Firehouse® Roundtable Apparatus Maintenance

Dec. 29, 2009
Fire apparatus that won't start, breaks down enroute to a call or, worst of all, fails at the scene of a fire can have catastrophic consequences. That's why having an apparatus maintenance program is vital to fire department operations.

Fire apparatus that won't start, breaks down enroute to a call or, worst of all, fails at the scene of a fire can have catastrophic consequences. That's why having an apparatus maintenance program is vital to fire department operations.

To help departments realize the importance of basic apparatus maintenance and develop programs to keep rigs safe and on the road, Firehouse® Magazine and have asked manufacturers and apparatus maintenance service departments around the nation for their recommendations and philosophies. This is first of at least four articles on the topic of apparatus maintenance planned for 2010. Coverage will be in print, expanded online and augmented with audio podcasts. See for expanded coverage.

Experts representing Darley, E-ONE, HME/Ahrens-Fox, Pierce, Rosenbauer/Central States and Spartan, and mechanics and service people from emergency vehicle maintenance centers in Dayton, OH, and Madison, WI, are unanimous in believing that apparatus maintenance should be a high priority, not only to keep the vehicles on the road and safer, but to make sure they perform when needed most.

"Apparatus is called out when a significant event is happening," says Billy Miles, E-ONE's director of operations, service and support. "I tell all my guys to treat the trucks like they were coming to save your wife, or your mother, or your child. …I know if it was my life on the line, I'd appreciate the firefighters being able to get there, do their job and get me to the hospital quickly."

For that to happen, batteries must be sufficiently charged for the vehicles to start, oil and filters have to be reasonably clean, brakes must function properly and myriad other mechanical components must work flawlessly. In these challenging economic times, it's easy to skip preventive maintenance. It costs money and the effects of neglect won't show up for months or years, but when they do, the neglect invariably costs more than the maintenance would have.

"It's a juggling act, no question," says Miles, who has been in the firefighting and apparatus maintenance field for 30 years, the last three with E-ONE, an apparatus maker based in Ocala, FL. "It's easy to cut the preventative maintenance budget, but the most cost-saving measure is preventative maintenance."

And it's never too early to start an apparatus maintenance program, says Glenn Davis, the founder and owner of Lakes Region Fire Apparatus Inc., an apparatus service center and HME/Ahrens-Fox dealer in Ossipee, NH. With front-line pumpers costing $350,000 to $500,000 and up, Davis recommends departments budget at least $3,000 for preventive maintenance in the first year. It should be a built-in cost of doing business when buying new apparatus and is an investment that pays dividends in the long run, he says. Preventive maintenance should begin with delivery, he adds.

Davis, who has been a firefighter in New Hampshire for more than 25 years, is a certified Emergency Vehicle Technician (EVT) and just a few credits shy of a master's certificate. He has been in the apparatus service business since 1991 and operates one of the largest shops in New England, servicing at least 300 apparatus annually. He employs five full-time certified EVTs and makes "house calls" to dozens of departments.

Most of the departments Davis works for do not have their own technicians and service departments and he does full service from chassis lubrication to pump testing to major overhauls. Davis advises departments to check the credentials of those they do business with to make sure the people working on apparatus are EVT certified. "You should ask to see the certifications on the people who will be doing work on your apparatus," Davis says. "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 says, 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 apparatus and any trending. It can also be used to forecast when major repairs or replacement may be necessary. Any time he works on an apparatus, a permanent record is made and kept on file for future reference.

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. "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, WI, Fire Department, the one person 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 asked Vanden Brook about maintaining its apparatus.

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

So, Vanden Brook, who is a Certified Equipment Manager, says he would take a look and make some recommendations, including the need to look at weight issues on some 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 preventive maintenance that needed to be done.

Vanden Brook 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," he says.

Vanden Brook also 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. in McConnelsville, OH, 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 owns 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 manufacturers' specifications. Most components, such as pumps, engines and transmissions, require servicing 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, is an assistant chief with the M&M Volunteer Fire Department (an ISO Class 3 department), also recommends that 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 Regional Service Manager Rick Pugsley, who works in the company's Twinsburg, OH, facility, recommends that departments that purchase new equipment should also buy service contracts through dealers to be 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, OH, 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 for 11 years. Fortunately, the department's late-model front-line apparatus are in very good condition. It wasn't always the case, however. Pugsley says that when he first became chief, the fleet was much older. 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 shutoff, so it kept running.

"We kept pumping through the fire, even after the batteries went dead," Pugsley says. "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."

Todd Chapman is one of those called when something goes wrong and he helps to make it work again. Chapman is the technical services supervisor for Spartan Chassis, a division of Spartan Motors, a maker of custom fire cabs and chassis. Many apparatus manufacturers, large and small, use Spartan cabs and chassis.

"A fire truck has to go when the bell rings," Chapman says. That's why Spartan has extensive training programs to teach EVTs, dealers, mechanics and even end users (the firefighters) about the maintenance of all components of a fire truck. Chapman is a strong advocate of the importance of using trained and qualified people to work on apparatus, particularly when it comes to brakes. "If you are not an EVT, absolutely don't touch the brakes," Chapman says. "…They're often the most frequently overlooked part of an apparatus."

