By Christian P. Koop
Last month an automotive repair trade magazine had “COMMITMENT TO TRAINING” printed on its cover.
I am sure most already know how important training is for technicians in general, but I think it is even more important for emergency response vehicle technicians (EVTs) who maintain and repair modern fire and rescue apparatus. This is mainly because of the many complex systems from different manufacturers that are integrated into one piece of equipment. Unlike dealership technicians working on cars and light trucks from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who only need specialized training from one manufacturer, EVTs need training from multiple manufacturers. Because of this huge difference and the fact that EVTs work on life-saving equipment, adequate in-depth technician training is a must. Well-trained technicians can also make a big difference in repair quality and reduced equipment downtime. This equates to fewer comebacks or rework and better overall shop productivity. I know there have always been fears from shop managers about losing good technicians after investing time and money in training only for the techs to leave for other jobs. But with a good incentive program in place, retaining good techs should not be a problem.
Justifying the Expense
I know some organizations look at technician training as an expense. In reality, it is an investment that will pay dividends in the long haul. There are systems today that require following exact service or repair procedures. Failure to do so could end up maiming or even killing someone. Gone are the days when savvy techs could use their past experiences and knowledge to get them through jobs that were difficult to diagnose and repair. Organizations that maintain and repair emergency response vehicles (ERVs) need to understand this and develop a commitment to training if they expect high-quality, timely repairs from their technicians. To do this, they need to understand just how important up-to-date technician training has become and that effective, efficient, root-cause failure analysis is directly linked to knowledgeable and highly trained technicians.
A good example of this is diagnosing and solving tough electrical problems that are more common than you would think with ERVs. A tech who has been properly trained may spend a fraction of the time solving the problem compared with a good tech who has not been trained on the system. The other important aspect for agencies that maintain and repair ERVs is that their technicians are required to be certified. This is an area that will expose the organization to liabilities if someone is injured or killed because of a faulty repair-particularly if the technician performing the repair was not qualified or certified to perform the repair.
NFPA and Other Organizations
I think it best that these two important areas-training and certification-go hand in hand. As many are aware, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1071, Standard for Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications, defines the qualifications technicians must have to maintain and repair the equipment. NFPA 1071 divides technicians into three distinct levels or categories that indicate what maintenance or repairs they are authorized or qualified to perform based on a recognized certificate, professional standing, a skill they have developed, education, or training in the specific area and that he has the experience and has essentially demonstrated the abilities necessary to get the job done.
Far and wide the most common or accepted way to demonstrate this is by certification through nationally recognized programs offered by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and the Emergency Vehicle Technician Certification Commission (EVTCC). Each level has specific ASE and EVT certification exams linked to it that culminate in a Master Level Technician certification. Both of these organizations are essentially committed to improving the quality of repairs performed on automobiles, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, and ERVs.
The three levels and the specific categories of maintenance and repairs the EVT can perform according to NFPA 1071 follow:
- EVT I: This technician is basically one who is qualified to conduct or perform inspections, maintenance, and equipment operational checks on ERVs.
- EVT II: This technician is qualified to perform the EVT I functions as well as conduct diagnoses, make repairs, and conduct ERV performance testing.
- EVT III: This individual, also referred to as a Master Technician, is a first-line or level supervisor/technician who is directly responsible for the job performance of the EVT I and EVT II EVTs and also can schedule repairs, perform maintenance and repair quality control inspections, and review and compile the repair and maintenance process documentation for the organization.
This is an area shop managers can use to create incentive programs for their techs by linking pay to certifications. They can also create three levels of incrementally higher pay based on the technician levels defined above, which may also help with retention if the shop has had problems in this area.
Starting a Training Program
Technicians need to thoroughly understand how a system operates before they can effectively repair it. This is a very basic requirement, and the only way around it is to provide adequate training for technicians on staff. Not all technicians are created equal. And, let’s face it: Not all technicians have the same knowledge, skills, or abilities. Most technicians, like most people in other vocations or professions, have an area they enjoy working in more than others, and usually what someone enjoys doing is generally what they are best at. While most techs have an area they are weak in, proper training will bring them up to speed if they have the aptitude.
To start an effective training program, you need to know the knowledge level of each technician. A good training program begins by evaluating the knowledge level of the technicians on staff. There are various ways to assess training needs. Probably the most efficient way to do this would be by using a written exam. After identifying technician weaknesses, you can begin designing a training program that will address these areas. Eventually you will have a group of technicians in your shop who are more evenly rounded in their skill sets. Some technicians will require more formal or classroom training in certain areas than others, and some may need more hands-on training than others. The latter can be accomplished by placing them with other technicians who are well-versed and experienced in a particular area. This kind of training is commonly referred to as on-job-training and can be very effective.
Most dedicated technicians I have known over the years who truly love fixing and repairing equipment have always wanted to learn as much as possible about their trade. These technicians are generally in the upper percentile of the industry and have a lot of pride in being the best at what they do. I think today, more than ever, technicians can also do a lot to help themselves become more knowledgeable about their profession. There is a tremendous amount of technical information and how-to instructional videos on the Internet by OEMs, their dealer networks, and even individuals in the industry seeking to provide technicians with the best methods and practices for specific maintenance and repair procedures. Although there is a wealth of good information on the Web, not everything you pull up on Google is the correct repair procedure or best practice, so technicians need to be aware of this.
Although technicians can do a lot to educate themselves, it is incumbent on the organization to provide the best technical training available, which is normally from the factory or OEM. Although there are also many independent training organizations and individuals providing very good training, I think that for organizations that purchase and maintain their own fleets the best practice is to include OEM technical training in the new equipment specifications. It is also important to train the technicians prior to placing the equipment in service because to effectively diagnose a problem and repair it, you need to have a thorough understanding of how the system operates. Take, for example, the culmination of the latest EPA emissions standards for heavy-duty diesel engines used extensively in fire apparatus. New and specialized repair equipment, like those used to clean and test diesel particulate filters (DPF) and dual oxidation catalysts (DOC), have been developed by the industry. Technicians need to thoroughly understand how these complex systems, which vary among manufacturers, work and also understand how to use the diagnostic equipment required to accurately diagnose and repair the systems. This is only one example of the many new technologies being employed by heavy truck manufacturers that requires specialized technical training for the technicians on staff.
Training has become more critical than ever. Organizations that try to cut corners here will get bitten in the pocketbook in the long run. Properly trained and certified technicians can improve equipment reliability, reduce downtime, be cost-effective, be tied directly to the bottom line of any organization, and reduce the organization’s liability exposure.
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 is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. 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 FAEVT and a technical committee member for NFPA 1071, Standard for Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications.