Firehouse® Roundtable: Apparatus Maintenance

Fire apparatus and emergency equipment must respond in extreme heat, bitter cold, flooding, dusty conditions, over pothole-filled roads — you name it, it's got to be able to get there. Firefighters and first responders are like the letter carriers of the emergency services. When other people park their vehicles and wait, firefighters and first responders must go and take care of the situation regardless.

That kind of severe service takes a lot out of emergency vehicles. Fortunately, there are ways fire departments can mitigate the damage extreme service can do and keep their apparatus in top shape, ready to go in any weather and any condition.

Firehouse® Magazine and have talked to several experts in the care of apparatus used for severe service, including manufacturers making vehicles for use in the Arctic and in the Middle East and points between. They tell us keeping apparatus fit for severe service starts with building vehicles to meet the needs and is followed up by sound, practical maintenances.

This is the second of at least four articles on the topic of apparatus maintenance planned for 2010. Additional coverage on the topic of maintenance for severe service apparatus, including additional stories and podcasts, can be found at


Marketing Director
Aerial Product Manager
Ferrara Fire Apparatus Inc.


Fleet Manager
Elgin, IL, Fire Department


Service Manager
General Safety Division


Vice President and General Manger
General Safety Division


President and Owner
Fort Garry Fire Trucks Ltd.

When the temperatures hit minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or plus 115 degrees, all kinds of bad things can happen to apparatus that are not prepared for the extremes, including catastrophic failure of critical components. Apparatus in a continuous salt spray from road treatments used to melt ice and snow can experience serious body and suspension failures if they're not cleaned and lubricated regularly. And apparatus subjected to routine pounding over gravel and dirt roads, or city streets pocked with potholes can experience suspension damage without the proper care.

Overall, many apparatus are subjected to conditions that can be considered immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) to mechanical devices on a daily basis.

Experts from General Safety-Rosenbauer America, Fort Garry Fire Trucks, Ferrara Fire Apparatus and the Elgin, IL, Fire Department all offer advice on how to keep apparatus going no matter what Mother Nature throws at them.

"The key to keeping apparatus on the road is to keep them clean and the crude off of them and make repairs as soon as you discover an issue," said Captain Randy Covert, fleet manager for the Elgin Fire Department. "You need to go through apparatus top to bottom to make sure everything is in good repair."

Undercarriage Maintenance

Starting at the bottom, apparatus frames, suspension and tires are critical areas to be maintained in severe conditions. It's where the proverbial rubber meets the road, and also the place that is most subjected to all the crud and dirt the elements can sling at them.

Rick Suche is president and owner of Fort Garry Fire Trucks Ltd., an apparatus builder in Winnipeg, Manitoba, building a full line of emergency equipment for all of Canada with some apparatus making their way into the United States and around the world. His trucks are in service in some of the most extreme areas of the planet, including the Arctic.

"People look at our trucks and think we're building tanks," Suche said, noting apparatus endurance for extremes starts with solid apparatus construction. Fort Garry trucks are constructed of 5083 saltwater marine-grade aluminum to stand up to the rigors of what is essentially a constant saltwater spray, Suche said, adding the company also paints all surfaces and seals seams. To maintain the integrity of the body and prevent corrosion, Suche recommended the surfaces be kept cleaned, covered with paint and seams sealed.

Fort Garry also uses grommets and rubber seals where wires intersect with metal frames and around pump intakes and discharges to keep dust and water out and wires from chaffing, Suche said. "The big thing is to keep things clean," he said. Suche said spring shackles, wheel wells and other places where road grime can accumulate must be cleaned regularly. Some of the trucks built at Fort Garry never see paved roads their entire service lives, so keeping them clean is paramount to longevity, he said.

Suche has been in the fire service for 30 years, serving as a volunteer firefighter and working as the president and owner of Fort Garry, a business established in 1919 and acquired by his father in 1945. Suche said that because his company knows the trucks they build will be in some of the most extreme environments in the world when it comes to corrosive road treatments, the company uses a heavy undercoating. He recommends departments maintain that undercoating with routine oil undercoating once a year, if possible.

Road treatments can be just as bad in Minnesota where General Safety-Rosenbauer America builds apparatus. Steve Reedy is the vice president and general manager of the General Safety division of Rosenbauer America. He's been in the fire service for 38 years and a firefighter and a chief during his career. His secret to preventing corrosion is the use of dielectric grease, a non-conductive silicone grease designed to seal out moisture and prevent corrosion on electrical connections.

"Apparatus in these parts can be driving in what amounts to a constant salt spray," Reedy said. And, while most electrical connections should be routed through bodies and channels, some are out and exposed in the undercarriage, subjected to the elements.