Chapman says that firefighters and engineers should, however, check the free play of the brake slack adjusters, much like one would do for a pre-trip inspection by an operator with a commercial driver's license (CDL), by hand only. No one, except those expertly trained, should go near brakes with a wrench or a tool, he says. And there are many other systems that should be serviced by qualified technicians, like electrical, heating and cooling, and suspension and steering systems.

Chapman is also a proponent of using the correct fluids and filters, even down to the brand names and models.

"You just can't go out and buy the El Cheapo brand filters or fluids and expect the same performance," Chapman says. "They just won't do the job." He added that he likes synthetic oils and extended-life coolants, all of which cost more, but last longer and, in the long run, pay huge dividends in reduced maintenance costs and prolonged apparatus life.

"You get what you pay for," he says.

Bill Foster, vice president and member of the board of directors of Spartan Motors, has been the point man for the annual Spartan Chassis Fire Truck Training Conference for each of the 16 years the company has sponsored the event, held in August. It offers training on pumps, compressed air foam systems (CAFS), steering, engines, transmissions, electrical systems, tires and suspensions with support from component builders.

Foster, who is a co-founder of Spartan Motors and a firefighter for more than 30 years, is an advocate of technician training right down to the micro level.

"You can't fix a problem unless you know its root cause," he says. "If you've got a problem, you've got to diagnose it to fix it." Too many technicians are just "parts changers" these days, Foster says. To fix a problem, the technician needs to know why that component failed in the first place. It could be something as simple as a poor battery ground, but until that problem is fixed, changing the part isn't the solution, he says.

"People like to have good working trucks," Foster says.

The trend today is to make more things "maintenance free," but Foster cautions it doesn't exempt mechanics from checking the trucks over. "Even those systems need to be monitored," he says. "They can sometimes fail or need to be serviced."

Apparatus that is used carefully and built well can, however, be relatively low maintenance, says Harold Boer, president of Rosenbauer America, Central States Division in Lyons, SD.

"Keeping a truck in good repair and well maintained really isn't that difficult," says Boer, who is chief of the Lyons Fire Department and a builder of fire apparatus since the mid-1970s. He says his department uses a checklist that includes checking fluid levels routinely, checking batteries and connections, and exercising equipment by kicking pumps in and out of gear, opening and closing valves, checking primer motors and generally making sure everything is moving and working as expected. Tire pressure is also important and should be checked occasionally, especially if a problem is suspected, Boer says. And like everybody in the fire service, Boer stresses the importance of brakes being properly adjusted and performing 100%.

"You want to make sure you don't have any leaking valves or vacuum leaks," Boer says. "You might find you need a few more RPMs to get the same performance out of a pump than you did a year ago. Some of that should be expected with older apparatus, but if it's a lot, it could be a problem."

For W.S. Darley & Co., with facilities in Itasca, IL, and Chippewa Falls, WI, pumps have been a staple for more than a century. Each year, the company hosts training sessions at the factory and at various events around the country.

Lairy Normand is a sales application engineer for Darley and an instructor for the company. Like Boer, Normand is a proponent of annual pump testing and regular maintenance and says that, like engines, pumps need regular oil changes at 50 hours of operation or every six months, whichever comes first. Keeping the oil level full is also important, he says. "The big midship pumps have dip sticks on them now making it easy to check the oil," Normand says. And, pumps equipped with CAF systems now have air filters that need service, he adds.

Darley makes filter kits for its pumps and Normand says he does not recommend straying from manufacturers' requirements. There are times when filters will look exactly like those that come from the factory, but they perform differently and can, sometimes, adversely affect operations. "It's not a good idea to outsource filters," Normand says.

Pumps are equipped with electronic controls, pressure-relief valves as well as pump seals and valves, all of which must be working in concert and at peak to get the most out of the pump's performance, Normand says. Leaky valves will mean the apparatus will have difficulty drafting, Normand adds, noting that valves need maintenance and occasional rebuilding. Sticky valves can be remedied with silicone sprayed into the intake or discharges, right on the balls behind the caps. Driveshafts that run pumps also require maintenance and packing nuts need adjusting occasionally too, and there are foam systems that require care to work properly, Normand says. "A truck well cared for in the fire hall will perform well on the scene," he adds.

Caring for apparatus is Kevin Shoup's full-time work as supervisor of fire apparatus for the Dayton, OH, 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.

Shoup notes that fire apparatus are almost always required to run at greater than normal operating temperatures. They must be revved high while in 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 belts and hoses must be monitored closely to prevent failure due to heat fatigue.

Apparatus maintenance begins with the eyes, Shoup says, noting that he 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 may 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 that 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."

ED BALLAM, a staff writer for, is a firefighter with the Haverhill Corner, NH, Fire Department, a nationally certified EMT, and holds certifications in emergency vehicle operations and pump operations. He is a former managing editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment magazine.

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