How Do You Wash Your Fire Apparatus?


Fire departments spend millions of dollars on fire apparatus. We learn how to drive them with precision, but how much time have we spent researching how to care for and clean these pricey apparatus? I’m sure most departments use the same equipment to clean the apparatus and make the same mistakes. It’s not our fault; we are creatures of old habits.
Mop buckets and truck brushes being used for a morning truck wash.

1 Mop buckets and truck brushes being used for a morning truck wash. (Photos by author.)


It happens in the morning on my department. Firefighters wake up early and pull the trucks out to be washed before shift change. The mop/truck wash bucket is filled with industrial car wash and wax liquid and several truck brushes. One firefighter wets down all the units, and then three firefighters start attacking the rigs with the soapy truck brushes. The goal is to get the trucks done fast and before we get toned out for the usual morning medical call. The question is: Do we wash our personal cars this way?

The problem I have seen with this process is that we are damaging our apparatus. The truck brush that most of us are using contains bristles made from synthetic material, which picks up dirt particles but scratches the paint. In addition, the mop buckets collect the dirt on the bottom of the bucket. Then when the brush is dunked back into the bucket, we are not rinsing the dirt off the brush. The brush is being used to wash the entire apparatus, including the wheels that are covered in brake dust. Brake dust is one of the worse contaminants for a soft brush because it contains metallic particles that are redeposited and dragged across sensitive paint surfaces.

Scratch/swirling marks from brushes and harsh towels.

2 Scratch/swirling marks from brushes and harsh towels.

Hard water spots from not drying the vehicle.

3 Hard water spots from not drying the vehicle.

Another issue is with the soap products we use. Several of the departments around me use an industrial wash and wax liquid that is never mixed properly and probably high on the pH level (alkaline) that strips away any existing wax or protection that is on the paint. On top of this, the truck is then left to drip dry, leaving water mineral deposits and permanent stains on the paint and windows. In the past, some crews used old hospital towels to dry the trucks off, but this went away with the use of disposable sheets for the rescues and strict policy on biohazards that limited fire station access to these towels.

I was never a fan of wiping the truck down with these stiff overbleached hospital terry towels that left lint everywhere. The chamois was a better approach, but it was always disappearing from the station. We tried the leaf blower approach, and I still like to use this method when we are doing our weekly cleaning. The blower gets the truck dry and blows the water out of all the cracks and hiding spots. There is still a need to go behind it with a microfiber towel to mop up some areas.


The best method I currently use is wiping the truck down with a couple of microfiber towels using a spray wax/quick detailer to help lubricate that final wipe. This returns some protection to the painted surface and leaves a nice smooth surface.

Using foam cannons and pressure washers are now a better, more efficient way to clean our apparatus.

4 Using foam cannons and pressure washers are now a better, more efficient way to clean our apparatus.

The two-bucket method for washing apparatus covered in heavy grime.

5 The two-bucket method for washing apparatus covered in heavy grime.

Let me lay out what I have found works best for taking care of fire apparatus.

  1. Give the truck a good inspection of the surfaces. Look for items that need special attention. Oily road grime could require the use of more citrus-based soaps to assist in a better cleansing.
  2. Give the truck a thorough rinse using a pressure washer to remove any road contaminants, bugs, and excess dirt. Use a pressure washer with high gallons per minute (gpm) but less pressure. Try to stay under 2,000 pounds per square inch and higher than 1.2 gpm.
  3. Wash the truck with neutral soap. I prefer to use a foam cannon to apply the soap on the truck surfaces. I then use a two-bucket method when the truck is covered in heavy debris that you can’t remove with the spray method. This consists of two 5-gallon buckets with grit guards on the bottom. One bucket is filled with clean water, the other will be more of the soap solution with your clean soft truck brushes. After each section of the truck is brushed down, the brush is rinsed in the clean water bucket. Then move on to do the next section.
  4. If needed before drying, clay bar or Nano pad any areas of the truck that need this attention. Clay bars or Nano pads are used to remove tough bug spots and road debris that won’t come off with the normal wash. You will be using either the wash suds or spray wax as lubricant for the clay bar or Nano pad. This is essential if you are going to apply protection to the apparatus like wax or sealant.
  5. Blow dry the truck using either an electric or a gas blower. This is the best method to remove water from all areas, cracks, handles, and roll-up doors before you use the microfiber towel. This will avoid having to use a ton of towels and does a better job of pushing the water off the vehicle.
  6. Wipe down the truck using a microfiber towel or soft towel and use some form of lubricant like spray wax/quick detailer. This will eliminate the possibility of a dry towel scratching the paint.
  7. Inspect the painted surface again. This is the time you might observe areas that need further attention, possibly polishing to refine the paint surface to near perfect.
  8. The biggest thing you can do for your apparatus is start a good protection program for the paint from the day the rig is accepted from the apparatus manufacturer.

These are just suggestions of what we have found works for our trucks in a tough environment. The best thing that any department can do is get the new apparatus protected before it goes into service. The initial time investment and cost up front for applying a good layer of product will protect your apparatus investment for the long term. I suggest ceramic- or silicone-based protects for long-term protection for your apparatus. These products are usually safe for vinyl decals and can be put on any surface except rubber. There are other products for that. I lean toward these types of products for their hydrophobic properties, meaning that they shed water instead of beading. This will work toward minimizing water spots. I hope this information has helped you and your department move toward having your apparatus show-car ready for the next parade or public relations outing.

MARK WATTERS is the owner of Captain H2O Solutions and a career captain with Sunrise (FL) Fire Rescue with more than 33 years on special operations teams. He also serves as the training captain/coordinator for the Plantation (FL) Volunteer Fire Department’s training division.

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