Mobile Shop Mechanic Is A Paramedic For Apparatus

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Custom cabinets are filled with fittings, parts and hoses for fire pumps, air systems, hydraulic systems, brake systems and other common maintenance repairs.
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Super Dave’s mobile shop truck is in the background as he checks the intake valve of a preplumbed waterway on an aerial while talking with the driver. The program provides opportunities for drivers and the mobile mechanic to exchange information and develop valuable working relationships.
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Super Dave’s toolbox is the mechanic’s paramedic jump kit. Pliers, wrenches, sockets, drivers, nuts and bolts are neatly organized by type and size for every job.
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The mobile shop truck carries motor oil, lubricants, and cooling fluids.

Banter between Engine and Truck companies has always been a part of the fire service. When a Hoser says, “I’ve never seen a fire go out with a ladder,” the Pickhead will usually respond with “I’ve never seen someone rescued from a window with a fire hose.” Bragging rights can only be earned as long as those rigs make it to a fire. The mechanic is the wizard behind the curtain. Without mechanics keeping the big rigs on the road, we’d still be using horses.

The City of Seattle’s fleet includes 32 fire engines, 11 ladder trucks, 10 reserve engines and 4 reserve trucks. It takes tremendous coordination to keep these monsters on a regular maintenance schedule – not to mention all the emergency repair orders sent to the fire garage on a daily basis.
Mitch Halgren, the SFD Fleet Manager, is the logistics boss and liaison between the fire garage and Operations Division. Steve Skylstad is the supervisor of the fire garage and crew boss for the team of fire mechanics.

Skylstad started with Seattle in 1992 as a mechanic and worked his way into supervisory positions throughout the city garages until he got to the fire garage in May 2004. He is an avid reader of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and credits the magazine for bringing him up to speed in many areas regarding fire apparatus maintenance and related National Fire Protection Association standards.
“Mechanics are like firefighters,” he said. “We like to get the job done right, as soon as possible and by the easiest, most direct way possible.”
He said his mechanics are committed to keeping rigs in service, particularly aerial ladders. “Most urban fire departments are lucky if they have two spare aerials,” he said. “Employee dedication to quick service with excellence is important when you have up to a million dollars tied up in each fully-loaded fire apparatus.”

An operation of Seattle’s size needs the ability to quickly fix minor repairs and address emergency maintenance issues directly at the fire stations or at the emergency scene. Depending on the traffic and citywide coverage, an apparatus traveling to the shop for a minor repair can turn into an all-day event. Valuable time can be saved with a dedicated knowledgeable mechanic assigned to a fully stocked, mobile shop service truck. Seattle has fine-tuned this operation over the years.

The mobile shop truck is a paramedic unit for fire apparatus. It brings the fire garage mechanic, tools and equipment to the fire truck. Like the paramedic, who treats and stabilizes the patient before being transported to the emergency room, the shop mechanic can fix the problem on site or make the decision to drive or tow the apparatus to the fire garage.
Triaging Apparatus

Dave Cress, fondly known by firefighters as “Super Dave” because there isn’t anything he can’t trouble shoot, trace down or fix on a fire apparatus, is the mobile shop truck mechanic. Every morning, Mitch, Steve and Dave triage the status of SFD apparatus. It’s not just fire engines. With ambulances, specialized units, and other support trucks, the fire garage is responsible for keeping close to 100 vehicles on the road. Part of Super Dave’s role is to take pressure off the shop mechanics. If he can take care of a job in less than two hours, it goes on his list. If a job will take more than two hours, it’s slated for the shop.
The work orders are organized by geographic areas and checked against the daily department training agenda, which also involves moving apparatus around the city. If, for example, there are two rigs with pending repair items that are scheduled for a class, Super Dave can go straight to the training center and work on those rigs since the companies are out of service anyway for training. The goal is for Super Dave to prioritize the service orders and make an efficient loop around the city, knocking off as many jobs as possible while maintaining the best city-wide coverage with in-service apparatus.
Super Dave maintains radio contact with Steve back at the shop with Nextel direct-connect. He can give status reports and updates much like a paramedic talking to the trauma doctor back at the ER. If a repair is beyond the scope of what can be accomplished in the field, or an unforeseen problem will make the repair take longer than expected, or something more urgent arises, Steve and Dave can re-adjust the work plan.
A Collaborative Effort

