Experts Discuss High-Tech Apparatus

On average, 5,650 apparatus are purchased each year that include some form of electronic computer controls, according to FAMA.

The NFPA 1911: Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus, 2007 edition, is filled with instructions on how high-tech components should be maintained and tested.

Gary Handwerk, engineering manager for Hale Products, a pump manufacturer headquartered in Conshohocken, Pa., has been a member of the NFPA Fire Apparatus Standards Committee for more than 18 years. As one of the authors of the NPFA 1911 standards, he's a huge proponent of them.

"If you really follow 1911, there are tests for all of that stuff," said Handwerk, who's been connected with the manufacturing of apparatus and components for nearly 40 years. "Inspections and testing are very important."

Too often, however, the tests are not done because they can be complex and reveal problems the mechanic might not know how to fix, or that the community is unwilling to pay to have diagnosed.

"A lot of guys will do a half-assed job and only do a tiny fraction of the testing because they want to change some [pump] valves, or do some repacking or change a gauge, but they don't want to get into the more difficult things," Handwerk said.

For example, Handwerk said electronic pressure controls for pumps require no maintenance and are nearly problem-free. However, unreported problems can lead to dire consequences - like those in Seattle.

To avoid the kinds of pitfalls with testing that Handwerk mentioned, Stephen Wilde, the president of the EVT Certification Commission, Inc., said it's important to find technicians who are well-qualified and versed in electronics and computer controls.

With more than 35 years experience repairing emergency vehicles, Wilde is also committee chairman of the NFPA 1071, Standard for Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications committee.

Those standards clearly state that people who work on fire apparatus and emergency equipment must know how to do electronic diagnostics and be able to effectively work on the high-tech equipment on apparatus. He recommends that anyone with responsibilities for maintaining apparatus, or ordering it done, become familiar with the terms of the document.

"A lot of people have never heard of it," Wilde said. "It spells out specifically what is required of a qualified technician."

And Handwerk said that's a good thing.

"Why would you let anyone who is not qualified touch your apparatus?" Handwerk asked. "It just doesn't make sense."

Qualified Maintenance

Wilde, who is also president of Certified Fleet Services, Inc., a service center for fire apparatus and ambulance repairs in the Metro Chicago area, said there are too many chiefs willing to consign apparatus maintenance to firefighters who may not be qualified for the job.

"I don't go running into burning buildings and firefighters shouldn't be doing [intensive] vehicle inspections," Wilde said.

Wilde said he believes that the fire service is in a "transition period" where there's still a lot of basic apparatus on the road with more high-tech vehicles coming on line each day.

Old or new, apparatus still needs preventative maintenance (PM), but that work is becoming more sophisticated these days, Wilde said.

"A PM isn't just doing an oil change," Wilde said. "It's a lot more than that today."

Today, technicians need to know all about on-board diagnostic (OBD) computers and know how to interpret the communications between apparatus and the diagnostic tools.

In his shop, Wilde said technicians have laptops and access to more than $8,000 of computer software just to do their jobs.

"Fire trucks are very complicated and, unlike personal vehicles, you don't trade them in every three years," Wilde said. "So, there has to be a lot of preventative maintenance and diagnostic work to keep them performing well."

A classic example how different fire apparatus is today, compared to yesteryear, is the throttle - the good old accelerator pedal. Years ago, it was mechanical with a cable that physically actuated the accelerator. Today, it's done by electronic Throttle Position Sensor (TPS) technology that interprets where the pedal is and accelerates the engine accordingly.