Performing Factory Inspections On New Fire Apparatus

One of the most important facets of purchasing fire apparatus, and the one that can lead to greater satisfaction or sheer horror, is the factory inspection which takes place (or should) during the course of construction of the vehicle. It is also the most misunderstood and can be the most wasteful portion of the purchasing process or the most beneficial.

While there are various means of participating in the actual finished design and layout of your vehicle, the most advantageous to your department are the three most commonly utilized controls over the quality of construction in use today. These are:

  1. The pre-construction meeting.
  2. The pre-paint inspection.
  3. The final inspection.

Typically, these meetings are held with representatives of the manufacturer and the most appropriate location for them is at the plant where the actual construction of the apparatus will take place. It cannot be stressed too strongly that a LIMITED number of representatives from your department should take part in these meetings and inspections. I have heard reports from manufacturers of up to 17 members of a truck committee attempting to hold an inspection. The only possible outcome of this type of crowd trying to perform this service is that the end product will be less than satisfactory to everyone. Remember, the manufacturer also has a vested interest in your performing a good series of inspections since the more defects you uncover on inspection, the less his warranty cost will be after the vehicle is delivered.

Photo by Dennis C. Sharpe
This KME pumper was delivered to Swoyersville, PA, Hose Company 2.

Photo by S.P. Ryan
The Kingstowne Station, Franconia Volunteer Fire Department in Fairfax County, VA, was the recipient of this Pierce Quantum.

Some departments feel that they are getting something for nothing by writing into the specifications that the cost of the inspection trips will be borne by the manufacturer. There are no free rides in this world, including rides to the manufacturing plant. If you write trips into your specification, the manufacturer will write those costs into the bid and raise the price of your vehicle accordingly.

The cost of these trips should not deter you from inserting them into the specification, however, since they are invaluable to the finished product. If you feel that your department can only afford two of these instead of all three, I would strongly recommend that you perform the pre-construction meeting and the pre-paint inspection. If you perform these properly, everything you need to cover at the final inspection should be covered and it is possible to perform that final viewing at a local shop or your own firehouse. It would be better to do it at the factory since any changes necessary can be made more easily, but, since these are or at least should be minor changes they are usually capable of being performed locally.

Committee members should realize that there may be times during the planning of the vehicle and during the actual inspections when you may have to make decisions regarding the placement of items inside, outside and underneath the rig that will bring you into a direct conflict between locations necessary for operations and those allowing the easiest, fastest maintenance. This will be a trade-off and you should face up to it realistically. The reason for these visits is to reduce your vehicle's down time over its life span. This will lead directly to a reduction in maintenance and a concomitant reduction in costs associated with keeping the rig in good operating condition.

Once the warranty ends, should you not have your own maintenance staff to perform repairs and maintenance, these can be extremely costly when performed at a truck repair shop. A shop in the metropolitan New York City area, for example, would charge well over $75 per hour for labor alone. Think about that when contemplating the trade-offs between operational capability and maintenance cost control. Some operational tactics, while important, can be placed in the non-emergency category when being considered in this light since they will normally be the focus of secondary tactical considerations.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Where you go from the point of issuing a purchase order to a manufacturer is right back to your specifications, or the "boilerplate" that accompanies them. Somewhere within either of these documents is (should be!) a clause indicating that inspections will take place at the point of construction sometime during the time the apparatus is being built. More importantly, the document should state that a meeting will take place prior to construction which will include members of your truck committee and responsible personnel of the manufacturer, and that the meeting will take place at the factory where construction will take place.

Commonly referred to as a pre-construction meeting, you should spell out exactly who you expect to be present at this gathering. Typically those who should be present include:

  • A chassis engineer.
  • A body engineer.
  • An electrical supervisor (if your vehicle will contain a generator producing electricity, an additional supervisor for the 110-volt system).
  • A plumbing supervisor (if a pump is to be supplied).
  • An aerial engineer (if an aerial is to be furnished).

In addition, a set of final blueprints indicating exactly what the manufacturer intends to build for you should be available for everyone's investigation from the builder. These should be sent to you prior to your visit to allow your committee to examine them and note the questions they wish to have answered during the meeting.

