Mechanics Make The Fire Garage

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The fire garage is packed with apparatus as John O’Day works on a medic unit.
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Each mechanic is issued seven long-sleeved coveralls.
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The shop’s staff includes, from left, John O’Day, Kenneth >Husband, Sydney Collier, Jonathan Blunt, Dave Cress, Chris Robertson (kneeling), David Durham, Bruce Ittner, Wilbur Lee and Jerry Vandyke.

Mechanics Make The Fire Garage
(Part 2 of 2)

You can have all the bells and whistles in a facility, but what really makes a great garage are the mechanics. The crew at the Seattle Fire Maintenance Garage – “The Shop” – is comprised of experienced, “journey level” mechanics.

Steve Skylstad, the fire garage supervisor, said he looks for mechanics with advanced knowledge and skills with electronics and electrical systems. “Computerized controls manage just about every system on a modern emergency response vehicle,” he said. “Engines, transmissions, brakes, suspensions, even seatbelts, are monitored and controlled by computers now. If you don’t understand how these systems are designed and how they work, you’ll never be proficient at repairing them.”

Another trait he wants in a mechanic is flexibility. “You may be working on a fire engine in the shop one day, on an aerial at a fire station the next day, and on a mobile breathing air compressor at a fire scene the day after that,” he said.

Skylstad also wants mechanics to be team players. “Resources, knowledge, and experience must be shared, and mechanics need to team up on large jobs,” he said. “If you’re a ‘me first’ type of individual who thinks your success is measured solely on what you do as an individual, you’re not going to fit in well here.” 

The union and the city are exploring possibilities in premium pay for heavy truck work. City officials don’t want the shop to be a training academy for the fire garages of neighboring cities. ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) and EVT (Emergency Vehicle Technician) certifications have been discussed as possible avenues for premium pay. Though these certifications are encouraged, the city does not require them.

The most common injuries for mechanics are minor open cuts; smashed fingers; bumped heads; injuries to hands and forearms, including heat burns from hot engines and cutting and welding; and sprains, strains and back injuries from lifting heavy objects. The knees take a beating from years of crawling around, and the ears can be damaged from the noise of roaring engines, machinery, sirens and air horns.

I was surprised to hear that mechanics get training on blood-borne pathogens. Minor open wounds can lead to infection by providing a path for blood-borne pathogens.

“Sometimes the rigs come in filthy, especially the medic units,” Skylstad said. “When they break down in the field, there often isn’t time to decon the rigs. We’ve found dried blood and empty syringes in the back of the units. Not all repairs are under the hood.”

Rubber Nitrile Gloves

He pointed out that his mechanics can be in the same area where the patient was – fixing brackets, electrical switches, replacing interior lights, drawers and door handles. “Any of these areas can be contaminated, including the steering wheel,” Skylstad said. “That’s why my crew wears rubber nitrile gloves.”

Protective clothing consists of seven long-sleeved coveralls issued to each mechanic. There’s a weekly laundry service. The long sleeves help protect the mechanics from hot surfaces, sharp edges, oil and other fluid splashes, brake dust and just plain road dirt. Ear and eye protection and hard hats are required for fire pump evolutions where the rig is hooked up to a hydrant or flowing water under pressure.

A Labor-Intensive Job

The annual aerial ladder inspection requires mechanics to completely clean the aerials of all dirt, grease and grime. This is a labor-intensive, tedious, time-consuming job. The ladders have to be nearly sterile for the quality magnetized particle inspection. This special process allows for the detection of cracks without having to remove the paint from the aerial. Then the aerial needs to be cleaned again to get rid of the iron powder residue from the mag-particle inspection.

Next, the aerial needs to be regreased, lubed and all the cables need to be re-adjusted. It’s a dirty, grimy job. This process is not used for L5 and L6, which are aluminum aerials. It is contracted out as is the non-destructive ladder testing, but the quality assurance inspection is performed at the shop.

I asked the guys what they like about working at the shop and what keeps them there.

“It’s a selective process,” said Jerry Van Dyke. “You can’t just walk through the doors here and say, ‘I want to work at the Fire Garage.’ You have to work your way up. We’re the top of the food chain when it comes to tools and resources. The performance standard and expectation is raised when it comes to public safety and the safety of firefighters.”

Sydney Collier started his apprenticeship in 1963 with 25 years’ experience at a dealership working on high performance cars, including Ferraris. “The feeling of community is very important to me,” he said. “I live in Engine 30’s district, and I like working on that rig. So when E30 comes in for service, Steve’s pretty good about steering it my way. One day I was struck by a car while riding my motorcycle… nothing serious, but guess who came to my rescue? Engine 30.”

Life And Death

Kenneth Husband is part of the aerial team. “That takes some expertise and commitment,” he said. “You learn so much on this job; there are a lot of systems on those rigs, electrical, hydraulic, the waterways… The rigs I work on save people’s lives. We’re talking life and death here.”

And Dave Cress said, “I get to share the pride and glory of being a Seattle firefighter without running into a burning building, plus I get to drive fire trucks. That’s something special you guys take for granted.” 

Perhaps we do. One thing I will never take for granted are the mechanics at the shop. I found these comments inspirational and reassuring, knowing that every time the bell hits and I climb onto Ladder 6, I have an elite team of committed mechanics watching my back.

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Angulo, a veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is on the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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