Apparatus are electrical creatures with lots of wires and lots of electrical components that can be damaged by corrosion and, consequently fail. Therefore, care of wiring is critical for apparatus subjected to severe service, Reedy said. For example, tilt-cab apparatus, equipped with electric motors to raise and lower them, can experience shorts that can cause the cabs to rise while driving, Reedy said. An electrical bridge of salt and crud can be created between the tilt-cab motor and the solenoid that operates it, creating a contact that engages the tilt at any time.

"That can be a dangerous situation," Reedy said, noting that it can be avoided by cleaning the underside of the truck, particularly the motor and connections, which are often located under the trucks in areas that can accumulate crud.

"Keep Everything Clean"

John Marvin is General Safety's service manager and a National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) Master Mechanic and an EVT Master as well. He stresses the importance of keeping apparatus clean on the underside.

"You have to keep everything clean, front to back," Marvin said, adding that places like radiator supports and channels are often overlooked during cleaning operations. All moving parts under vehicles need to be cleaned, lubricated and exercised routinely to make sure they are operating when needed.

Marvin also said body and cab mounts should be checked and cleaned regularly to make sure their critical joints do not corrode and fail; Reedy said crud can accumulate between the body and the poly tank, another area that can be overlooked when cleaning.

And while crawling around under the apparatus cleaning, Marvin recommends that signs of chafing be observed and checked. Chafing wires can lead to failure and chafing body parts or running gear can mean broken springs, suspension problems or a number of potentially dangerous mechanical failures.

In Illinois, the Elgin Fire Department, just outside of Chicago, is serious about keeping apparatus clean. Apparatus are washed routinely and then get a periodic thorough cleaning.

"And every time we bring the apparatus in for preventive maintenance, we pressure wash them," said Covert. "It gets all the crud off them and it helps us find any leaks and keep track of them."

Covert, who is a front-line officer in the department, and has been in the business since 1984, has an administrative assignment to look after the department's fleet. His shop, staffed by skilled and trained firefighters, does a lot of the preventive maintenance on the apparatus and the small engine equipment. Larger repairs and serious maintenance work is shipped out to other shops.

During his years in apparatus maintenance, Covert has learned important lessons in keeping the rigs running when the going gets tough. "Keep them clean and make repairs as soon as you can," Covert said.

At Ferrara Fire Apparatus Inc., in Holden, LA, Paul Christiansen, the company's marketing director and aerial product manager, believes the best thing to fight corrosion is to build it in at the factory. Ferrara uses marine-grade aluminum on plates and 6061-T6 aluminum extrusions, according to Christiansen.

"We use some pretty stout components," Christiansen said. "But to take the really adverse conditions, you have to maintain the apparatus."

Hazards of Flooding

One of the particularly severe services Ferrara is acutely aware of, being headquartered in Louisiana, is flooding and the havoc it can raise on apparatus, particularly the rear axle. Christiansen said Ferrara puts an extension on the differential air tube to prevent water from contaminating the lubrication in the gear housing. Water in gear lube can quickly damage the moving parts and contaminated, or even suspected contaminated gear lube should be drained and the components flushed, before fresh lubrication is installed to prevent expensive repairs down the road.

"Anytime you go into flood waters, you should check all the fluid levels and change them if they've got water in them," said Marvin, General Safety's service manager. He added it would serve the apparatus well to hit all the grease Zerks with fresh lube too to drive out any moisture in the joints and fittings.

Rough roads can wreak havoc on apparatus suspension and bodies, never mind the occupants. Christiansen said Ferrara has a special front-end suspension combined with air-ride rear suspension that gives the apparatus a very smooth ride — good to keep the body from twisting too much and beating up the firefighters inside who must endure gravel- or pothole-filled roads.

Some apparatus, like Elgin's ambulances, have four-wheel drive to navigate through the occasional deep snow greater Chicago gets. Covert said all-wheel drive does add more components to the apparatus, but they don't require much in the way of additional maintenance and make sense for severe service.

Engines and Transmissions

Because Ferrara is familiar with flooding and what can happen with operating apparatus in water, the company routinely moves the engine turbo air intakes and filters up above the wheel line to give apparatus limited fording capabilities, Christiansen said.

It's important to remember that virtually no vehicle can operate underwater or in deep submersion. While the air intakes are above a reasonable water line, they are still subject to getting dirty and clogged with particulates, which means they will need to be changed with more frequency in extremely dusty conditions.