Photo by Karen Morris
This HME rescue truck was delivered to the Broomall, PA, Fire Company.

Photo courtesy of the Winnemucca Rural FD
The Winnemucca, NV, Rural Fire Department took delivery of this 4,000-gallon tender built on a Freightliner chassis.

The simplest method of conducting a pre-construction meeting, albeit the longest, is to furnish a copy of the specifications, AS BID, to all concerned. This should be your responsibility, not the manufacturer's, since some builders break down your specifications for the edification of their assembly line supervisors and rewrite some portions of them to make certain they are better understood by the assembler. This is referred to as a "work copy" and the wording may or may not be exactly the same as your original specifications. To insure correctness, furnish your own copies to those assembled at the meeting.

This can be the most productive meeting imaginable not just for you but for the manufacturer too. Any misunderstandings or misinterpretations concerning your specifications must be ironed out here before the process goes another step forward. There is no one who can read your 50, 60 or more pages of specifications and correctly interpret exactly what you had in mind when it was written, and this is the time and place to insure that those ideas are transferred to the people who will actually build your apparatus. From the manufacturer's point of view, it is infinitely easier to correct a problem before construction than after, and it is also much less expensive.

If you wait until after completion of the vehicle to let the manufacturer know exactly what you wanted, you can rest assured that the cost for any changes will be passed along to you at that point because of your failure to communicate your wishes. If a misunderstanding about interpretation of the specification occurs prior to construction, most manufacturers will gladly work with your department to insure your satisfaction.

While At The Factory

Since this all important meeting will take place at the factory, ask to be escorted through the plant BEFORE the meeting takes place. Tour the assembly area but don't just tour. Take in all of the areas of construction that you have access to and look at the methods of construction. Don't forget that this is the same assembly line that will be producing your vehicle and the methods of installation will be the same. If you see something that displeases you, make a note of it and bring it up at the meeting (that's the reason for touring prior to the meeting as an aside, for those with less than total recall, a miniature tape recorder may help you remember what you've seen).

If you see a process that you do not understand, stop and ask the assembly line worker exactly what is being done since it will in all probability be the same process used to build your rig.

Beware The Change Order!

While a pre-construction meeting can be the most productive of the entire process, it can also, to the unwary, become the most expensive. Don't forget that, in all probability, it has been some time since you wrote the specifications, in some cases many months, and technology has more than likely made great strides during that time. It is easy to say to the builder that you would like to substitute a newer article for the one specified in the contract but if this is done indiscriminately, the toll on your budget can be awesome.

Sometimes simply asking innocently whether your apparatus can be furnished with an item similar to the one specified instead of the original can be interpreted by you as a simple swap and by the manufacturer as a change order to the specification. So, be careful. If you should make any changes to a specification that was bid on during this meeting, be sure that, upon completion of the trip, you are furnished with a complete breakdown of the changes made and any additional, or reduced cost for items furnished or deleted (that happens sometimes too).

The Inspection Trip

One of the most common errors typically made by truck committees during the course of an inspection trip is that they try to design and build their own vehicles instead of allowing the manufacturers to do what they do best (under your guidance, of course). While it is certainly within your purview to see to the placement of hose outlets, lighting equipment, pump control locations and other such items personal to your department, leave the basic construction of the vehicle to the builder. A firefighter telling a manufacturer that the truck is too flimsy and requires additional strengthening or a different steering system or better springs is only going to cause anxiety and even antagonism on the part of the people who have engineered the basic vehicle. I know I've done it!

Unless you have an outstanding reason for being critical of the construction of the vehicle's body or chassis, such as we had in New York City when we considered the types of streets on which we were forced to drive the vehicles, and unless you possess knowledge equal to that of the design engineers, you will have to be content with the assumption that they know what they are doing and that any ultimate design flaws that occur will be warranted under the clause in your boilerplate covering the adequacy of engineering practices.

One of the most important considerations that should be brought out at this meeting is the establishment of a liaison between you and the manufacturer's staff. Should a snag occur or a question be left unanswered causing some discrepancy during construction, it is important that someone be available to alleviate possible problems.

