Be Your Own Apparatus Mechanic

By MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO

One of 2009’s most notable line-of-duty deaths was the January 9 death of Boston Fire Department (BFD) Lieutenant Kevin Kelley, a 30-year BFD veteran who was killed when the ladder truck (Ladder 26) he was riding in careened down a steep street, crashed into two parked cars, broke through a fence/barrier wall, and struck a building. This incident created a firestorm of finger pointing by the media, the union, and the politicians regarding who was responsible. No fire apparatus accident in recent memory has shed so much light on the issue of fire apparatus and emergency vehicle preventive maintenance and repair as this one.

I have been to many departments where the apparatus floor is covered with shiny, modern, well-maintained vehicles. I have also been to departments where a rusted rig with missing parts and equipment sits in the bay atop puddles of vital fluids in sheet metal pans with a garden hose continuously flowing water into its leaking water tank to keep the tank full in anticipation of the next run. When I see uncared for apparatus, I put most of the blame on the politicians and the government for the condition of the apparatus that serves and protects the citizens and firefighters. However, sometimes I also fault fire department internal politics and weak leadership for this predicament. After all, when was the last time you saw 15-year-old police vehicles or school buses driving around your neighborhood? Probably not as often as you see 15-plus-year-old fire apparatus.

Boston media sources have reported many key points about the BFD accident, but they also have printed reports alleging possible lack of driver knowledge about the vehicle’s mechanical safety and possible lack of departmentwide driver training for handling critical vehicle component or system failures. This article will focus on a recommended basic knowledge for a fire apparatus driver of his vehicle’s general mechanical safety and road readiness.

I do not expect fire apparatus drivers to be mechanics, but there is often a fine line between knowing and not knowing the basic mechanics and systems of the vehicle you are charged with operating safely. In most fire departments, drivers have a tremendous amount of experience with operating large commercial vehicles and their mechanics. Many firefighters have served in the military and may have had experience with these types of vehicles prior to their fire department service. Also, many volunteer members make their living as truck drivers or mechanics, or they work for local public schools, highway departments, and water or sewer departments and have some exposure to dump trucks, tractor backhoes, or school buses. Most career firefighters had civilian jobs prior to joining the fire department driving trucks or twisting wrenches, but what about the apparatus drivers who have never had this big rig, mechanical exposure? What should they know when they climb behind the wheel of their department’s pumper, tanker, or aerial device?

CAREER AND VOLUNTEER

In most cases, the items that you should check prior to driving a rig can be reviewed in five to 10 minutes. When examining apparatus, the only difference between being a career or volunteer firefighter is when to check these safety/mechanical items. In a career department, where firefighters work in house for shifts, the most logical time for the driver to examine the rig is when the shift changes. This way, the night driver and the day driver can compare notes. The volunteer system poses a bit more of a challenge for this routine because often people are not regularly scheduled to be in the firehouse. If they are, then do the same as the career members. When a volunteer enters the firehouse for a call and gets into the driver’s seat, it is not reasonable, based on the emergency at hand, that he complete a five- to 10-minute vehicle safety check, possibly delaying vital community services.

Put a system in place where truck house officers check apparatus weekly. However, this does not absolve the driver from having some responsibility for the basic knowledge of the vehicle’s critical systems and their condition prior to driving the rig. In many volunteer systems, firefighters respond from home; the rig often sits on the ramp awaiting a minimum crew to show up before it can roll. This wait time can provide a reasonably short window for a driver to complete a critical systems check, even if he is pressed for time, because of the nature of the business. So where does the line between driver and mechanic end?

THE “EYEBALL”

One of the most basic and important tasks the driver can complete is a general “eyeball” of the rig’s overall general condition. Now, some readers may be thinking, “When I walk up to my rig, I look it over and say to myself, ‘What a piece of junk.’” But even in departments with poor maintenance or low apparatus replacement budgets, drivers must “eyeball” the rig prior to driving it. You must recognize glaring safety defects or mechanical issues that stand out at first glance and which may result in an accident or incomplete response because of mechanical breakdown. The “eyeball” can recognize a flat or very soft tire, open or partially open compartment doors, broken glass, or vital fluids pooling under the rig. A driver should be able to recognize if a fluid under a rig is coolant, hose water, diesel fuel, or window washer fluid.

Also, make sure that equipment mounted on the rig’s exterior and the hose in the hosebeds or crosslays are properly secured and stowed. In the State of Pennsylvania in April 2004, a hose and nozzle hanging from a rig fatally struck a 10-year-old girl as the truck passed her. Although the quick “eyeball” prior to or after a response may not always catch all the issues, drivers should get into the habit of checking the rig to prevent accidents and incidents.

