensive approach to maintenance of all components and their interdependency. Of most importance is preventive maintenance. There is the old saying that “you can pay me now or pay me later.” Not only is the “pay me later” part more expensive, it is most often more time-consuming, increasing out-of-service time. Also realize that it does not take a significant malfunction to force an apparatus out of service. Any failure of a vital component will make the vehicle unusable.
Organizations serious about their approach to improving reliability and performance begin with the initial purchase of any piece of apparatus. The purpose of this brief article is not to get into great detail on specification writing. But, one piece of advice would be to make sure that whoever is assigned the task of writing specs has the talent, the capability, and the experience. This might involve hiring a consultant with credentials commensurate with the task at hand. Often organizations without the necessary expertise take on this important task without the prerequisite knowledge. Starting off with the right apparatus, including specifying components that will minimize breakdowns and considering methods that assist with ease of maintenance, will get departments on the right path. Individuals with the experience to help an organization set the stage that will lead to reliability.
New apparatus delivery is an exciting time for most departments, as it should be. But, the bells and whistles and nice shine of the vehicle should not detract from the important task of learning as much as possible about the vehicle’s components and their required maintenance. While it is important to obtain all the owner’s manuals that coincide with the various components of the apparatus, bear in mind that many in the fire service won’t read these documents from cover to cover. You should seek a “train-the-trainer” type of program, where experts demonstrate the actions that will be part of any comprehensive program to key department members. They will then be assigned the task of bringing this information back to the other members of their department. To put it another way-how many of you read the owner’s manual of your newly purchased private vehicle from cover to cover before you start driving? If you are typical new owners, not many. You wait until something breaks and then look up the information. The goal of the fire service has to be maximum service life and minimal downtime.
Those with the newfound information must be empowered to instruct those who will be responsible for the maintenance of the vehicles and the components. This will involve in-service time for most, but there could be a need for overtime or even uninterrupted time so that the emergencies that always occur at the most inopportune times don’t impact negatively on the goals of the program. Personnel training is not only important for the specific knowledge that will be gained, but it will also send a strong message to the department regarding the importance of proper preventive maintenance.
Based on the knowledge and information available regarding all the vehicle’s components, departments must establish a regular and routine schedule for apparatus checks. The manufacturer’s recommendations along with those of your fleet managers and mechanics are the basis for the entire program. They will include daily, weekly, and monthly checks that are the responsibilities of the engine operators and those who are assigned to the vehicle. The officer of the vehicle has the ultimate responsibility, but the operator has the biggest job. Do not lay it all on the engineer-everyone has to participate to get the most benefit. It not only helps with reliability but also enables firefighters to learn more about their trade. This prepares them for other assignments and can teach them skills to assist in making repairs and reporting issues in a timely fashion.
Your fleet managers and mechanics also need to play a significant role. They are your experts and will provide direction and guidance. Your line personnel are the eyes and ears regarding routine truck checks. Most likely they will not do any of the repairs. Those scheduling and making the repairs will benefit when they get timely and accurate information to speed component repairs. Good communication among all involved is essential. While repair forms are important, verbal communication will have the most benefit.
Keeping apparatus on the road and responding is critical. Today’s vehicles have many components, and they are all interrelated. If they do not operate as intended or are out of service, the truck cannot be used. It is more than just checking the oil. It is knowing the preventive maintenance basics for all the components and making sure members exercise due diligence continually to ensure reliability.
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.