ROUNDTABLE: APPARATUS MAINTENANCE AND REPAIR

Over the past few decades, significant technological advances made in fire apparatus have placed greater demands on maintenance and repair personnel. In the past, mechanically injected diesel engines with a standard transmission often drove simple pumps with one pair of master gauges and discharges controlled by manual linkage.

Now, electronics have overtaken the entire fire apparatus. Fuel to the diesel engine is now controlled by an electronic computer that communicates to other “brains” that control components such as the electronic transmission and pressure governor. Valves are electrically controlled and electronic meters read flow, engine temperature, oil pressure, voltage, and rpm. Hydraulic brakes were replaced by air brakes controlled by antilock braking system (ABS) sensors and computer. A simple generator or alternator, with an ammeter, to charge the vehicle batteries has the added element of load management to increase engine rpm and reduce unneeded loads during periods of battery discharge. To add to the complexity of these systems, “multiplexing” has been introduced. This allows the various computers to “communicate” with each other over a single pair of wires to control such functions as interlocks and turning electrical accessories “on” and “off.”

All of these advancements have contributed to a safer apparatus and have decreased the reliance on the human element to operate, but they have also made maintenance and repair functions more complex. It is safe to say that the days of the “shade tree mechanic” repairing apparatus with a test light and a pair of cutting pliers are gone. Diagnosing problems in these systems requires specialized computer readers with the proper software and, more important, a “technician’s” approach. In some areas, this has led to a serious problem.

In most jurisdictions, apparatus preventive maintenance and repair are performed in one of three ways:

  1. An outside repair facility or apparatus dealer is paid to care for the apparatus. Using the apparatus manufacturer’s repair facility or a private contractor specializing in fire apparatus will probably result in a well-maintained vehicle. The benefits of having experience in working on one particular brand of apparatus or of seeing a common problem surface numerous times are invaluable and can reduce downtime significantly. The disadvantage here is that labor costs for maintaining larger fleets could be quite sizable.
  2. The fire department maintains a shop facility and addresses some of the routine work. A shop facility under the direct control of the fire department can be a great way to maintain the apparatus. Budget, personnel schedules, maintenance intervals, parts inventory, and technician training can all be monitored and adjusted for best results. Obviously, the cost of wages, benefits, and facility maintenance must be considered.
  3. The municipal garage maintains the apparatus along with “ambulances, cop cars, and garbage trucks.” In many cases, the fire department has no control over preventive maintenance scheduling and apparatus repair. Without control of the funds being allocated and spent on vehicle maintenance, the fire department generally will have little input into the parts inventory, wages, or amount of overtime paid to the mechanics. The same is true for sending mechanics to seminars and training courses. Your fire apparatus could be competing for shop space and mechanics’ time with trash haulers, snow plows, and police cruisers. There are some excellent municipal shops that have dedicated fire mechanics and place a high priority on fire apparatus repair, but the comments I have heard relative to local public works shops while traveling around the country and meeting with firefighters are that the shops generally are poor.

    —William C. Peters, apparatus supervisor, Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, with the responsibility for purchasing and maintaining the apparatus fleet; a voting member of the NFPA 1901 Apparatus Committee; the author of Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook (Fire Engineering Books, 1994), two chapters on apparatus in The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995), and the instructional video Factory Inspections of New Fire Apparatus (Fire Engineering, 1998); and an advisory board member of Fire Engineering and the FDIC Educational Committee.

    Questions:

    • Who performs preventive maintenance (PM) and repairs for your fire apparatus? What type of facility is available for the work?
    • What interval is used for routine preventive maintenance (oil change, lubrication, filters, and other tasks)?
    • How is funding for apparatus repairs allocated?
    • How much control does the fire department have over PM and repairs?
    • Are you satisfied with the system? What would you do differently if you could?

    John (Skip) Coleman,
    deputy chief of operations
    Toledo (OH) Dept. of Fire and Rescue

    Response: Our department uses apparatus owned by the city of Toledo under the Department of Facilities and Fleet. We write the specifications and purchase the apparatus from our budget. When the apparatus is delivered, the paperwork and title go to Fleet. From then on, we “use” its apparatus. Once the apparatus is assigned and equipped, it is delivered to the station captain. It is his responsibility to maintain the inventory.

