By Christian P. Koop
A few years ago, I wrote an article that appeared in a fire service trade magazine about the shortage of qualified and/or certified emergency vehicle technicians and truck technicians in general. That magazine is no longer published, another unfortunate victim of our ailing economy. Even though our economy has not improved much since those short four years ago, it is still very difficult to find qualified emergency vehicle technicians. There is still a shortage, and this article is an updated version of the one written in 2008.
Those old enough to remember gas costing 30 cents per gallon probably fondly recall a time when hot rods and muscle cars were all the rage and when guys spent much of their time covered in grease trying to tweak their rides or bring back some heap from the dead. That was a time you could open the hood and not only see the ground underneath but also know what you were looking at.
Things have certainly changed since then for the better, and some would say for the worse. Today’s automobiles have become so complex that the average person wouldn’t dream of picking up a wrench and tinkering around the way previous generations did. And as cars became more and more complicated to maintain, so too did trucks-especially emergency apparatus with all their moving parts, thousands of options, and complex electronic controls.
Most people still consider someone who repairs vehicles or works in private repair shops or governmental fleet shops to be a mechanic. But given the complicated nature of the work and the sophisticated electronics involved, the old “grease monkey” image has been replaced with one of a trained professional technician.
In the United States today, however, there is a shortage of these qualified and competent heavy duty truck and emergency response vehicle repair technicians. Many other occupations, such as those in computer fields, are more attractive and not as physically demanding and offer better pay, thus making it increasingly difficult to attract qualified technicians.
That competition makes it more difficult for emergency industry service shops and local fleet managers to keep qualified employees on staff. And, it further makes the tradition of local firefighters who are “good with a wrench” performing work themselves that much more precarious, especially given the fact that it may void warranties with the manufacturer or create liability issues if something goes wrong.
Advent of Electronics
In the early 1960s, the electronics in vehicles were quite minimal and appeared only in some high-dollar luxury cars and exotic foreign vehicles. Basically a mechanic didn’t need to concern himself with the finer points. In 1962, after a series of studies, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare determined that automobiles were responsible for more than 40 percent of all airborne emissions in the United States, which led to the Clean Air Act of 1963. The act was amended in 1965 to require all cars and light trucks to have some form of emission-controlling device by the 1968 model year. The research carried out during that time provided the technological base and a solid foundation from which research and development would provide the highly effective emission-control systems we have today.
In 1972, Chrysler was the first to offer an electronic ignition system, and other manufacturers soon followed suit. This signaled the beginning of electronic controls for all vehicles and revolutionized the technology used to control vital functions in the modern automobile and eventually the trucking industry. The modern systems are totally computer controlled and monitored and have proven to be so effective that some states have closed down automobile emission inspection stations.
“The advantages of the new electronics for the consumer are obvious and even greater for the environment,” wrote Paul Stenquist in a 1981 article for Motor Magazine. “The new cars ran much better and more efficiently than the emission-handicapped cars of the previous 10 years. Although the new electronics did add more to the overall cost of the vehicles, the improvement in drivability, reduced maintenance, and improvements in performance would prove to be worth the extra cost.”
The Clean Air Act is directly responsible for causing the automobile industry to manufacture the highly reliable and the almost zero-pollution-emitting cars and light trucks we have today. It can be looked on as an evolution that has taken more than 40 years.
DPF and Regeneration
It has also brought about the diesel particulate filters (DPF) we have had on the heavy duty fire trucks since the 2007 model year. The DPF is essentially a filter that traps particulate matter (PM), or soot, used in conjunction with ultra low sulfur diesel fuel (15 parts per million) and an electronic back pressure monitoring system. When back pressure reaches a specific level, the system regenerates or burns off the soot by injecting diesel fuel and igniting it. This can occur passively or the driver may be directed via warning lights to “force” regeneration. Failure of the driver to perform regeneration when directed will cause the DPF to clog. High temperatures in the DPF (essentially it takes the place of the muffler) burn off the PM. This is a cyclic event and eventually the DPF must be removed for cleaning. These are highly effective devices because they can remove anywhere from 85 to 95 percent of PM from reaching the atmosphere. This is a controversial subject at this time because it is causing emergency vehicles to be unreliable and subject to breakdowns due to clogging of the DPF. It is more reliable in the over-the-road trucks but has serious issues when used in stop-and-go traffic such as inner city.
