Fire apparatus, like most mechanical objects, have life expectancies and at some point during that period there will be a day of reckoning. Is it time to repair and refurbish or send it down the road?
As the economy traveled further down the recent rocky road, many communities were forced to defer scheduled apparatus replacements and perhaps even defer maintenance. They are now at a crossroads, having to make some tough choices about their fleets. In this Apparatus Roundtable, Firehouse® Magazine speaks to a cross-section of apparatus mechanics and maintenance shop managers to get their suggestions and advice on whether it is time for fire departments to repair or replace rigs.
Dave Schreier, president and founder of Emergency Apparatus Maintenance Inc. in Lino Lakes, MN, says the question boils down to an honest evaluation of the chassis. If the foundation is not solid, there is no point in putting more money into a vehicle that should be shipped out to pasture, he says.
“The biggest mistake the departments make is they skip the basics,” Schreier says. “They need professionals to look the whole truck over and make an assessment.”
He says too often fire departments fail to look at the frame and the subframe for corrosion or damage. Frame problems can scuttle any plans to refurbish or repair apparatus, making the price prohibitively expensive and not worth the effort, Schreier says. “It all goes down to the foundation and that’s the part that’s most often overlooked,” Schreier says.
Departments also must analyze the major components of the apparatus, like the hydraulic systems of an aerial, the health of the engine and transmission and the capacity of the pump, Schreier says.
“Do an oil sample, test the pump and look at the electrical load,” he says. “An NPFA (National Fire Protection Association) pump test will go a long way to determining the overall condition of an apparatus. …What you’re looking for is the apparatus ready and worthy for a refurbish – is it basically sound?”
Emergency Apparatus Maintenance Inc. was founded in 1987 by Schreier, who is a truck mechanic and a retired volunteer fire chief with 25 years of service. His business provides services to more than 2,500 fire and emergency medical departments in the Midwest, from Minnesota and Wisconsin to Colorado and parts of Wyoming and Montana south to Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Assess “big-ticket” items
Steve Towers, founder and owner of Fire Service Repair in Snohomish, WA, also believes fire departments mulling replacement or repair must look at the “big-ticket” items before making any serious decisions. Those big-ticket items include the pump, engine and transmission, Towers says.
“An NFPA 1911 pump test is like a stress test on a fire truck,” Towers says, referring to the NFPA’s Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus. “If you have problems with your truck, it will show up.”
Towers, who has worked in the mechanical repair field for more than 43 years, and 19 of those in professional emergency vehicle repair, says if more than one of those major components show serious deficiencies, the fire department must make a decision on whether it wants to spend lots of money just to get the vehicle back up to a condition where it could be refurbished. Engines and pumps can cost upwards of $25,000 each to replace, Towers says, noting that if they both need to be replaced, it seriously undermines the prospect of saving the apparatus.
“That’s going to kill that truck from being refurbished,” he says.
Towers says fire departments should also consider the quality of the truck to begin with. If it is way out of NFPA compliance, with an open cab for instance, or was built on a low-quality cab and chassis with not much seating, departments probably ought not to spend big money on saving it.