Finding Qualified Technicians is Key to Apparatus Maintenance

Jan. 4, 2010
Fire apparatus are sophisticated, complicated machinery and, generally, it's best to leave repairs and maintenance to trained professionals. Certified Emergency Vehicle Technicians (EVTs) can be found in privately owned shops and dealerships as well as municipally-owned maintenance facilities. and Firehouse magazine talked to several around the nation to get there take on the best practices for apparatus maintenance.

Fire apparatus are sophisticated, complicated machinery and, generally, it's best to leave repairs and maintenance to trained professionals. Certified Emergency Vehicle Technicians (EVTs) can be found in privately owned shops and dealerships as well as municipally-owned maintenance facilities. and Firehouse magazine talked to several around the nation to get there take on the best practices for apparatus maintenance.

Glenn Davis, the founder and owner of Lakes Region Fire Apparatus Inc., an apparatus service center and HME/Ahrens-Fox dealer in Tamworth, N.H., is one of those technicians solicited for information.

Davis, who is very close to earning his master's certification as an EVT, said it's very important departments find qualified people to work on their apparatus. A mechanic with a tool box, a pick up and a business card isn't enough qualifications to work on fire trucks.

"You should ask to see the certifications on the people who will be doing work on your apparatus," Davis said. "Do your due diligence. Apparatus maintenance is expensive and you want to make sure you're getting what you paid for."

Apparatus today are sophisticated machines with complex components that not every shop will know how to maintain.

"If your shop doesn't know what VMUX is, you should walk out and find another shop," Davis said, referring to a type of electrical system found on many modern apparatus.

Davis is also big on the need to document all repairs and maintenance. It will show the overall condition of the apparatus and any trending. It can also be used to forecast when major repairs or replacement might be necessary. Any time he works on a truck, a permanent record is made and kept on file for future reference.

As a firefighter with more than 25 years in the service, Davis recognized the need for good, qualified apparatus maintenance and started his business in 1991 and now operates one of the largest businesses of its kind in New England, servicing at least 300 apparatus annually. He employs five full-time certified EVTs and makes "house calls" to dozens of departments.

To get started with a maintenance program, Davis recommends a baseline inspection of the fleet and a detailed report of the strengths and deficiencies of each particular apparatus.

And the best way to do that is to assign the task to one person.

"Somebody has to be in charge of the department's maintenance program," Davis says, suggesting the chief engineer could be assigned the task, or the chief. "Each department needs one guy who is accountable for apparatus and equipment and that should include chainsaws, portable pumps, generators and positive pressure fans." That's all stuff that rides on apparatus and needs to work when it's needed, Davis says.

For the Madison, Wis., Fire Department, the one guy who is in charge of all the apparatus stuff is Bill Vanden Brook, the Fleet Service Superintendent for Wisconsin's capital city.

In 1997, the fire department came to Vanden Brook to ask him about maintaining the department's apparatus.

"They were sorely lacking, in house, with personnel to handle a maintenance schedule," said Vanden Brook. "They had some concerns on how the preventative maintenance was being handled."

So, Vanden Brook, who is a Certified Equipment Manager, said he'd take a look and make some recommendations, including the need to look at weight issues on some of the apparatus and the need to eliminate the habit of firefighters being allowed to drop by with their apparatus at a moment's notice to take care of sometimes trivial items that distracted from the preventative maintenance that needed to be done.

Vanden Brook is the kind of guy who believes that firefighters are very good at what they do and should be given good, well-maintained equipment.

"They put the wet stuff on the red stuff and we are the ones who get them there and get them home," said.

Vanden Brook says maintenance should begin when the apparatus first arrives at the station.

"We record all the information about the apparatus when we first get it, not only to make sure we got what we paid for, but to make sure we have all the fluids and the filters and materials we need to maintain the apparatus properly," he says. "There are lots of little things to take care of. The devil is in the detail when it comes to preventative maintenance."