The design and inventory of the mobile shop truck was a collaborative effort with input from Steve, the fire garage mechanics and Super Dave. There were proponents of a pickup chassis with a workbench, but it was decided that a walk-in, low deck, bread truck van style would be physically less stressful.

The mobile shop truck is built on a 27,500-pound gross vehicle weight Freightliner MT-55 chassis. It has a 19-foot Utilimaster body with rear dual wheels, air brakes and an air-ride suspension in the rear with a “kneeling” feature. It has a 300-hp Cummins ISB engine along with a 5-speed Allison transmission. The cab has air conditioning, an air-ride driver seat, extra heavy insulation for sound and temperature control and a monitor for the back-up camera along with back-up alarms.

The back work area has translucent panels on the roof for natural lighting as well as 120-volt or 12-volt fluorescent lighting. The van has custom metal cabinetry and compartments. There is a PTO-driven, 10,000-watt Boss generator with a booster to deliver 165 psi of compressed air through a 3/8-inch, 100-foot cord reel. It can run off shore power or from the onboard generator.

Mounted on the rear is a Western Mule Fold-A-Way crane rated at 2,000 pounds. Exchanging heavy parts like a truck tire, hydraulic cylinders or aerial ladder rotation gear boxes that can weigh up to 600 pounds, is usually a two-man job at the shop. The crane makes it a one-man job in the field.
The main workbench has a Delta drill press, bench grinder and a bench vice. A gigantic red toolbox has rows of drawers with every hand tool imaginable neatly organized by size. The top drawers have Allen wrenches, combination wrenches, box and strap wrenches, tire gauges, drivers, sockets and specialized tools. The further down you go, the larger the tools get. There’s a torque wrench, torque multipliers, 8 and 20-pound sledge hammers, pry bars and bolt cutters.

Hanging along the side panes are numerous belts of various sizes along with bundles of wiper blades and coolant hoses. The cabinets have pipe and hydraulic fittings, fire pump parts, air brake components, alternators, starter motors, headlights, electrical bulbs, wire and fuses, drills, an air-driven socket gun, propane, aerosols, starting fluid, brake washing fluid, lube sprays, electrical tape and lots of duct tape. All flammable liquids are properly stored in an approved small flammable liquid locker bolted to the workbench.

On one side panel is a library of reference books and owner’s manuals for every apparatus in the fleet as well as manuals and diagnostic tooling for CAT, Cummins, Detroit engines and Allison transmissions.

The truck has reservoirs for storing motor oil, waste oil and waste coolant. An air-operated pump can deliver motor oil as well as suction oil and fluids into the waste reservoirs. An exterior cabinet was ergonomically located for the storage of five-gallon containers of transmission fluids, lube oils, and coolants so Super Dave can grab them without injuring his back.
Bunking Gear
There’s also a 12-volt quick-disconnect on the front and rear bumpers for jump starting dead batteries along with extended length heavy-duty jumper cables.
Finally, next to the 12-foot extension ladder is a red gear bag with bunking gear, helmet, PPE, personal clothing and sundries sufficient for a five-day deployment should Dave be called out on a multiple-alarm fire or as part of a Wildland strike team.
A mobile shop service truck program offers a wealth of advantages. It provides a quick response when things are broken. It frees up and lightens the load at the fire garage for big jobs and allows for proactive planning and preventative maintenance scheduling. The mechanic has time to develop a working relationship with the apparatus drivers. Information and knowledge are exchanged; concerns and ideas are shared.

Remember, the best-trained, best-equipped fire company can’t make a difference at an emergency if we can’t get there.

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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