Editor's Note: This article is one of four that features web exclusive coverage of the "Firehouse Roundtable: Apparatus Maintenance High-Tech Components" feature starting on page 90 of the August issue of Firehouse Magazine. Stay tuned for related podcasts later this week.
According to information from the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers' Association (FAMA) an average of 5,650 apparatus are purchased each year, and they all have some form of electronic computer controls, whether they're commercial or custom cab apparatus.
Even throttle pedals are electronic with position sensors controlling the speed of the engine.
FAMA estimates there are 70,000 fire apparatus in service in the United States and that more than 50 percent are over 15 years old, from an era when electronics and high tech equipment were not as prevalent as they are today.
Nevertheless, that still means there are a lot of apparatus in service today with more or less electronics on board, depending on the age of the vehicle, and more new apparatus being added to the national fleet daily.
The good news is that even though apparatus is complex these days, the on-board, high-tech components are very reliable and require very little maintenance.
"One of the good things about apparatus today is they don't require much work," said Jason Witmier, pumper/tanker product manager for KME Fire Apparatus, Nesquehoning, Pa. "And when they do, a lot of it is remote serviceable with a phone line or internet connection so a guy at the factory can remotely diagnose a problem and in some cases, reprogram it to fix the problem."
Preventing System Failure
A recent incident in Seattle, Wash., however, highlights that those high-tech systems can fail and need to be checked regularly and repaired immediately when a fault is detected.
On June 12, an apparently faulty electronic pad caused a Seattle apparatus to not be able to pump water at the scene of a fire where five people died. There's no indication the pumping failure lead to the deaths.
According to KIROTV.com, a local television station, Seattle Fleets and Facilities workers spent 39 hours inspecting the apparatus before discovering the faulty electronic pad. The discovery led to Seattle's decision to replace the pads in 10 apparatus.
Incidents like Seattle's are rare, but obviously do happen, said Chief Brian Brown of the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority (SMFRA) Fleet Services Bureau in Centennial, Colo.
"When something like that happens, you're done," said Brown.
That's why he's a big advocate of actually checking everything on an apparatus on a daily basis.
"Exercise it every day," Brown said. "If you can't do it every day, because you're a small volunteer department, at least exercise it once a week... There are things that should be done on apparatus daily, weekly and monthly."
Brown is an award-winning Emergency Vehicle Fire Apparatus Technician Level I and II, as well as an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) Master Certified Automobile Technician and Master Medium/Heavy Duty Truck Technician.
He's also an academy instructor for the Colorado Fire Mechanics Association and an EVT testing proctor and a participant of the EVT validation committee.
Brown said it's the apparatus engineer's responsibility to make sure the vehicle performs as required. If it doesn't, it needs to be reported and fixed immediately or at least decided whether the performance issue warrants it to be taken out of service.
Too often, Brown said, an intermittent problem shows up, so something doesn't work as it should and it's passed off as a glitch and ignored. That kind of a decision could come back to haunt someone when an apparatus doesn't pump water, or a piece of equipment doesn't work as required during an emergency.