    Our maintenance facility building is owned by the City of Toledo, but it is occupied mainly by the Maintenance Bureau. (The EMS and Safety Bureaus have offices in this building, but the major portion of the facility is used for fire department apparatus maintenance.) This is an extremely large building, and we have plenty of room to work on and store apparatus of all kinds. Only fire department apparatus are repaired in that facility.

    Certified mechanics perform our apparatus work for the Maintenance and Repair Division of Facilities and Fleet. They are city employees who work for the fire department and are paid by the Facilities and Fleet budget. They are under the direction of a nonfire department supervisor who works hand-in-hand with the deputy chief assigned to EMS and Maintenance. A “charge-back” system is used to pay for PM. Money is placed in the fire department budget for repairs and PM. As work is completed, specific amounts are then taken from our budget and placed in the Facilities and Fleets’ budget.

    For several years, our department has maintained a monthly PM program for all its first-line apparatus and extra equipment (reserve engines, aerials, and heavy rescue squads). A calendar that includes a schedule for the next month’s PM is sent out at the end of the month. On the day scheduled, the crew reports to the Maintenance Bureau by 0800 hours. It is “out of service” and not available for emergencies (if demand is great, as during a multiple-alarm fire, the unit will go back in service as it becomes available, or the crew will be put in another apparatus stored in the shop and will then go back in service).

    During the monthly PM, mechanics change oil as necessary, make routine repairs such as brake adjustments (nonemergency repairs that have been turned in since the last visit), and take care of any “complaints” of the crew who uses the apparatus. While the mechanic does his thing, the crew strips and cleans the compartments and the tools and equipment on the rig. Aerials may be steam-cleaned and then regreased as required, ground ladder halyards may be replaced, and so on. This monthly PM program was conceived by department members assigned to the shop; it now has become the backbone of our apparatus maintenance needs. We believe it has kept to a minimum “downtime” caused by breakdowns.

    Ronald Hiraki, assistant chief,
    Seattle (WA) Fire Department

    Response: Our department leases all of its apparatus and vehicles from the city’s Executive Services Department (ESD). As part of the lease fee and agreement, ESD performs all of the preventive maintenance and repairs. Funding for maintenance and repair is built into the lease rates based on the history of the type of apparatus or vehicle. The lease rates are reviewed annually to ensure that the needs of both the fire department and ESD are being met.

    One unit of ESD is the fire garage, which is staffed by eight experienced auto machinists. An automotive parts warehouser ensures that the right parts are available to maintain efficiency. Fire Garage Supervisor Jim Knudtson and Senior Auto Machinist Michael Vincent plan and coordinate the work. One mechanic staffs a service truck and travels from fire station to fire station to service and repair apparatus to reduce the need to travel to the fire garage.

    The 12,150-square-foot fire garage is located adjacent to other city motor vehicle shops. Therefore, it can be supported by the truck shop, auto shop, tire shop, and paint and detail shop. The fire garage was built more than 20 years ago as a state-of-the-art facility and continues to be extremely functional. Three extendable under-floor lifts accommodate the varying wheelbase lengths and allow the mechanics full access to the underside.

    Routine or preventive maintenance is divided into Level A service and Level B service. Level A service consists of a visual inspection, an oil and filter change, and lubrication. Level B service is comprised of Level A services, inspection of components that require some tear down (wheels and brakes, for example), and brake adjustments or servicing. Frequency is set according to the apparatus type. Fire apparatus are serviced quarterly, basic life support units are serviced bimonthly, and advanced life support units are serviced monthly. Level A and Level B services are alternated in the schedule.

    The fire department has an active role in preventive maintenance and repairs. The working agreement between the ESD and the department has been in place for many years and has evolved into a very cooperative relationship. Approximately 10 years ago, the fire department created the position of fleet manager to facilitate the specification, acquisition, maintenance, and repair of all fire apparatus and vehicles. Senior Automotive Engineer Mitch Halgren is the Seattle Fire Department fleet manager. As a former machinist, mechanic, and career firefighter, he combines this experience with his knowledge of automotive engineering to effectively communicate with engineers, mechanics, and firefighters. This communication is an integral part of the cooperative relationship.


