No Downtime At SFD Fire Garage

Steve Skylstad is the Seattle fire garage supervisor.
Steve Skylstad is the Seattle fire garage supervisor.
Some truck tires are ready in the shop in case they are needed out in the field.
Some truck tires are ready in the shop in case they are needed out in the field.
Parts are stored in a well-organized system of drawers.
Parts are stored in a well-organized system of drawers.
Mechanic Sydney Collier operates an aerial in the shop, which was packed with three fire engines, a medic unit and four aerial ladders.
Mechanic Sydney Collier operates an aerial in the shop, which was packed with three fire engines, a medic unit and four aerial ladders.
If you can't find it in the parts department, check the boneyard.
If you can’t find it in the parts department, check the boneyard.
The in-ground exhaust system provides freedom for an overhead bridge crane.
The in-ground exhaust system provides freedom for an overhead bridge crane.

(Part 1 of 2)

At 815 South Dearborn St., just south of downtown Seattle, is the Fire Maintenance Garage. Firefighters call it “The Shop.”

This one-story, commercial facility has 15,442 square feet on the main floor and 3,103 square feet on the mezzanine level. It has 10 drive-through bays 77 feet long. The 10 massive roll-up doors are 14 feet high and 17 feet wide. The fire garage is responsible for keeping 146 vehicles on the road, including 32 fire engines, 11 aerial trucks, 10 reserve engines, 4 reserve aerials, 19 ambulances, specialized trucks, command SUVs and support and administrative vehicles.

Ken Bailey is the director of vehicle maintenance and shop operations and Steve Skylstad is the fire garage supervisor leading a team of nine truck mechanics and one warehouser. The mobile shop truck, operated by Super Dave Cress, is like the paramedic unit for off-site fire apparatus repairs, and the shop is the trauma center. This is where the big repairs happen.

Preventive Maintenance

Any job that will take longer than two hours is slated for the shop. The labor-intensive semi-annual and the extensive annual preventive maintenance (PM) checks are done here. Brake systems, suspension work, wiring and body modifications are just some of the big jobs that are all in a day’s work for these specialists.

The shop no longer does major engine overhauls or transmission rebuilds like it did years ago. Major overhauls on fire apparatus occurred every five to 10 years. Today’s modern engines are more durable. SFD buys engine and power train components spec’d out to last 20-plus years. However, if these components need repair, the work is usually outsourced to a local vendor who specializes in a particular component, or a remanufactured one is purchased. For engines, transmissions and other larger power train components, an outside shop (often the dealer) can rebuild it cheaper and faster than the fire garage.

‘Quite A Sight’

Smaller fire departments often have to use independent garages, dealer shops, or the city repair garage that works on all city-owned vehicles, but fire trucks are specialized.

“We can do things here that other cities would have to contract out, or bring in a rep from the manufacturer to fix it,” said Skylstad. “When you have five engines stacked up and an aerial ladder fully extended horizontally with mechanics working on every rig – all under one roof, it’s quite a sight.”

It is an impressive sight. The day I visited, there were three aerial trucks (two of them tillered), three engines, an ambulance, a special unit truck and the mobile shop truck, all inside the facility. With the 10 bays and side area, the shop can fit 16 fire apparatus in the garage.

Five in-ground hydraulic hoists sit above grade. They do the job, but they’re tripping and driving hazards. They can puncture tires, they leak oil and they collect dirt. With an upcoming facility upgrade, four new in-ground hoists will be installed. They stow below grade, use a fraction of hydraulic fluid that the old units need and are faster and easier to set up. They are also safer than the old-style hoists, incorporating secondary mechanical safety locks that prevent the hoists from suddenly lowering in the event of a hydraulic failure. The lifting systems will be double-walled and self-contained, eliminating the environmental hazard from accidental leaks. Two of the new hoists will have the length and lifting capacity to support an entire tillered aerial apparatus.

The shop has an in-floor exhaust extracting system. Hoses are connected to the exhaust pipe of the apparatus and inserted into any of six 10-inch diameter manholes spaced throughout the garage floor. Fumes are safely vented outside.

Special Drain System

The advantage to an in-floor exhaust system versus an overhead system is that it allows for unobstructed operation of the overhead bridge crane which spans the entire length and width of the shop. The crane has a 5,000-pound rating and can lift an entire aerial ladder off the turntable. It can also lift and suspend an entire cab from the rest of the truck chassis.

The perimeter of the shop has a special drain system which captures and separates oil and other petroleum products to prevent them from entering the sanitary sewers. Around 1995, the city invested about $8,000 and purchased a waste oil furnace to supplement the inadequate overhead steam radiators.

Mechanics now pour used motor oil, transmission oil, gear oil, hydraulic fluid, and diesel fuel into a 300-gallon tank. Compressed air atomizes the waste oil where it can burn cleanly. These two systems combined efficiently and economically heat the facility during the winter months.

A large parts room is well stocked with inventory. Filters, headlamps, spotlights, brakes, starters, alternators, batteries, clamps, transmission parts, aerial parts, pump parts – you name it – are neatly organized on shelves and in drawers by the warehouser. “Many of our chassis and component manufacturers are no longer in business,” said Skylstad. “It’s a predicament because those parts are still in use within the fleet, so we’ve chosen to increase our stock level with hard-to-find parts, and parts that are no longer available to reduce our downtime.”

Downtime is critical for Skylstad. “I don’t want fire trucks sitting around waiting for parts,” he said. “When you need them, you need them now.”

The city tire shop is next to the fire garage, but the shop keeps a small inventory. The city uses many name-brand tires. The shop uses tires that vehicle manufacturers approve for applications. Higher-end Michelin tires are often specified for Seattle fire apparatus. Fire trucks are driven hard compared to other city vehicles. Typically, tires used on the drive axles are siped to improve traction, especially in the rain.


The shop has six computer terminals. They are connected to the SFD computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system so the unit status and location of the fleet can be viewed in real time. It gives Skylstad the ability to predict an emergency rush for in-service apparatus. There is also a department radio in his office allowing communication with every company in the city. With the ability to monitor radio fire traffic, if a major alarm happens that may go on for hours or even days, Skylstad can reprioritize the workload to get rigs back in service.

Hardbound apparatus repair manuals, the size of phone directories can cost up to $500 per book. Maintenance manuals for aerial ladder trucks alone can stack 18 inches high. The same information can fit on one CD or DVD. Internet access allows the mechanic to download all kinds of valuable information, diagnostic tips and exploded-view diagrams, straight from the manufacturer.

Personal Laptops

There’s a big push with the next technology upgrade to get all mechanics their own personally assigned laptops with Wi-Fi capability. This will allow them to get manufacturer information anywhere they’re working, as well as input data on an apparatus in real time.

Currently, there’s one laptop computer on the mobile shop truck and two at the shop. They operate with a fleet management software program called Fleet Focus, which allows the shop to track every aspect of maintenance and repair, including repair costs, usage, PM scheduling, tracking downtime, parts data, vehicle acquisition and disposal, fuel usage, and other key data for the life of the vehicle. Reports can be generated to measure the cost and effectiveness of the maintenance program.

The laptops can plug into any apparatus in the city. They have diagnostic software programs for the electrical controls and multiplexed electrical systems, as well as many other components. They can get real-time data on component operating systems, such as oil pressure, engine temperature, turbo charger speed and wheel speed sensors. (Beam me up, Scotty!)

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.

More Fire Apparatus Current Issue Articles
More Fire Apparatus Archives Issue Articles

No posts to display