Preventive Maintenance

alt   Christian P. Koop


Today, when many equipment and fleet managers face tight budgets that delay the purchase of new emergency response vehicles (ERVs), preventive maintenance (PM) for existing vehicles becomes even more critical than in the past.


Any short-term savings realized by cutting PM funds will be miniscule when compared with the expense of repairing and replacing vehicles that have not been properly maintained. PM that is fine-tuned to your operation will, in the long term, save money by reducing equipment downtime and extending the service life of vehicles.

This is not an area that anyone should attempt to cut costs because it will bite your operation hard in the pocketbook and expose your organization to potential liabilities. More importantly, those who do attempt to cut costs by reducing maintenance expenditures jeopardize ERVs’ safe operation. Neglecting ERVs’ PM to save money in the short term can endanger not only their occupants’ lives but the public they are trying to protect. Anyone considering cutting funds for PM should also consider this: When an ERV is involved in an accident that results in a fatality or serious injury, attorneys will scrutinize every minute detail of its maintenance records. This article looks at various areas of this broad subject and sheds some light on the different types of PM ranging from common routine reactive maintenance to condition-based maintenance.

This past May, I was an instructor at the 18th annual Florida Association of Emergency Vehicle Technicians week-long national training academy in Daytona Beach, Florida. The session that I participated in examined shop management’s many facets, including PM. This is a topic that is always discussed in depth among those in attendance. This year was no different. Most of the participants were generally involved in running or managing shops that maintain and repair ERVs for both public and private organizations. This program comes under the umbrella of the Florida Chief’s Association’s maintenance section. This program has been very successful for several years in providing technical training for emergency vehicle technicians (EVTs) and shop managers in Florida and throughout the nation.

The Driver’s Role

Managing PM programs generated a lot of discussion. Many participants expressed very strongly that one vital factor of PM programs, often overlooked, is the driver, because he is the first link to their success or failure. The driver is a key figure in preventing ERV failures or breakdowns. A conscientious driver who inspects his vehicle frequently and has been trained by maintenance personnel to identify potential safety problems can find many maintenance issues, in particular, safety-sensitive items such as steering, suspension components, and brakes. In my experience, it is extremely important that ERV operators be properly trained to handle these critical inspections effectively.

A case in point is a fatal fire apparatus accident that occurred a few years ago. The investigation revealed that apparatus brake failure caused the accident. Although I will not speculate about whether or not that particular accident could have been prevented by a proper brake inspection, I firmly believe that a driver properly trained to check brake adjustment can go a long way in preventing similar accidents. Recently, my own department had an aerial device that was involved in a minor accident because the left front forward spring hanger bolts sheared off, causing the steer axle to shift back and the driver to lose control. Inspection revealed that the bolts had loosened because of severe impact loading and eventually sheared off. Luckily no one was hurt, but my point is that if drivers are trained to look for these issues, they can possibly prevent a catastrophic failure.

Commercial Drivers’ Licenses

In many places, drivers of commercial trucks that weigh more than 26,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (GVW) are required by law to have a commercial driver’s license (CDL), which requires them to be able to check and adjust their brakes. When a Department of Transportation inspector conducts a roadside inspection of a commercial vehicle or over-the-road truck and finds the brakes are out of adjustment, the driver will not be allowed to drive the vehicle until they are properly adjusted.

Many in the class expressed their belief that a large segment of today’s drivers do not have the mechanical aptitude or attention to detail to properly inspect their vehicles, and they are not as committed to or as astute at maintaining their vehicles as previous generations. Many also held the opinion, however, that driver training can help lead to improvements. This is not to imply that we do not have good drivers today. I can tell you that some of my department’s busiest units, which respond to an average of 15 emergency calls per shift, are some of the best maintained. It is apparent that these units have exceptional drivers who stay on top of their rigs because the vehicles have far fewer unscheduled repairs when compared with other rigs. Many participants also expressed the opinion that requiring drivers to have CDLs if they operate ERVs weighing more than 26,000 pounds will also help improve the situation.

PM Types

One of the most commonly accepted types of PM for ERVs is changing the oil and filters, lubrication, and flushing fluids based on calendar time and mileage. It includes using a checklist and following basic manufacturer’s guidelines. This is known in the industry as routine reactive maintenance and in the long run can be damaging and cost-prohibitive for the long-term durability of today’s complex ERVs.