    Larry Anderson, deputy chief,
    Dallas (TX) Fire Department

    Response: Our department’s maintenance division performs repairs as well as preventive maintenance for all emergency response equipment. This includes body work and painting. The division operates from a facility that has 18 bays dedicated to heavy apparatus. Additional bays are dedicated to light apparatus such as ambulances and chiefs’ response vehicles.

    Preventive maintenance is divided into three categories: PM “A” is performed on all heavy apparatus every six months and includes oil change, lubrication, filter changes, and other routine work; PM “B” is performed annually and is much more comprehensive, including such things as brakes and pumps; PM “C” is for light vehicles, such as ambulances, and is performed every 28 days.

    The Maintenance Division operates on an annual budget of approximately $5 million. This money is budgeted through the fire department, which exercises total control over the work performed. The maintenance division is headed by a division manager, who is totally dedicated to maintaining our fleet. The Dallas Fire Department has a policy that replaces engines after 12 years and aerial ladder trucks every 15 years. We believe that we have one of the best maintained fleets around. We are extremely satisfied with our system.

    Leigh Hollins, battalion chief,
    Cedar Hammock and Southern
    Manatee Fire Districts, Florida

    Response: Our situation is rather unique. Southern Manatee-Cedar Hammock is actually two fire districts that have been operating as one under an interlocal agreement since 1995 and are presently evaluating a possible merger. We have approximately 100 career personnel and 10 volunteers operating a total of 32 apparatus/vehicles out of eight stations.

    Each district has its own full-time mechanic and shop at its central station. A deputy chief manages the maintenance division. We are presently in the final design/build stages for a six-bay combined maintenance facility to streamline the maintenance division and provide additional maintenance bays so that there will be one maintenance facility site. Contracting for outside apparatus work in the new shop is also a possibility.

    Our mechanics try to schedule all apparatus for preventive maintenance service after 200 to 250 hours of use.

    Our operating budget is derived from tax assessments and impact fees. Our budget contains several accounts dealing with apparatus and vehicular maintenance. Approximately $135,000 is budgeted for apparatus/vehicular/equipment maintenance for the present fiscal year.

    The department has full control over budgeting and spending for apparatus maintenance and repairs. The Board of Fire Commissioners for each district has the final authority and is very supportive of the present arrangement as it relates to apparatus maintenance and the direction in which we are headed with the maintenance division.

    We find our present system satisfactory and believe it will only improve under the plan to combine the two shops and have a central, state-of-the-art location for our mechanics. In addition, since the fire department has full control over maintenance, we are free to make revisions and improvements as needed. We do not have to compete for service with any other departments (public works, police, highway), as would be likely in a city, or with the public, as a small volunteer department may have to do if it used a private shop.

    Since we are able to, we change things from time to time, as mentioned above. Some other recent improvements we have made include conducting an annual “rolling stock” survey to track all facets of each apparatus, providing for newer apparatus (15-year turnover plan), implementing uniform vehicle specifications, providing automatic transmissions in apparatus, ensuring that mechanics are certified, hiring additional personnel to perform nonapparatus maintenance, and contracting out certain repairs.

    Bob Oliphant, lieutenant,
    Kalamazoo (MI) Dept. of Public Safety

    Response: A contract vendor selected through a competitive bidding process repairs our department’s apparatus. Selection criteria include the contract provider’s qualifications and certifications for repairing fire apparatus. The contractor performs most repairs, but the department still has the option to use other services as necessary. The work is performed at a city-owned facility leased to the contract provider. The facility has hoists, compressed air, and an inventory of parts needed for apparatus repair.

    Preventive maintenance is performed according to the manufacturers’ recommendations. Station personnel perform a general daily inspection in addition to a comprehensive weekly inspection. Repairs are made or scheduled as needed. Station personnel do simple greasing and maintain fluid levels.

    Funding for apparatus maintenance and repair is included in the annual department budget and is generally adequate. The department oversees the entire maintenance process.

    We have found this arrangement for repairs and maintenance satisfactory; the same contractor has serviced our apparatus for a number of years. The contract is put out on bid annually and is subject to change. There is no assurance that a different contractor could provide the same level of service. The contractor can be paged after hours for emergencies but does not provide 24-hour service. Apparatus occasionally has to be taken out of service for minor problems until repairs can be completed the following day. There are occasional delays when work exceeds the contractor’s normal capacity.

