The fire apparatus we operate today are the most sophisticated rigs we have ever had. With such sophistication, there are challenges to keeping these fire trucks on the road. This month, we asked Bill Adams and Ricky Riley, “What is the most significant apparatus maintenance challenge today?”
Apparatus Maintenance Challenges: Four Factors
There isn’t one significant challenge when addressing fire apparatus maintenance. There are four distinct factors finely interwoven together. They are financial, operational, administrative, and more importantly the unknown. The value of each rests solely in the eyes of the beholder. The geographical location and size of a fire department, its financial support, and whether it is a career or volunteer entity affect each factor’s significance. The consequences, including potential liability of not addressing apparatus maintenance, can be staggering and need no explanation.
Legally mandated state and federal Department of Transportation (DOT) rules and regulations are not addressed, although they are contributing factors. The depth and scope of inspections and testing may vary from locale to locale as do the costs to conduct them.
MAINTENANCE OR REPAIR
In my opinion, emergency repairs should not be included as a maintenance cost. As an example, sentence 8.3.6 in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1911, Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Emergency Vehicles, states tires shall be replaced every seven years or sooner depending on the tread wear. Doing so is a maintenance item that can be budgeted.
Replacing a tire because of unexpected damage caused by a road hazard is an unforeseen repair cost. It is an emergency repair that cannot be accurately estimated and should not be incorporated into the department’s operating line budget.
Some political subdivisions maintain and budget for separate contingency funds or even have insurance for similar unanticipated costs such as blowing up the motor on a garbage truck, burning up the air conditioner in the library, or replacing the transmission in the mayor’s car.
When a department sends a rig to an “authorized fire apparatus repair facility” for yearly maintenance, it might also at the same time contract the facility to test the rig’s ground ladders, service its hydraulic rescue tools, or service the rig’s self-contained breathing apparatus. Those extraneous costs should not be considered apparatus maintenance.
THE POOR FOLK
Some may find it hard to fathom that there are dirt-poor fire departments that are grateful if they can afford fuel for their secondhand apparatus and heat for their fire stations let alone find funds for apparatus maintenance. Proponents of promulgating regulatory standards requiring comprehensive and costly preventive maintenance programs should keep that in mind.
Also, fire departments may soon feel the loss of revenues because of the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Heretofore financially secure fire departments may be forced to prioritize maintenance costs, scale some back, or even eliminate some.
NFPA 1911 sentence 1.2.1 states: “The primary purpose of this standard is to provide requirements for an inspection, maintenance, and testing program that will ensure that in-service emergency vehicles are serviced and maintained to keep them in safe operating condition and ready for response at all times.” It was revised in 2006 when it was combined with separate standards on testing aerials and fire pumps.
NFPA 1911 is going away. It will be incorporated into a new NFPA 1910, Marine Firefighting Vessels and the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, Refurbishing, and Retirement of In-Service Emergency Vehicles. The new document will combine 1911’s motor vehicle requirements with those of fireboats as well as stipulating the “professional qualifications” of emergency vehicle technicians (EVTs). Public input on the plan closes on November 13, 2020. It may be in the fire departments’ best interests to investigate what’s coming down the pike.
Personal opinion: NFPA standards are the basis for determining when and how fire apparatus maintenance should be performed. Unless they have been legally adopted by a political subdivision, NFPA requirements are not the law. They are consensus standards where compliance is influenced by the threat of possible litigation “if something bad happens” if they are not followed. NFPA terminology such as “shall be provided” and “is recommended” and “ought to be considered” may have more weight in a courtroom than in budgetary discussions. Something to think about.
DAY TO DAY
Many issues contribute to the success or failure of a fire apparatus maintenance program. Rigs today incorporate multiple highly complex systems integrated together and controlled by electronics. There are few mechanically controlled accoutrements. Complicated electrical systems integrate many functions from the motor’s operation to safety interlocks to the tire pressure monitoring systems. It is essential for mechanics to know how each system works and how they integrate with all the systems built into a rig. Fire departments may not have in-house mechanics that possess the equipment or capability to do so. They must rely on authorized repair facilities and their trained professionals not only for repairs but to diagnose problems. There may be a limited number of such facilities close by, thereby reducing the possibility of price shopping (or competitive bidding) for services.
Smaller municipalities might have their own or local “repair shops” that can handle small maintenance issues such as chassis lubrication, changing oil, inspections, changing tires, and minor electrical problems. Aerial devices, fire pumps, foam systems, and their accompanying interlocks and control systems may be beyond a local mechanic’s expertise. Beware of voiding warranties if nonauthorized repairs are made. Another consideration is who is liable if the rig fails after an unauthorized repair is made—or, worse yet, what happens if it burns up alongside the road for no apparent reason?
A fictious department’s only aerial device must be taken out of service for aerial testing. If an out-of-town company performs the tests, the cost per unit may be lower if multiple departments in the same area are tested together. If the other departments opt out at the last minute, the cost increases. If the rig must be transported to a service center or central location, someone has to drive it there and be picked up and later be brought back to retrieve it. If it’s a career entity, the on-duty firefighters tasked for the job are not available to respond. Or, someone has to be hired to do it. If it’s a volunteer department, the one or two “available” daytime drivers are out of town. And, operationally, there’s no ladder truck in service. Is this an administrative, operational, or financial challenge—or is it all of them combined?