There is an alternative technology that will not cause the vehicle to break down if there is a failure of the emissions device. Plasmatec Emissions LLC has developed a nonthermal plasma diesel exhaust system that is just as effective as a DPF without causing a diesel truck or emergency response vehicle to break down as the DPF technology is prone to do if the filter clogs. Our department successfully tested a prototype for approximately one year. Hopefully the major diesel engine manufacturers can take a serious look at this product and use it in place of the DPF.
I mention these advancements with electronic systems, computerized systems, and highly sophisticated emission devices because technicians have no choice but to keep pace. That means they have to complete extensive coursework to earn an entry-level position and gain on-the-job experience to move up. They also have to participate in continuing education programs to stay up to date with the latest innovations. Although that’s true for a consumer vehicle, it is especially true for that giant apparatus sitting in your department’s bay with all the different options and intricate gadgets that are loaded on it.
For those who do receive training and gain experience in the industry, the shortage of emergency response vehicle technicians gives them a powerful bargaining chip. In the trucking industry, most graduating diesel technician students will receive several job offers as they join the workforce with annual salaries that can range from $50,000 to $80,000 for experienced technicians.
Technology changes so rapidly in this field that if technicians do not keep up with continuing education, they will be left very far behind in a short period of time. That’s one of the reasons why getting your technicians certified with the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and Emergency Vehicle Technician Certification Commission (EVTCC) is so important.
Based on my experience as the fleet manager for the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue Department, I think the technician shortage has two definite and separate components.
First, there are not as many people interested in the field because there are so many other jobs that require equal intelligence, are not as difficult, pay more, and have a much better public image.
Second, some of the technicians currently in the field have not kept up with technology. Part of the reason is because some of these people do not have the necessary aptitude to learn some of the new skills required to perform the more technical work. This makes them less effective and less efficient in their work and can cause the appearance of a shortage. I have seen this happen in local government fleet maintenance, and part of the problem is that not enough emphasis or importance has been given to training.
To make matters worse, for example, in the department I previously worked for, starting pay for technicians was dropped a number of years back. This made it even more difficult to recruit qualified applicants because the level of pay was not competitive. This has since been rectified to a lesser degree. Another problem affecting retention in my department is the fact that other departments in the county pay more for similar jobs that are less stressful and less technical, creating a high turnover rate.
There is hope, however. For those affected most critically by the shortages, an in-house apprenticeship program may be the way to go. A vital part of this program is to find an effective means by which to test the aptitude levels of the applicants. Once you determine a person has the proper aptitude, the next step is to have him work with the most knowledgeable technicians. In essence, with this type of program, also known as on-the-job training, companies could “grow” their own technicians.
Other ideas include working with local colleges and vocational schools to promote the automobile and truck repair industry and providing funding if necessary and possible. Promote the profession as a challenging and rewarding career anyone can be proud of. Provide in-house training programs and give incentives to motivate technicians to learn more about their work on a continual basis. For example, a few years ago the county I work for offered an incentive by paying technicians for their ASE and EVT certifications. Actively recruit the best students and pay technicians based on their knowledge, skills, and abilities and consider recruiting automotive technicians and training them to perform the extra tasks required to keep your apparatus running properly. Finally, maintain competitive pay rates so that retaining current employees will not be a problem.
Keep in mind that the primary reason for developing certification programs in the automobile, heavy truck, and emergency response vehicle repair fields has been to ensure technician competence. Along with this, you gain more effective and efficient technicians who ultimately reduce maintenance costs, increase reliability and safety, and reduce downtime for your emergency vehicles.
CHRISTIAN P. KOOP is the fleet manager for the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Department. He has been involved in the repair and maintenance of autos, heavy equipment, and emergency response vehicles for the past 35 years. He has an associate degree from Central Texas College and a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Barry University and has taken course work in basic and digital electronics. He is an ASE-certified master auto/heavy truck technician and master EVT apparatus and ambulance technician. He is a member of the board of directors of EVTCC and FFMA and a technical committee member for NFPA 1071, Standard for Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications.