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...


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...


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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.