Report: Long-Term Wear Caused Ariz. Aerial Mishap

March 4, 2013
An expert has issued a report stating lack of maintenance was a significant cause of an uncontrolled slide of about 40 feet of Green Valley's ladder truck that injured five people.

Last year’s firetruck ladder accident resulted from long-term wear that should have been obvious to anyone with a trained eye, a Department of Public Safety detective told the Green Valley fire board Wednesday.

The DPS investigation, which was requested by the Green Valley Fire District, is the only publicly available probe into the cause of the accident. The four civilians injured in the August incident have filed notices that they plan to sue the district and Detective Terry Johnson said after the fire board meeting that he expects he will be called into court as a witness.

Johnson provided the district with a voluminous report on the investigation. He told the board a variety of factors were involved, including a lack of training for the fire district’s eight engineers on how to maintain the ladder; a lack of documentation on how often fire district staff tested and did maintenance work on the ladder; and lack of specific maintenance guidelines from the truck manufacturer, Sutphen Corp. of Amlin, Ohio. In addition, the civilians injured were not given Civilian Observer release forms as required under a GVFD policy.

Sutphen’s Director of Service, T. Robert Meyer, said Friday in an email to the Green Valley News that the company agrees that the snapping of the two steel cables caused the accident and that the company, along with other parties, are investigating the reasons, including whether the maintenance-related issues raised by Johnson played a role.

Meyer noted that the DPS investigation was limited to the first weeks after the accident, while Sutphen, GVFD and others have engaged in two lengthier examination of the truck. Those include a daylong inspection at Station 151 in Green Valley in late September and a weeklong examination in late January at Sutphen’s facility in Ohio, where the ladder was taken apart in preparation for being rebuilt and returned to service.

Meyer did not offer an explanation for why the cables snapped.

Lack of training

Firetruck engineers interviewed by Johnson during his investigation said they did not think they had been adequately trained on how to maintain the ladder truck, in particular on how often to lubricate the pulleys, also called sheaves.

The ladder extends to 100 feet in five sections, several of which are controlled by two steel cables. The cables each pass through a pulley and the ladder partly collapsed after small fiberglass composite pulley parts called bushings failed because of long-term wear.

The ladder truck was delivered to GVFD in April 2010. The bushings wore out Aug. 15, causing the pulleys to seize two steel cables that control the ladder and causing the cables to snap and the ladder to slide down uncontrollably, Johnson told the board. The ladder slid down about 40 feet, injuring five people, including four civilians who were in a fire bucket at the top of the ladder as part of a public relations event and one firefighter.

The ladder is being rebuilt in Ohio and should be back in service by late March, Fire Chief Simon Davis said.

In just over two years of service, Johnson said the ladder truck was used in one rescue as well as in training and public relations activities.

“For the most part, the truck has been utilized during public relations demonstrations, training and in one rescue,” he said.

Johnson asked the Phoenix Fire Department to conduct an independent review of the GVFD truck and concluded, Johnson said, “the failure did not occur overnight. The failure occurred over a period of time.”

“The cable failure was caused by the bushings in the pulley being completely worn away and the pulleys and pins sustained extensive damage,” the PFD told Johnson.

In a slide presentation Johnson said evidence showed the ladder was being lubricated and inspected at times, but he could not determine from GVFD records how often that occurred.

“They (PFD) thought with a trained eye, the pulley damage would have been obvious and could have been caught long before a failure occurred,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the operating and service manual given GVFD by the manufacturer contained contradictory time lines on how often the pulleys should be lubricated, including periodically, annually and after every 10 hours of service, but elsewhere said the truck should be virtually “maintenance free.”

GVFD engineers said they received about one hour of training from Sutphen, mostly on operation of the ladder, not maintenance.

Annual inspections

The Sutphen 100 ladder truck underwent annual inspections in September 2010 and August 2011 and was within two weeks of another annual inspection when it failed.

The day after the accident, Sutphen officials said the cables should be tightened so they have a half-inch of drop, or sag, but that information is not included in the Sutphen Operator and Service Manual. Only one of the eight GVFD engineers told Johnson he had made a minor adjustment to a cable.

The truck was supposed to get a partial inspection daily and a more detailed two-hour inspection weekly, but at least 100 times the duty engineers did not document the inspections, Johnson said.

Johnson said that other Sutphen trucks have had ladder failures in Bluffton, S.C. (four); Chillicothe, Ohio; Palm Beach County, Fla.; and Sedona (two). However, Sutphen’s Meyer said Friday that all of the other cases “were attributed to user service and maintenance issues.” The ladder is designed with two pulleys so that one could back up the other and Meyer said none of the other cases involved two pulleys seizing in place at the same time, as occurred in Green Valley.

Both Johnson of DPS and GVFD Chief Davis said they had to decline comment because of the potential lawsuits. The victims’ lawyer did not respond to several inquiries.

Meyer said Sutphen has not been sued or notified about any impending suit over the Aug. 15 incident.

Philip Franchine | 547-9738

Copyright 2013 Green Valley News & SunDistributed by Newsbank, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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