How safe is your aerial? We hear about and see aerial accidents frequently. As experienced firefighters, we realize that a high percentage of accidents are caused by driver-operator errors. Among them are short jacking, overloading the aerial, and failing to clear overhanging electrical lines. General ignorance also contributes to accidents. We seem to have enough problems with human error; we don`t want to add to them by using an unsafe or unreliable aerial. That would be foolish and illogical. Annual ladder testing will ensure that at least the ladder and turntable are relatively safe and free from metal fatigue, cracks, and twists; that all the bolts have been properly tightened and secured; and that the hydraulic system operates smoothly and is free of leaks.

The firefighter climbing and swinging from the ladder need not worry that the aerial he is using may be unsafe. He has seen the video footage of ladders failing with firefighters on them. Because this firefighter knows of your maintenance program and can rest assured that the department has the inspection done every year, he can do his job without extra worries.

We all know that in the real world, things happen–ladders will fail; accidents will occur. But, we are ultimately responsible to do everything within our power to prevent accidents.


•Firefighter safety. In the fire service, firefighter safety is foremost. Firefighters injured because of a ladder failure deprive the incident scene of the other working firefighters who must now attend to his rescue.

•Public safety. Rescued victims as well as people on the ground have died or been injured when the aerial has gone down.

•Liability. Imagine the department`s liability in the case of a failed aerial if no annual inspection records are found after an injury or a death has occurred.

•NFPA required. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1914, Standard for Testing Fire Department Aerial Devices–1997, mandates annual testing. If you build and specify an aerial to NFPA requirements, why would you not want to maintain and test that same aerial to the same standards?

•Insurance requirements. Some insurance companies require that this testing be done; others adjust premiums to reflect the scheduled testing and results.

•Firefighter peace of mind. To do his job, a firefighter needs to know that the equipment is safe.

•Identify potential problems. A thorough inspection reveals small problems that may lead to major ones. This is also cost-effective. Small problems are usually less expensive to repair than larger ones.

•Future action. Annual testing can help determine the future of the apparatus. If numerous problems are found year after year, it may be time to replace the unit.


NFPA 1914 prescribes two types of testing–the annual test and the five-year nondestructive test. The annual test was designed so that fire department personnel can perform it. Some special equipment is needed, along with trained personnel. Some personnel certification programs and standards that address the qualifications of the personnel doing the annual testing and also the maintenance requirements for aerials are in place; additional ones are being developed (see “Qualifications of Testing Personnel”).

The standard states that “aerial testing must be done annually.” It also must be done after any major repair of any aerial component, after any unusual operating stress or load if usage has exceeded recommended operating procedures, and if there is any reason to question the safety of the device.

A department can do its own annual testing. The standard does require qualified personnel to inspect and operate the aerial device during the testing. Only the five-year testing requires a third party.

There are advantages to doing the annual testing in-house. The most obvious is the cost. In addition, who knows the aerial better than those doing the regular maintenance?

Third-party testing can be considered for the annual testing. It can be a nationally known company, the manufacturer, or an independent shop. Third-party testing may bring peace of mind to the administration. If third-party testing is used, however, the entire test should be witnessed by fire department personnel.

The five-year test is specialty testing that requires a third party. The individual performing the test must be certified to do the nondestructive test specified in the standard. A department may need this five-year test more frequently, depending on usage. I know some departments that do this nondestructive test yearly for liability concerns. Again, the five-year nondestructive test should be done immediately if the aerial has been subjected to undue stress, fire impingement, an accident, or unusual use. Just the desire to confirm the unit`s operational safety would be enough reason to subject it to the five-year testing protocol.

Inspecting the aerial takes patience. Choose an inspector who will do the following:

•conduct a thorough visual inspection,

•follow a systematic sequence,

•pay attention to detail,

•detect any visible defects,

•detect any other type of damage,

•identify improperly secured parts, and

•inspect all welds for fractures.

Consider local factors, such as weather, water supply, and location, when scheduling the testing: Does the unit have to be outside for testing? Does your department have a slow time of year? Is a good water supply available at only certain times of the year? Is there a rainy season? Avoid testing in midsummer in the Deep South and in midwinter in the North woods. Pick a nonwindy spot; the wind must be less than 10 mph. The area must be level, to enable you to have a firm footing.


Before annual testing, make sure to have available, and review, the past maintenance records, reports, and driver write-ups. Review all repairs made in the past year. Repair anything that might interfere with passing the tests. Thoroughly clean the apparatus (such as steam cleaning) to uncover any visible defects. Inspect all warning signs and the load limit indicator. Check to see that all safety devices operate. Verify that all controls operate normally. Flow the waterway; adjust the flowmeter and relief valve(s). Have the regular maintenance personnel inspect and service the ladder. Scheduling the change of the hydraulic filters and adjustment of the cables just before testing makes sense and could make a difference in whether the device passes or fails the test.

Before testing, have available the specifications of the aerial, including the following:

•year and manufacture shop order number,

•rated load specifications,

•bolt grade and torque values,

•cylinder drift tolerance, and

•hydraulic relief pressure.

If third-party testing, the testing company should supply a list of the specs it will require to properly do the test.

Additional specifications needed for the five-year test include hardness for aluminum devices and I-beam base-rail thickness.


There are many third-party testing companies. Check the services they offer. Some questions to ask include the following:

•How long have you been in business?

•How long have you been performing aerial inspections?

•Is the person doing the test properly qualified or certified to do the job?

•Are you equipped to test to the NFPA 1914 standard?