LIGHTING, SIRENS, AND HORNS

I cannot stress enough how important it is for emergency vehicle drivers to communicate their presence and intended actions to other motorists. The only way to do this is visually through lighting or hand signals or audibly by horn or siren. To take your rig out on the road, you MUST have working headlamps, turn signals, four-way hazards, backup lights, and tail/stop/turn lights. These basic lights are required on most vehicles by most states’ Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Transportation. If these items are not operational, repair them prior to driving the rig. Motorists, who may not use the lights themselves when they drive, will say that they didn’t see your brake lights or turn signals—if, in fact, they were not operational—and these nonworking lights contributed to an accident.

Obviously, it is important for an emergency response vehicle to have working National Fire Protection Association-compliant sirens, emergency lighting, and horns. However, if one bulb is out on a light bar, your vehicle is probably not going to be rendered out of service or at critical risk for an accident, but you must repair it as soon as possible. Lighting and audible devices on the rigs should always work.

MIRRORS

Large fire apparatus and other emergency vehicles have many more blind spots than do cars, trucks, and SUVs. For that reason, mirrors mounted on the rig are not optional. The mirrors should be intact; mounted properly so they do not change position while driving; and clean, free from cracks and cloudiness, and properly adjusted. Mirrors are not one-size-fits-all when it comes to their adjustment. Different drivers may have to adjust the mirrors to their visibility needs to ensure a good field of view and the rig’s overall safety.

TIRES AND WHEELS

The tires MUST be properly inflated. Poor tire inflation can lead to hydroplaning, loss of apparatus control, and a potential rollover. Also, periodically check tread to ensure safety. Front steer tires, in most cases, should have no less than 1⁄8 inch of tread depth, and the rear “duals” should have no less than 1⁄16-inch depth. Check for nails, screws, and other items that may be stuck in the tire and for sidewall damage or bulges that could flatten a tire under stress of operation.

Another key point to remember about fire apparatus tires is that quite often departments that do not log many runs are housing 15-year-old rigs with only 10,000 miles and the original set of tires on them. Tires can begin to break down around their fifth or sixth year of service, so even if you have great tread depth and low miles, the tires are aging and may need to be replaced even though they do not meet the normal criteria of being worn.

Also, drivers need to check all of the rig’s lug nuts to make sure they are all present and show no signs of rust or paint chafe underneath them; that is a clear sign that the lug nuts may be coming loose. Every now and then, tighten the lug nuts to make sure they are tight and seated correctly.

INSIDE THE RIG

Every seating surface should have an operational seat belt; some rigs are so old they may not have seat belts. Again, budgets may hamper you from obtaining a shiny new rig, so make do with what you have, but if your rig’s seat belts do not work, it is because of a lack of maintenance and derelict behavior, not budget. Get working belts in older rigs by replacing or retrofitting them. If people are not properly belted, the rig should not be rolling. Also make sure that heaters, defrosters, wipers, and interior lighting are operational. Even if it is not raining when you respond to a call, the weather can change or another vehicle can hit a puddle and unexpectedly kick up all kinds of mud or slush onto your windshield.

HIT THE BRAKES

The braking system is the most important system that needs to be free of defects and deficiencies; it is also the system that requires actual mechanical knowledge, experience, and tools to maintain properly. However, a driver who has limited mechanical knowledge can still recognize potential brake problems. The driver should never just roll the apparatus out of the firehouse and onto the roadway without testing the brakes. Make sure the brakes have a minimum of 90 pounds or more of building air, let the rig roll a few feet, and firmly depress the brake pedal. The rig should come to a complete stop and should not pull to one side, have leaking tires, or have grinding brake components. During downtime, routinely crank the wheels to both the left and right, inspect the wheel well with a flashlight, and check critical suspension and steering and braking components.

Shocks should be free from leaks and connected to the vehicle on each end; springs should be in place and held together with properly bolted shackles (bolts should have nuts on the other ends); and vehicles with air bag suspension should have bags that are not torn, punctured, or cracked. For air brakes, the air feed hose should be connected on both ends, and the push rod should be connected to the slack adjuster with a pin and cotter key. A qualified technician should complete any adjustments or service on brakes or slack adjusters.

Although this may seem like a great deal of knowledge to have or too much for a driver to check prior to a response, once you become familiar with these items, you will only need a few minutes to check your rig. The most important parts of an apparatus maintenance program are regular preventive maintenance and timely repairs from QUALIFIED technicians and regularly replacing old rigs. If your rig is poorly maintained and there is an accident involving significant property damage, injury, or death, the buck is going to stop with somebody.

MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO is a 25-year volunteer firefighter and chairman of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company board of directors. He has instructed at FDIC and is a trainer for the fire service, the public transportation industry, and certified commercial vehicle drivers. Dallessandro also operates the Web site www.respondsmart.com.

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