Never Ignore the Signs

Chris Mc Loone

A few weeks ago on an episode of the “Talking Trucks & Equipment” radio show during which I interviewed retired Battalion Chief Bill Peters, I remarked that if you don’t perform maintenance, your fire apparatus are not going to run well. Although I would never back away from that stance, I did have an experience a few weeks ago that reminded me that even with an exceptional preventive maintenance program, you can be taken by surprise.

We were dispatched to a fire in a commercial building-an apartment fire basically. The call was on the other side of our township, so we had a long ride ahead of us. It’s an apartment complex we’ve been to dozens of times, sometimes for working jobs and sometimes for “smells and bells.” Our response route is the same every time and we know it well.

While we were en route, an engine arrived on location, forced the door to the apartment, and reported a smoke condition inside from an unknown source. As we approached one of our turns, our driver had trouble slowing down, and we missed the turn. At first he thought it was a new pair of boots he was getting used to. Initially, he thought the size of the boot was making it difficult to not press both the gas and the brake pedal at the same time. It wasn’t a big deal because another turn was coming up that would get us back on track, but he again had trouble stopping. We made a turn at our third option and were back on track. Not knowing exactly what was causing the problem, he proceeded with added caution. We made our turn onto the road where the apartment complex is located. Once on the road, a four-lane divided thoroughfare, the driver reconfirmed with me where to make his next turn, which was at the third traffic light. But as we approached, it became clear to me he was going to miss the turn. I said, “It’s right there. Over there…turn here.” My driver replied, “I can’t stop.” In my mind, that essentially brought our response to an end. We slowed to a stop, turned around, and headed back to the complex at non-emergency speed. The source of the smoke had already been located, and the officer in charge was returning companies, so we began our ride home.

On the way home, we immediately started trying to diagnose the problem. One of our lieutenants was in the crew cab. Both he and I are former engineering officers, so we know the truck well and began troubleshooting. We knew we were having bona fide brake problems, but we weren’t sure what the cause was.

We suggested the driver watch his primary and secondary air gauges. It turns out, the primary air gauge was fluctuating between 80 and about 120 psi. We weren’t sure it was an air problem but it was starting to look that way.

Once we got back to the firehouse, after a few tricky spots on the ride home including going down a pretty steep hill, we called the chief engineer, who came down to further diagnose the problem. We determined that the truck lost air rapidly after shutting it down. We also began to piece together some other symptoms that were noticed but didn’t exactly point to a problem.

Earlier that evening, the truck had gone to a community service event with the rest of the department. When we prepared to leave, the driver released the parking brake, but the truck wouldn’t move. He reset the parking brake, released it again, and all was well. Did the truck rapidly build up air to replace what it lost sitting in the parking lot? Looking back now, that makes sense and could have been a symptom for what was ultimately wrong with the brake system. We reported the instance on our truck report and to the chief engineer when we returned to the firehouse. The truck was going to have its air conditioning fixed the next day, and he said he’d have the repair facility check it out.

After the fire response, we took the truck out of service with the county communications center. The truck left the next day for the repair facility. The repairer determined we had lost an air chamber on the officer side rear of the truck. It turns out our entire response, and probably the ride to and from the community service event, was done without right rear brakes. The truck now has two new rear air chambers.

There are always lessons to be learned from any experience. First, make no mistake-our trucks are well maintained. This was a wear-and-tear issue. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Things can and will go wrong with even the best maintained pieces of apparatus.

Even seemingly nonproblematic problems like thinking the brakes are sticking should be reported. Always watch your gauges when you start the vehicle. The truck in question here will often lose air if it hasn’t been run in a while. We know that and we know that it quickly builds up air and we can go. Don’t only watch the gauges when you start the vehicle. Watch them while en route if you can. We didn’t notice the fluctuation between 80 and 120 psi until we were on our way back.

We went from “nothing showing from the exterior” to “smoke in the apartment from an unknown source.” The driver remained under control despite the added urgency to get on location quickly. Drivers must always remain in control and not let the adrenaline rush get the best of them. There is always a chance something can go wrong. We’re talking about machines-parts wear out.

I was on the other side of the cab once, driving our previous rescue truck. I made a left turn, heard a “thunk,” depressed the accelerator to go up a hill, and all that happened was the engine’s rpm went up. And all at once, we were without a transmission-hands-on experience that anything can happen.

The positive outcome to all this is that we made it there and back, and the truck is fixed. However, this is the fire service. So, when you miss a turn going to a call, and a truck from a neighboring company is coming down the road from the opposite direction and sees you miss the turn, expect to hear, “Don’t you know where those apartments are?” from at least five different people from your own company and others!

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