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When it comes to fire apparatus maintenance, you would be correct to think that equipment required to meet emissions standards was challenging. You would also be correct to think that aging apparatus are 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 apparatus.
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.
“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.
Firehouse® Magazine interviewed fleet-maintenance personnel around the country to learn about the challenges departments face in keeping rigs on the road. In addition to Weeks, for this roundtable we talked to Mike Stankus, maintenance manager for King County, WA, Fire District 44; Tyler Chambers, lead mechanic for the City of Tulsa, OK, Equipment Management Department, working for the city’s fire department; and Bill Miller, 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.
For the past 35 years, Stankus has been a mechanic and welder. In 2007, he was named the nation’s EVT of the Year. These days, he is responsible for maintaining apparatus and equipment in eight stations, 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 2010 federal emissions standards.
“The emissions systems are causing a lot of problems for a lot of departments,” said Stankus, who is also 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 officials may retract the standards. “…It’s kind of mind boggling.”
“We went down that long road to compliance; now, how are we going to go backwards?” Stankus asked.
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 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 to wait a minute,” he said. “Apparatus today are filled with lots of computers and to start one and take off ‘prematurely’ can cause problems with shifting and with anti-lock braking systems.”
Stankus said he is an advocate of standardizing fleets. “It’s very important to me for service and for parts interchangeability,” Stankus said. Regular, routine maintenance is also vital, he said, adding that his regimen includes full service every 250 hours or 3,000 miles, whichever comes first.
A tag line on Stankus’ emails reads: “We might not be the pride of the fire service, but without us, the pride don’t ride.” And that sums up his philosophy on apparatus maintenance.
Weeks has been with the Los Angeles County Fire Department since 1994. He remembers the day when there were literally dozens of applicants for a half-dozen openings in fleet maintenance. Today, the department may not have more than a handful of applicants for a like number of openings.
“It takes quite a long time for us to promulgate a list of five or six qualified candidates,” Weeks said. “…Nearly everywhere around here are help-wanted signs for technicians.”