When it comes to fire apparatus maintenance issues, you would be correct to think that equipment required for emissions standards was challenging. You would also be correct to think that aging apparatus is causing headaches, but one of the biggest issues may be surprising.
Fire departments from coast to coast are having trouble finding qualified mechanics to work on fire apparatus and do so competently. There is a shortage of heavy-equipment mechanics and the few out there often migrate to the private sector for more pay and better benefits. If you are a shop manager or a chief officer, that news probably is not surprising, as it has been an issue for a few years.
“Across the board, the number-one maintenance issue for us is having a qualified pool of maintenance mechanics,” said Division Chief Craig Weeks, the head of Fire Fleet Services for the Los Angeles County, CA, Fire Department, who oversees a staff of about 50 mechanics. “Without a doubt, that’s the biggest issue.”
Firehouse® Magazine interviewed mechanics and fleet maintenance personnel around the country to learn about the challenges departments are facing to keeping their rigs on the road. In addition to Weeks, for this roundtable we talked to Mike Stankus, maintenance manager for King County Fire District 44, near Seattle, WA; Tyler Chambers, the lead mechanic for the City of Tulsa, OK, Equipment Management Department working for the city’s fire department; and Bill Miller, the certified Emergency Vehicle Technician (EVT) for the Wellesley and Westwood fire departments in Massachusetts and president and treasurer of the New England Fire Apparatus Maintenance Association. While each man cites issues particular to his department, they agreed that keeping apparatus in top-notch repair, done by top-flight mechanics, is their most important mission.
For the past 35 years, Stankus has been a mechanic and welder and is part of the rarified club of Master EVTs with designs on achieving certification in each of the EVTs disciplines. In 2007, he was named the nation’s EVT of the Year. These days, he responsible for maintaining apparatus and equipment in eight station which includes 18 pumpers and tenders, two rescue units, three brush units, four cars, a boat, an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and other equipment. Some of the biggest challenges he faces are presented by new apparatus that comply with the 2010 federal emission standards.
“The emissions systems are causing a lot of problems for a lot of departments,” said Stankus, who is also the chairman and education coordinator for Washington Fire Mechanics. Ironically, just as departments are becoming accustomed to working with emissions equipment and its maintenance, Stankus said he is hearing the feds are thinking about retracting the emissions standards and he wonders what that means for the fire service.
“We went down that long road to compliance; now, how are we going to go backwards,” Stankus asks rhetorically. “…It’s kind of mind boggling.”
While he is generally an advocate of high tech for apparatus, when it is not working right, it can cause headaches. He has had a few issues with multiplex electrical systems on apparatus, but nothing too serious and the issues have been easily remedied. (In one case, a speedometer jumped from 60 to 90 mph while the vehicle was not moving.)
Sometimes, it just takes a little patience on the operator’s part for the apparatus to catch up. “It’s just like when you boot up a computer, you have a wait a minute,” he said. “Apparatus today are filled with lots of computers and to start one and take off ‘prematurely,’ it can cause problems with shifting and with anti-lock braking systems. I get calls saying the truck won’t shift and I have to tell them to relax, shut the truck off and restart, waiting 45 seconds to a minute for the computers to boot up and everything will be OK.”