You can designate yourself or someone on your committee as the final word in addressing this type of situation and the manufacturer should specify one person on the company's staff to be the contact person either to call you or to be called by you to solve any problems that may occur.

I caution you not to allow the contact person for the manufacturer to be the local sales representative with whom you may have been dealing during the purchase. This person should be made aware of all the proceedings but any third party in this type of process seems to muddy the water and may cause severe problems when the vehicle is further along in construction. I also recommend that any final decisions made between yourself and the manufacturer's liaison by telephone be done also by fax and that a copy of the verification be kept in your apparatus folder to avoid future problems.

What's Next?

Assuming that the pre-construction meeting went all right, what happens next is that the builder will begin to act on the arrangements made at the pre-construction meeting and start to build your apparatus. Barring any misunderstandings or problems that are necessarily addressed by yourself and the liaison person, the next time you should become involved with your new rig will be at your next factory visit, which should take place at the point of what is commonly referred to as the pre-paint inspection.

This typically occurs at a point in construction when the chassis has been built, the pump or aerial device, if present, is mounted and the body has been placed on the chassis. Some of the wiring and lighting will have been located and mounted, as well as the air lines and most, if not all, of the vehicle's hydraulic system installed. You should be able to take the vehicle for a test drive and should do so at this point in order to test the braking and steering systems, as well as to determine if the location of switches, siren pedals, radio mounts, etc., are as desired.

The Pre-Paint Inspection

This will be the most important means of determining whether or not your pre-construction meeting was a success.

You should be on the lookout for all the items that you so carefully explained to the engineering staff during that meeting, as well as looking for specific items which would cause your department a maintenance or operational headache later on:

  • The location and accessibility of the basic fuel, oil and air filters which are going to be changed on a regular basis over the life of the vehicle. Are there items blocking quick access to them or, in the case of the liquid filters, do they need to be lifted over the interior of the crew cab, causing the likelihood that oil will be spilled on the seats or cab floor?
  • The location of the wiring harnesses running throughout the vehicle. Are they readily accessible if a short circuit should occur and rewiring a particular circuit becomes necessary?
  • The grounding of electrical devices should be performed via a common ground run through the main wiring harness. Grounding each light and other device to the body individually is a sure sign that you are in for some electrical nightmares during the life of your rig.
  • Are main undercarriage items readily accessible without removal of numerous other devices first? For example, if a starter needs replacement, a fairly common repair, can it simply be unbolted, removed and replaced or must the mechanic first uncouple numerous air, electrical and hydraulic lines which have been run beneath the starter and perpendicular to it? If you have to take this rig to a shop, you will pay upward of $75 per hour for repairs. Do you want to pay simply for replacement of the starter or do you want to add an additional four or five hours of labor because all these obstructing lines also have to be removed and replaced?

There are any number of items, too numerous to mention in any one article, that must be addressed when readying your new rig for delivery. The important thing to remember is that the quality of your inspections will reflect upon the degree of down time and maintenance cost ultimately incurred by your department. It is well worth your time and money to insure that a thorough, professional series of inspections is performed. If you're purchasing an aerial device, chances are you'll be spending in the neighborhood of $700,000. That's a pretty expensive neighborhood, so make sure that you get what you are paying for. Keep your eyes open and good luck!

John P. Morello has formed Morello Associates Inc., a fire apparatus consulting firm whose goal is assisting fire departments in specifying and purchasing new fire apparatus. Anyone interested in obtaining professional assistance with specification preparation, bid evaluations, performing factory inspections and acceptance of fire vehicles may reach him at his New York office, 718-478-6967.

John P. Morello recently retired from the FDNY after a 34-year career. He served for 12 years as a battalion chief, including eight years as the FDNY Chief of Technical Services, responsible for specifying and purchasing all automotive equipment used by the FDNY, as well as all the firefighting tools and equipment. In addition, he was the fleet manager for the FDNY's over 1,100 vehicles. He has specified, purchased, inspected and accepted over $75 million worth of fire apparatus. He was a voting member of the NFPA 1901 (Fire Department Apparatus) Committee for five years, while in active service, and still participates in its operations.