"It's important to be aware of what you're doing with your apparatus," Christiansen said, noting that routine filter changing will make a big difference in the apparatus performance and life span.

Suche is a big advocate of changing apparatus fluids on a regular basis as well with departments getting on a regiment of preventive maintenance that has regular service intervals. And, he's also a big advocate of synthetic lubricants. He said they extend the maintenance intervals and can increase the life span of apparatus. Additionally, Suche said, synthetic lubricants work better in extreme temperatures.

"We have apparatus that work in temperatures from 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) to 40 below," he said.

Too often, fire departments forget the transmissions and fail to service them properly, Suche said.

"They need to be serviced every 5,000 miles," he said, noting that departments that neglect transmissions will pay the price when the component is blown because of neglect. Often, firefighters don't even realize they need to be serviced.

Christiansen agreed and said often the things that are not seen can cause the most harm if not serviced. "Things that are hidden don't get checked as often as they should," Christiansen said. And that can have unintended and expensive consequences.

Experts agree that having well-organized and regimented preventive maintenance schedules help keep apparatus functioning longer — especially in extreme conditions. Engine coolant systems need special maintenance for proper operations in extreme temperatures.

Suche, who has apparatus in service in the Arctic, recommends special coolants that can stand up to the punishing low temperatures. The correct mixture also needs to be maintained so the coolant won't freeze or boil on the upper and lower ranges of temperatures. Marvin said it's easy for firefighters to check the coolant concentration with a readily available antifreeze hydrometer.

Reedy, from General Safety, said all apparatus should have rust-inhibiting additives in the coolant to make sure coolant flows freely in the radiator to ensure maximum cooling power. Christiansen comments it's important to make sure the radiator is of sufficient size to handle the size engine in the apparatus and climate in which it will primarily be assigned.

Batteries can take a beating in the extremes too and maintenance is critical to effective responses. Suche said Fort Garry's standard apparatus have four group 31 batteries to power the vehicles.

"You want good cold-cranking power," Suche said. "In the fire service, we put huge draws on batteries."

To reduce that draw, Suche recommends any kind of equipment that will reduce the apparatus amperage requirements. LED lights, DOT running lights and warning lights as well help reduce battery draw significantly, he said.

Fuel Considerations

There are some other fluids that firefighters must also pay attention to that can affect apparatus performance. High on that list is diesel fuel. Suche said it's important to use the fuel best suited for which the apparatus is expected to work. In extreme cold, Suche said, apparatus need Number 1 diesel to prevent gelling. Number 3 diesel fuel would not work well in cold and could cause severe problems and cause the engine not to start or even stall because of the gel clogging the fuel lines.

Something to keep in mind is apparatus built and fueled in southern climates will not likely have cold-weather diesel and when they arrive in cold climates, they will quickly develop performance problems, Suche said. The same holds true for apparatus that is not used frequently, he added. Some may have summer or warm-weather blends in the tanks that hold over to winter. Additives can help prevent gelling, but it's better to have the proper fuel in the tanks at all times, Suche said.

In Minnesota, where General Safety builds apparatus, state law mandates that all diesel contain at least 5% biodiesel, according to Marvin, General Safety's service manager. In cold weather, the biodiesel can cause waxing, he said.

"When we have an unexpected cold snap, people go scrambling for fuel filters because of the waxing," Marvin said, adding that it would be a good idea to have a supply of diesel fuel filters on hand for just such emergencies. Diesel additives, like deposit control additives (DCAs) and anti-waxing agents, are good investments, Marvin said.

Many of today's diesel engines require urea to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean-air requirements and that's a fluid that can freeze. Suche said those tanks often need to be heated to keep the agent at a usable temperature. As emission standards tighten, particularly in 2013, there may be additional pitfalls apparatus users and maintenance people will have to monitor.

Heating, Cooling And Climate Control

Apparatus that are required to work in extreme conditions often have special auxiliary cooling and heating systems to regulate the temperature of not only components on the rigs, but the people who use them. It's not uncommon to see large custom-cab apparatus that have dual climate controls, with large recreational-vehicle-style air conditioners on the roofs if they're being used in the extremes of the desert Southwest or the Middle East. Nor is it unusual to have apparatus with elaborate diesel-fired heaters in their pump houses to keep the water moving at 40 below zero.

All of that specialized equipment needs routine maintenance, as much as any other component on the apparatus. Christiansen, the marketing director for Ferrara, said climate control for personnel is not only a matter of comfort for occupants, but it can be required for many medical supplies often stored in apparatus cabs.

"We don't always think about climate control in apparatus, but it's important for a lot of reasons," Christiansen said.