•Do you use free hanging weights for the load test?

•Do you have the proper bolt-tightening equipment?

•Do you pressurize and flow the waterway using recently calibrated gauges and flow-measuring equipment?

•Will you supply the proper documentation?

In addition, check the liability aspect. Make sure the party is properly insured and can be bonded.

If inspection and test reveal structural problems with the aerial, you must place the aerial out of service. Consult the manufacturer when you find any structural defects. You must have the unit reinspected after the repairs are made.

Make sure you document all results and measurements. Compare all the measurements–such as backlash, twist, hardness, drift, and relief pressure– year after year.


Some fire departments recently have designed and built custom apparatus that should be subjected to more difficult yearly tests than were required by the standards in previous years. Other departments may have experienced ladder failures and thus want to be sure that everything has been done to avoid future casualties.

One of the concerns is the load testing. The 1914 standard tests the aerial at the rated load even though the ladder was built to withstand one and one-half times the rated load. However, when in service, the ladder is to be tested only at the rated load. If the tip is rated for 750 pounds, the tip load is tested only at 750 pounds. This is how the ladder was designed and built. To test the ladder at more than the rated load, after it has been in service, might be destructive and would be ill-advised.

The concerned departments have added the yearly aerial testing at one and one-half, two, or two and one-half times the rated load into the specs. Manufacturers were forced to build and rate the ladder to withstand the extra load year after year. Of course, this will increase the price of the apparatus, which will need to be taken into consideration. Sometimes, the extra safety does outweigh the price. Consider the use the ladder will see. Weigh all the factors when writing specs for an aerial unit. Don`t forget about any special angles or slopes at which the aerial will have to work. Specify maximum tip loads at those angles; if you feel the need, do yearly spec testing at these angles.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when buying a new aerial. The annual and five-year testing issues are rarely investigated.

Hopefully, a good maintenance program that includes testing will save your department money and keep the firefighters safe–because, after all, it`s all about safety. Let us all do what it takes to bring our firefighters back alive and unhurt from that major fire or rescue incident.

Qualifications of Testing Personnel

Emergency Vehicle Technician (EVT) Certification Program.

Recognized nationwide, this program primarily tests and certifies emergency vehicle technicians. It also has a certification level for the aerial technician. EVT-certified personnel or those who meet or exceed the same requirements of this program should perform the annual testing.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on the qualifications of the firefighter. Why wouldn`t the same rules apply to the personnel who repair, test, and maintain apparatus?

Certifying your personnel would satisfy the NFPA 1914, Standard for Testing Fire Department Aerial Devices–1997, requirement that states: “Only qualified persons, acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction, shall be allowed to operate the apparatus during the test procedures or to conduct any load tests. Most inspections and tests in this standard are intended to be performed by qualified fire department personnel.”

Proposed NFPA 1071.

This proposed document, Standard for Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications, describes the minimum qualifications and/or certifications a person has to attain to do repairs and maintenance on emergency response vehicles. The committee anticipates that this standard will be adopted during the Fall 2000 NFPA meeting.

This standard includes the qualifications needed for aerial testing. NFPA 1071 is definitely going to be a boost to the quality of repairs and testing of our apparatus. All professional technicians who repair and maintain emergency vehicles must meet these requirements.

Technicians can use both Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and EVT certification and continuing education to be qualified to do annual testing and repairs of aerial equipment. With the continual changes in aerials, electronics, hydraulics, and power drives, the apparatus technician must be qualified to do the job and must undertake continuing education.

Proposed NFPA 1915

The proposed NFPA 1915, Standard for Apparatus Preventative Maintenance Program, is also expected to be adopted at the Fall 2000 NFPA meeting. The general purpose of 1915 is to provide minimum standards for developing schedules for servicing and maintaining fire apparatus. The two documents (1071 and 1915) complement each other, and the two committees planned it so that they would come out at the same time.

The standard will require that departments either have or develop a preventative maintenance program and scheduled aerial testing. It also addresses the type of maintenance needed and when apparatus should be placed out of service. If an aerial does not pass the testing, the unit must be placed out of service until the repairs are made and the unit is retested.

Five-Year Testing

An ASNT (American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Inc.) Level II NDT (Nondestructive Testing) technician must do the nondestructive test work. A third-party company will do this testing. Make sure that the person doing the testing is properly certified.

(1) Checking the turntable bolts includes using a calibrated torque wrench and checking for the proper grade and all accessible bolts. Shown here is a five-year NDT check for internal flaws. (Photos by author.)

(2) A drift test for one hour at full extension is to be done annually.

(3) Annual top and bottom rail inspection includes checks for straightness, misalignment, excessive wear, ironing, dents, and corrosion.

(4) Free hanging weights are used at the rated live load for the load test.

(5) Before a new truck leaves the shop, a third party inspects the aerial device.

TERRY ECKERT, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter and head of apparatus maintenance in the Darien-Woodridge (IL) Fire District and the chief engineer of the Westmont (IL) Fire Department. He has 25 years of experience as a vehicle technician. He is an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)-certified master automobile technician and master heavy truck technician and an EVT Level 3 master technician. He also has ASE certification in advanced level engine performance. Eckert is a member of numerous professional associations, including the National Association of Emergency Vehicle Technicians (NAEVT) and the Illinois Fire Apparatus Mechanics Association. He is a member of the EVT Certification Commission, where he serves on the Validation Committee and had chaired the E-3 section, and the NFPA Technical Committee on Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications. He was the 1997 recipient of the NAEVT Certificate of Achievement Award.

No posts to display