John Finley, president and CEO of Finley Fire Equipment Co., McConnelsville, Ohio, says the key to an effective maintenance program is documentation. "There are many, many computer programs available to help departments keep records of their maintenance," says Finley who is the owner of one of the nation's largest Pierce dealerships and service centers, handling the apparatus needs of more than 700 departments in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. "If nothing else, do it with paper and pen. Keep track of all your pump tests, all the receipts of all the work you've done and keep a file on each apparatus in your fleet."

Finley also recommends that all maintenance be done in accordance with the manufacturers' specifications. Most components, such as pumps, engines and transmissions, require servicing that's based on miles or hours while some components will require maintenance on a calendar schedule, he says.

Finley, who has been a volunteer firefighter since 1976, held ranks up to assistant chief, and is now an assistant chief with the M&M Vol. Fire Department (an ISO Class 3 department), also recommends departments custom tailor check sheets for each apparatus as each will have peculiarities.

"Most departments don't have two identical rigs," says Finley, who has 23 service technicians in his shops. "Each rig is a little different. Some are a little older; some may be equipped just a little differently. It's important to note all of those details."

Finley Fire Equipment's Regional Service Manager, Rick Pugsley, who works in the company's Twinsburg, Ohio, facility, recommends that departments that purchase new equipment should also purchase service contracts through there dealers just to make sure the apparatus is taken care of by factory certified technicians. Dealers often will sell contracts to care for a variety of apparatus.

Pugsley is also the chief of the Newburgh Heights (Ohio) Fire Department, so he understands, first hand, the importance of maintenance. He also understands the need to juggle finances.

"I'd like to change the oil in my rigs twice a year, but my city councilors will only let me do it once a year," says Pugsley, who has been chief of the department 11 years. Fortunately, the department has late model front line apparatus that is in very good condition.

It wasn't always the case, however. Pugsley says that when he first became chief, the fleet was much older and had issues. He recalls a time a primer motor on a pump burned out at the scene of a fire and fried the apparatus' electrical system. It was a diesel apparatus with a mechanical shut off so it kept running.

"We kept pumping through the fire, even after the batteries went dead," Pugsley says, recalling an event he'd just as soon forget. "We got it back to the station and shut it off and that was it. It wouldn't start again. We had to have it towed and fixed. I don't remember how much it was to fix it, but the councilors were not happy."

Making sure things like that don't happen is Kevin Shoup's full-time work as supervisor of fire apparatus for the Dayton (Ohio) Fire Department. In that role, he also has responsibilities for Dayton Emergency Vehicle Services, a municipally-owned business that contracts with several other fire departments in the region to provide maintenance for their apparatus. The shop employs six technicians, Shoup says.

In addition to all the normal things apparatus have, Shoup points out many have generators that require maintenance. And many of those are operated with hydraulics which are filled with fluids that must be kept clean and fresh.

"They always have to be ready to go," he says of hydraulic systems, which also make up the major driving components of aerials as well.

Shoup notes that fire apparatus are almost always required to run at greater than normal operating temperatures. They must be revved high while at a stationary position which eliminates the air flow normally available for trucks in motion, and, they often must be operated next to working fires which also increases the ambient air temperatures. Therefore, the cooling systems must be maintained impeccably and the belt and hose conditions must be monitored closely to prevent failure due to heat fatigue.

Apparatus maintenance begins with the eyes, Shoup says noting that he always just looks at an apparatus to figure out what's wrong with it.

"You need to open up your eyes and look at lots of stuff," Shoup says. "You'll be able to fill up a whole notebook full of stuff if you look closely enough."

Next, it's important to take a test drive and notice more stuff that might require hands on inspection and diagnostics, he says.

Too often, Shoup says he encounters departments that have taken vehicles to truck shops not familiar with fire apparatus and end up not getting what they expect.

"They pay good money for bad work," he says. That's why he also feels it's important for departments to vet their service centers.

Shoup says even paying attention to little things like wiper blade condition and seat cushion bolstering make a difference in vehicle and firefighter performance.

"Wiper blades deteriorate even if they sit inside and don't get used much," he says. "And, seat cushions always break down because firefighters slide out of the seats."

Shoup has one bit of advice for all departments who seek to keep their apparatus in good repair and performing optimally: "You have to have someone in charge of it and make sure it gets done."

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