In very hot climates, apparatus are often equipped with 120-volt AC current-powered air conditioning systems that are plugged in around the clock in the station and then powered by AC on the apparatus during responses. That way the medical supplies and other equipment in the cab are kept at a constant temperature and occupants are comfortable from the moment they get into the cab, Christiansen said. There are not many things that are user serviceable on those kinds of climate-controlled systems, but Christiansen said there are filters that should be changed routinely to keep the air fresh and the systems working efficiently. "They work like furnace filters," he said.

Ferrara also has done a lot with insulation to keep cabs cool and has found a spray-on ceramic product, called Lizard Skin, which has been found to shed heat well and has been effective on apparatus the company has shipped to Saudi Arabia.

On the extreme opposite end of the climate scale and even continental geography, Suche, who is in Manitoba, said cabs are warmed with auxiliary heaters. Pumps must also be kept warm with heater cores that take hot water from the engines and circulate it through the pump houses to prevent freezing, he said, adding that in those conditions the pump house must be completely sealed and enclosed to keep the heat in.

In Canada, where many of Suche's trucks are in service, the responses can be 50 to 80 miles. In that time, pumps can freeze solid and cause damage, or at the very least not work upon arrival. In those cases, the diesel engines may not generate sufficient heat to keep the engine at the appropriate operating temperature, and the cabs comfortable as well as the pump house, he said. Some apparatus have separate diesel-powered engines to produce supplemental heat for external uses, he said, noting that those apparatus need routine maintenance, like any mechanical equipment.

Experts agree that pumps requiring supplemental heat need more than just a heat-retaining pan on the bottom of the pump house, which does little more than catch the crud thrown up under the apparatus and provide a place for corrosion to spawn.

Pump and Body Considerations

Special attention to the pump and body components is also required to keep severe service apparatus performing optimally. Cold is an enemy of pumps that must operate with pure water in them. Freezing can do irreparable harm to the castings of even the best and newest pumps. Central drains that remove all water from the pumps, including on the discharges and intakes, can be a good option on cold weather operations.

Reedy, from General Safety, also reminds pump operators that it's important to circulate water in the pumps, from the tank to the pump and back to keep water moving and consequently keep it from freezing. It's also important not to churn water in the pump without letting it go back into the tank to dissipate heat from friction. Like extreme cold, extreme heat from friction and hot water in the pump can cause mechanical failures of the pump.

Another tip offered by Suche is to place ecologically safe antifreeze in the caps of the discharges and intakes to keep the threads from freezing and making the caps difficult to remove in the cold. And Reedy and Marvin from General Safety say exercising the pump valves often is required to make sure they open and close smoothly when needed.

"A lot of departments have one or two discharges they use all the time, and those work fine, like the front-bumper discharge, or the officer's-side rear discharge," Reedy said. "But when it comes time to use the deck gun, it's stiff and doesn't work well. That's because it hasn't been exercised regularly." He added that penetrating oil like WD40 goes a long way to routine maintenance and lubrication for many moving parts on apparatus.

Marvin said there are still a few apparatus out there with mechanical pressure-relief valves that seldom get exercised sufficiently and, because of that, don't work when they need to.

"Lots of times, someone sets the pressure-relief valve and says 'don't touch that,' " Marvin said. "But that's not the way it works. It needs to be moved to make sure it works."

The same goes for two-stage pumps, he said, noting that often departments don't test the high side and the volume side of the pump just to make sure they can get water in both modes.

"Can you get water to the other side?" Marvin said, asking a rhetorical question about a department's ability to get water from the high-pressure side of the pump.

The Elgin Fire Department's Covert has pump operation testing down pat — Covert hires Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to do annual pump testing on his fleet. "UL does it exactly the same way every year so it's easy to trend pump performance year to year," Covert said.

He added he also appreciates having the documentation and being relieved of the liability for certifying pump performance. That way when he goes to his superiors or to the City Council for money for repairs, he has third-party testing documentation to support his request for repairs or replacement.

And when it comes to body maintenance, Reedy said cleaning and lubricating door locks, hinges and jambs goes a long way to making the bodies serviceable for the life of the apparatus. Exposed surfaces and chips ought to be covered as soon as possible to prevent corrosion, Reedy said, noting that general cleaning and washing is a given. And, that's one thing most firefighters do well.

"You can tell when you see a clean fire truck, it's usually a well-maintained truck," Covert said.

ED BALLAM, a staff writer for, is a firefighter with the Haverhill Corner, NH, Fire Department, a nationally certified EMT, and holds certifications in emergency vehicle operations and pump operations. He is a former managing editor of Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment magazine.