Next to personnel, fire apparatus are the most costly expense for a fire department. There is the initial investment, which can exceed $1,000,000 for a ladder truck; the cost of maintenance; and the expense of daily use.
Like most everything else in society, apparatus manufacturers have used emerging technology to improve apparatus operation and reliability. This applies to all components as well as the cab and chassis. This, along with changes in government and safety standards, has added to the cost of vehicles. Although some may dispute the fact that today’s apparatus have more capabilities and are easier to operate, new vehicles offer much more to fire departments.
Simple yet Complex
Apparatus today are easier to operate for the engineers, but they are by no means simpler. Anyone who can operate an automobile can learn the basics of getting the truck down the road. There is power steering, an automatic transmission, and improved braking. Someone can literally get in the cab, push a few buttons, and get the vehicle headed toward the emergency. Once on the scene, after connecting hose, the operator can push another button or two and get water flowing. Because of this, it is tempting to take shortcuts when preparing operators to learn their responsibilities. But, those serving as fire engine operators or chauffeurs of any other apparatus must understand how the vehicles and their components work so they can be prepared when “Murphy’s Law” strikes.
When a new vehicle arrives, all personnel who may drive and operate it must be trained. This must go beyond simple driving and pumping. The operators must learn about all the vehicle’s critical components and train on their use. They must also learn how to troubleshoot in case something goes wrong. There is an expectation that the vehicles will be reliable and will function as intended. Although today’s vehicles are arguably more reliable, the possibility that something could go wrong always exists. Proper preparation for this scenario will minimize the negative consequences when there is a problem.
Just because operating them is easier does not diminish the importance of regular maintenance on all apparatus components and parts. This must be done in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations and in compliance with applicable standards. This requires reading manuals and possibly additional training. Someone needs to know what has to happen and how frequently. There must be good record keeping and appropriate maintenance scheduling. This applies to engines, transmissions, chassis components, pumps, electrical systems, and anything else that is part of critical service delivery.
The most appropriate person for the job should perform maintenance. Firefighters should be able to check the oil but probably won’t be able to change the oil. When a vehicle is delivered, establish a schedule that clearly identifies the responsibilities regarding regular preventive measures. As with most mechanical issues, prevention is the best choice. There used to be a commercial on television on vehicle maintenance that had the tag line, “You can pay me now or pay me later.” This is true for the various fire apparatus components. Establish your maintenance plan and stick to it.
Increasing technology use has made it much more difficult for departments to perform repairs in-house. One could argue that the improvements have minimized breakdowns so there is less need for in-house repairs. Although there may have been a time when firefighters with mechanical ability could make repairs, today’s components are not as easily fixed when there is a malfunction. Just as it has become more difficult for “backyard mechanics” to work on modern automobiles, it is not easy to work on the components of modern apparatus. There is a need for specialized training and tools. As such, departments should perform more research to specify the most appropriate parts, including reliability and warranty.
Failure to follow manufacturers’ recommendations will lead to costly repairs but, more importantly, can lead to failure during critical times during emergencies. Reliability is essential in the emergency response business, and risking performance by neglecting maintenance is unacceptable. Departments must document their work and ensure that everyone is taking their responsibility seriously. This is not the most glamorous part of the job but it is very important when positive outcomes are expected. Someone needs to read the manuals that come with the vehicle and communicate to those who need to know what items are important.
Operate the Truck
In addition to following manufacturers’ recommendations, organizations need to exercise the components frequently, especially in cases where the department does not respond to a large volume of calls requiring specific use of various components. Engage fire pumps and flow water regularly. This is a good exercise for the pumps to make sure they are working as designed. If a problem is discovered, it is much better to find out on the training ground rather than during an emergency. While operating the pump, it is also important to play “what if.” Operators should walk through scenarios to project actions should something not work as intended. Again, preparation during practice time will allow engineers to better adjust should something go wrong during an emergency.
One thing often overlooked in specifying components is how to handle warranties. Departments often assume the vehicle manufacturer will take care of the entire vehicle. However, if this is not specified or not part of the delivery contract, it may not be the case. Even if it is part of the agreement, the manufacturer may have to turn the warranty over to the supplier because of specific expertise. Regardless, realize that the complexity of components most likely requires a specialist to repair broken or malfunctioning parts. Also, specialized parts can be pricey. So if components fail once out of warranty, replacement or repairs can be costly. In the end, you want good components to improve reliability and minimize downtime. Most times you get what you paid for. If you take a shortcut during purchasing, you could spend a lot more later once the warranty expires.
The components on apparatus are critical for meeting the end goal of providing quality service. A component failure is just as devastating as any other part of the truck with respect to operations. The various parts of a fire truck are advanced technologically and are more reliable and easier to use. This does not mean they are foolproof. Organizations need to put forth effort to make sure they are as knowledgeable about the components as they are about any other aspect of the vehicle. They must not take the easy route and must do what is necessary to ensure the reliability and longevity of the vehicle so it is ready when the need arises. This is another aspect of the fire service that is getting more complex and adding to the responsibilities of fire departments and their personnel. Shirking responsibility in this area is not acceptable to an organization that strives to provide the best possible service every time it responds.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.