By Richard Marinucci
It has been said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Today’s fire apparatus continue to evolve into more diverse vehicles with more parts and functions.
Having reliable components in all aspects of fire apparatus is extremely important for a variety of reasons. Most obvious is the need to keep vehicles in service to deliver the services expected by the taxpayers and public. As vehicles have more functions, parts, and components, the chances of something not working as intended increase. Departments need to do more to learn how these items interact and what is needed to keep them operating. Regardless of which component is not functioning properly, anything that takes a vehicle out of service affects performance.
Consider everything that goes into a modern piece of fire apparatus. There are the obvious parts of the chassis such as brakes, transmissions, engines, and everything else contributing to moving the vehicle down the road. Like most vehicles today, not just those designed for the fire service, fire apparatus are not quite as easy to work on as those from years gone. I think today’s vehicles are so much better and reliable than those in the past, are much easier to operate, and do more.
Reliability is directly related to maintenance and following a manufacturer’s instructions. Preventive maintenance is critical-not just for the core components of a vehicle but for anything that requires attention. Maintaining a vehicle is more than performing a lube, oil, and filter change. Pay attention to all critical components. The supplier will have suggestions regarding this. Failure to follow this guidance can void a warranty as well as lead to premature failure of a part. There are also recommendations within National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards that offer minimum maintenance requirements.
Case in Point
I recently attended a seminar presented by the deputy commissioner of the Detroit (MI) Fire Department. He related problems created by failing to follow NFPA recommendations regarding ladder and elevated platform testing. Because of many issues within the department, including extreme financial challenges, it did not perform much of this routine maintenance and testing. The result was that almost all of the ladder trucks were forced out of service until the department could complete the preventive maintenance. This placed an incredible strain on the organization’s response capabilities. In this case, the old saying that “you can pay me now or pay me later” rang true. The department, no doubt, has faced and faces some significant financial challenges, but neglecting core responsibilities ended up costing more than just money. It impacted service for a period of time.
It is easy to dismiss this as just one of the byproducts of a city in deep distress. But in talking to others, there are many more departments that don’t meet their obligations regarding components maintenance compared to the manufacturer’s recommendations or NFPA standards. It could be for a variety of reasons-mostly financial-but it could also be time or having personnel capable of doing it. Regardless, failure to stay up on the maintenance of the entire vehicle and its components could prove detrimental.
Although not always possible, departments should consider required maintenance when specifying components for vehicles. If something requires time and money above the norm, then perhaps consider a part that requires less. Being maintenance-free has its advantages but may not be realistic. But, ease of routine and minimum required preventive maintenance also have their value.
In every organization, one individual should be assigned ultimate responsibility for vehicle maintenance-including components. Who will do it will vary by the size and budget of each organization. Larger departments will most likely have a maintenance division, while smaller departments may contract out these services. Some organizations might use a local government service. Whoever gets this assignment must be interested in the work, and it is helpful to have an individual or individuals who are passionate about it. The people who take the most interest in this are going to stay on top of it and not let too many things slip through the cracks. The administration must support these individuals, especially if they are taking on an extra assignment, in order for the program to be most effective.
Just because there is an assigned person or department for apparatus maintenance does not excuse the entire department from its responsibilities. Every member must play a role in checking vehicles and reporting any discrepancies. They must be trained to look for issues and on how routine maintenance is conducted. This does not mean every member will make repairs or order parts. It does mean that they will do the things necessary to prolong the life of all the apparatus components by following manufacturer recommendations that fall within their purview.
Use a checklist for all apparatus checks that includes the obvious and not so obvious. It is to be followed each and every time. There can be no shortcuts, and there must be checks and balances to ensure everything is done correctly. The checklist should identify items to be checked daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Develop the list using the manufacturer’s recommendations and any applicable NFPA standards. For example, the NFPA will state that the department conduct annual ladder tests. This needs to be part of the maintenance program so that this valuable service is not overlooked unintentionally.
Much of this should be obvious and not surprising to anyone. Yet, there are cases where simple apparatus component maintenance has been lax, causing significant issues that should have been avoided. A check and double check can prevent needless repairs and using scarce funds on things that could be avoided with a little effort. Every member of the department needs to take ownership of this and contribute to the overall maintenance of every piece in the fleet. You can pay me now or pay me later.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is 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.