The next step up is known as proactive reliability centered maintenance (RCM) and is very similar to reactive PM. However, maintenance personnel change the fluids and filters at more precise times.

The next level of PM above RCM is condition-based maintenance (CBM), which focuses on finding the root causes of all failures and putting measures in place to correct or eliminate what is causing the failures. This is sometimes also referred to as predictive maintenance. For example, if you feel alternator life is too short in your fleet because of a high amperage load caused by using incandescent lighting, you could consider increasing the size of the alternator or possibly retrofitting with LED lighting to reduce the electrical load on the alternator. Reducing the load will generally increase the life of the alternator. However, which is the best and most economical route to take requires study and research.

PM Objectives

The main objective of any PM program is to maximize ERV availability and minimize unscheduled repairs or breakdowns, which help departments realize savings over time. Many people seem to think that PM is simply changing fluids and filters and lubrication. In reality, it is a lot more complex, and these programs need to involve drivers, technicians, and shop supervisors. Keep in mind that the basic definition of PM from the Career Equipment Fleet Managers manual is “the care and servicing by trained personnel for the purpose of maintaining mobile equipment in satisfactory operating condition by providing systematic inspections, detections, and corrections of incipient failures either before they occur or before they develop into significant defects that cause machine downtime and additional preventable cost. These inspections can be performed by calendar days, engine hours, miles, or fuel consumption.”

Engine life can be shortened considerably if drain intervals are not optimal and an in-frame overhaul for one of today’s modern big bore diesels will be costly. Also keep in mind that unscheduled maintenance is costly but will never be eliminated. A rule of thumb is that technicians can find 60 percent of problems during the PM inspection; drivers can potentially find 30 percent; and the remaining 10 percent can be addressed by replacing components prior to failure. An example would be a diesel engine cooling system water pump. Hypothetically speaking, if the trend for a specific pump to fail is around 75,000 miles, then replacing pumps in the fleet prior to this mileage will reduce breakdowns, reduce unscheduled repairs, and save money. The idea here is to apply this logic to all components expected to fail during the life cycle of your department’s ERVs where economically feasible.

PM Programs

Every department or operation has different variables that come into play when designing a PM program or fine-tuning an existing one. The severity and type of service the equipment is subjected to, terrain, and climate are all factors departments should consider.

For example, during the rainy season, it is inevitable that some of our department’s ERVs will drive through deep water that will go over the axles. The department addressed this problem for the rear drive axles years ago by raising the axle vent plug up into the body as high as possible using an extension hose, and this has been a part of our specifications for many years. However, this fix is not possible for the front axle, so we routinely inspect units that have gone through deep water after heavy downpours and schedule them into the shop to inspect for water intrusion into the wheel ends. As many already know, when wheel end components that have reached operating temperatures are quickly immersed in water, water can be drawn in past the oil or grease seals into the wheel bearings inside the hub because of a vacuum created when these components are cooled rapidly by the water. If maintenance personnel do not correct this condition in time, corrosion and rust caused by the water will eventually cause wheel bearing failure.

If the operator does not hear any strange noise or report feeling anything unusual while driving, a worst-case scenario can result in serious damage to the wheel bearings or spindle and even complete wheel assembly loss. The result of a catastrophic wheel-end failure at highway speed can result in preventable fatal accidents. I recall a tragic accident in the Miami, Florida, area when a dump truck lost a wheel while traveling on a local expressway at about 60 mph. The tire and wheel assembly jumped the median, struck a school bus, and unfortunately killed a young child.

With advances in technology, performing PM and changing engine oil based on how much fuel has been consumed are more precise than using calendar days, mileage, and even basing PM and oil drain intervals on engine hours. Keep in mind that manufacturer guidelines are just minimum recommendations and that conditions your ERVs are subjected to may require more frequent PM and oil drain intervals. Essentially you need to match PM and oil drain intervals to the needs of your organization. The key to equipment longevity is determining this frequency. And, using oil analysis can also help guide you in this area. Fine-tuning and matching a PM program to meet the needs of your organization will undoubtedly make your fleet safer to operate, save dollars, and reduce the liability exposure to your organization.

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 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.

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