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.
Challenges to Minimizing Out-of-Service Times
What a question for October FA Viewpoints! This is something that we can finally get on our soapbox and elaborate on for our readers.
We talk a lot about purchasing rigs, specing rigs, and discussing the options on rigs. But with all that, if the rig is not mechanically sound or free from long out-of-service (OOS) times or does not have the durability to withstand your department’s call volume, we have a deeper issue that needs to be looked at by your department and your manufacturers.
Regardless of your department size or call volume, all departments have to worry about any chance of the rig being out of service. And, I believe that any organization must evaluate each OOS issue honestly. What I mean by this is: Is it a manufacturer issue, a parts supplier issue, a design issue, or was this something the department chose on the rig that is causing the OOS time? We sometimes just want to blame the name of the company on the front of the truck rather than the real cause of the issue. Regardless of who builds our rigs, any department has a say in every component on the truck. If a manufacturer doesn’t have the components or parts you feel are proven and will cause less apparatus downtime, go look at other manufacturers. The apparatus committee and the department are responsible for delivering a functional and dependable apparatus to the community.
With all that being said, it brings in the question of apparatus maintenance challenges. Any time we talk about maintenance or repairs, it is an OOS issue. So, we have to look at what may be causing these challenges.
In my part of the world, there are a number of maintenance issues that cause our rigs to be placed out of service.
Mandated diesel exhaust systems for the apparatus is one issue. These systems have a number of parts, pieces, and software that cause apparatus to be placed out of service on a daily basis. While we understand the reasoning for these being mandated on the engines in our apparatus, it does not help that these systems can cause a number of OOS problems for the apparatus.
The fluid, filters, and number of sensors and warning lights associated with the systems cause myriad issues on a daily basis for mechanics. With most departments, responses are not long distances, and the heat buildup is usually not enough to burn a lot of the contaminants away in the system, unlike the over-the-road trucks that burn that away hourly. We in the fire service have to deal with the clogged filters, piping, and sensors. Sometimes—even after performing regens on the rigs—this is a big issue for mechanics and creates the dreaded OOS times. I wish I had the answer to resolve these issues, but currently it is a maintenance issue that we are stuck with. The one thing we have done is to have those parts, filters, and canisters stocked on the shelves for quick replacement to reduce the OOS times. But, this is rather costly at a local level. Maybe asking your apparatus dealer to keep those in stock in its repair facilities is another solution for a quick repair.
Whether you like it or not, electrical systems are on every fire truck regardless of manufacturer. These systems, with their mass of wiring underneath the rig, in the walls, and in the overhead, take over your fire truck. They run everything on your apparatus from turn signals to the throttle for your pump and movement of the aerial. These are complex wiring systems, and with mutiplexing they can carry multiple signals down one wire to operate a number of electrical components on your apparatus. All these connections and wire runs can cause problems in your rig with a failed connector or a possible wire rub that will cause havoc on the system. These issues usually will tell you of a problem on a display screen in your rig, and those many codes and faults can be very annoying. But, they need to be checked out by the dealer or your department mechanic.
As the trucks get older, this is when those wires and connectors start to fail. My hope is that manufacturers are keeping close watch on all their warranty tickets to see if there is a common issue with any component of their electrical systems and that, after evaluation, changes are made to make these systems more dependable and durable for the service that we see in the fire service. Our mechanics appreciated the way they can diagnose the electrical issues faster, thus lowering the OOS times. But at the same time, they are aggravated by the many electrical failures and gremlins that might be in these systems.
PARTS, PARTS, and PARTS are a huge maintenance challenge. All apparatus are built with parts—some are from outside suppliers, and then there are the brand-specific parts. If you ask any repair facility—whether it’s a fire department’s garage, dealer repair facility, or third-party garage—it will say that getting parts is one of the major hurdles in getting repairs done quickly and lowering OOS times. It is important, regardless of the manufacturer you choose to build your rig, that it can supply parts when the rig breaks. Look—all rigs break. It makes no difference who builds them or what the brand name says on the front. Your chosen manufacturer needs to have a healthy parts inventory and the ability to get those parts in the hands of mechanics quickly. These mechanics and emergency vehicle technicians cannot fix what they don’t have parts for. In defense of the manufacturers, sometimes fire departments spec some really goofy things and sometimes very unique items. And, these parts and pieces are unique to our rigs. We certainly cannot expect the manufacturer to have these parts sitting around on a shelf waiting for ours to break. Inventory costs money—a lot of money. One of the items we are looking at closer and closer is the availability of EVERY part on the fire truck and where we can get them from quickly and without delay—almost to the point where we are changing specifications to ensure availability in case a part breaks. And, it will break. Where locally can we get it rather than dealing with the manufacturer? As much as I like certain brand names on our rigs, I care more about them having low OOS times and quick parts availability when they do break.
These are just some of the maintenance challenges that face us as I see them in my area. I am sure in different parts of the country there may be different challenges and problems. I would like to hear any other specific big challenges that departments might have. Share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank-you for taking the time to read Viewpoints. Both Bill and I appreciate all the good feedback we get from readers.
RICKY RILEY is the president of Traditions Training, LLC. He previously served as the operations chief for Clearwater (FL) Fire & Rescue and as a firefighter for Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue. He also currently serves as a firefighter with the Kentland (MD) Volunteer Fire Department. He also is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board.