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.

"There was a time you would step on the accelerator and the engine would speed up, almost no matter what," Wilde said. That's no longer the case as the engines, in both commercial and custom apparatus, have electronic controls that communicate with the transmission, the pump and the operator.

All of those components, and more, operate with electricity and Wilde said that's why it's important that firefighters and technicians take apparatus through operational checks on a regular basis.

Because wiring and electrical signals almost always need grounds to complete the circuit, corroded wiring grounds (commonly found on apparatus) can wreak havoc with electrical systems and the controls connected to it.

A well-qualified technician could find that problem in minutes, using computerized diagnostic equipment, whereas it might take six or eight hours to trace wiring the old-fashioned way, Wilde said.

Worse, having unqualified people messing around with high-tech electronic gear can actually cause more damage, Wilde said. He noted that a fire department with which he is familiar shorted out a $4,000 engine control module simply because they didn't understand how it worked.

"That's an expensive lesson to learn," he said.

A fad that seemed to catch on a few short years ago, multiplex wiring of apparatus, seems to be waning a bit, Wilde said. It seemed to be state of the art for a while, but he's noticed a trend going back to more old-school wiring, a move he welcomes. The standard automotive wiring is generally more reliable and is more user and mechanic friendly. Hacking into a multiplex wiring system on apparatus today, for a user-installed accessory, can do serious harm to the electrical system and, perhaps, even render it out of service.

"Multiplex was a way research and development could write out the competition that couldn't do it," Wilde said, noting that many departments are rejecting the high-tech multiplexing systems in bids currently. "Today, everybody is doing multiplexing so it's not a good tool for that any longer."

Is High-Tech Right for You?

For all their pluses and minuses, Wilde said high-tech components have improved fire apparatus on a number of fronts, foremost for electric load management and efficiencies.

"Nine out of 10 times, or more, they work perfectly," Wilde said. "And when you're talking about thousands of jobs a month, that's a good average."

Brown, from the SMFRA Fleet Services Bureau, said the average fire truck these days has up to eight computers onboard, and that's not including the mobile data terminal (MDT) laptop in the cab for fireground operations.

The best way for a firefighter to maintain those units is to exercise them and document their performance, he said.

"You can't pencil whip the inspection documents," Brown said. "Everything on the inspection has to work and you have to document that it does. If it doesn't you need to report it to someone that it's not working."

There are some things that will most likely require some dealer's or manufacturer's intervention to repair or troubleshoot, said KME's Jason Witmier.

Event Data Recorders (or the proverbial "black box" for apparatus) and airbag and rollover protection devices are a couple of examples of components that might need factory involvement to fix, Witmier said.

"There's nothing user-serviceable on any of those components," he said.

For Handwerk, there's a fundamental issue to all the high-tech components on apparatus these days.

"Are you sure you should have bought all that [stuff] in the first place?" Handwerk asked. "If you are going to buy all that high-tech stuff, the electronic whiz-bangy stuff, then you better be willing to pay the high-tech price to maintain it," he said. "...If you don't test it, per NFPA 1911, you're going to have some real problems."