    Prior to the current arrangement, repairs and maintenance fire service mechanics and, later, public transportation/fleet maintenance employees performed this work. The current arrangement has worked out better.

    Joseph A. Floyd, Sr., assistant chief,
    Columbia (SC) Fire Department

    Response: We do not do our own vehicle preventive maintenance. The city of Columbia has a centralized location (called Fleet Services) for maintaining all city vehicles. Fleet Services keeps records on all fire department vehicles and the other vehicles owned by the city. It sets the preventive maintenance schedule and the times at which work is to be performed. The intervals vary. Fleet Services normally uses mileage-time frequency schedules, with mileage ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 miles. The city is currently running an oil analysis to determine if mileage can be increased for some apparatus. If maintenance on apparatus can be done in a relatively short time, the work will be done at the station so that a fire company will not be out of service for an extended length of time.

    Funding for the maintenance of fire department apparatus is estimated for the coming year, based on the past year’s expenses and the age of the apparatus. When apparatus go in for service, Fleet Services maintains records of all the work and supplies used and bills the fire department.

    When scheduled maintenance is due, or if any other repairs need to be done, drivers complete the “Columbia Fire Department Apparatus and/or Equipment Report for Repair” form on the fire department’s Web site. All needed maintenance and repairs are described and e-mailed to Fleet Services. On receipt of the order, maintenance and repairs are scheduled. Anyone wishing to view this form can do so at .

    This system seems to work except for the occasional backlog.

    Frank C. Schaper, chief,
    St. Charles (MO) Fire Department

    Response: Maintaining a fleet of fire trucks and ambulances is not an easy job. It takes personnel and money and a lot of time. The way departments handle maintenance varies widely throughout the fire service. Larger departments have their own repair shop and mechanics. Small departments may have an in-house mechanic. Other departments send everything out. No matter what the situation a department works under, there is always the lament, “if I only had a few more mechanics and a few more bucks.”

    Basic maintenance costs continue to go up. Everyone gets hit by the rising cost of fuel. An alternator for a pumper easily runs more than $800, and large-ticket items like transmissions and axles cost a small fortune. A fire chief has to plan and budget for these items as well as for replacing old trucks. This is how it is done in my department.

    The city has a city garage staffed by mechanics. One mechanic is assigned strictly to the fire department. He has a heavy-duty maintenance truck and can make a number of repairs at the fire stations, including changing oil and doing lube jobs, changing tires, and performing engine work. Some of the larger jobs-bodywork, for example-are sent out. Our mechanic can be paged 24 hours a day. Of course, we have reserve apparatus that can be pressed into service while an apparatus is down. The fire department provides for maintenance in the operating budget every year. My five-station department budgets $100,000 for maintenance. This can get tight, but we always seem to manage. The budget is based on the previous spending history and our best estimates. We are usually pretty close.

    Apparatus replacement funds come from the Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) budget. Like most departments, we try to get 10 years from a front-line truck, rotate it into reserve, and replace it with a new vehicle. Having a CIP budget really helps the planning process and keeps the fleet up and moving. We do not do apparatus bond issues or lease purchases. We write a spec and send it out for competitive bid. Emergency funds are available if needed. This system could be improved, but we make it work.

    Rick Lasky, chief,
    Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

    Response: The apparatus maintenance program for the city of Lewisville and the Lewisville Fire Department operates in the following manner. Our entire fleet (suppression, EMS, support, and staff vehicles) is primarily maintained through our city maintenance shops, directed by the city’s Internal Services Division. This division em-ploys the mechanics and service writers who maintain the apparatus. The service writers schedule preventive maintenance on all vehicles, ensuring that warranties are in place and, if so, that they are being used properly and for ordering parts for current repairs and future needs. Pumps and ladders are sent out for major repairs.

    Recently, we added a mechanic and service writer to our Internal Services Division to ensure that the fire department would have a mechanic and service writer available to work on fire apparatus on a continual basis. Prior to this addition, our apparatus would be placed on a list to be serviced or repaired along with all of the other city vehicles. We faced delays in getting some front-line apparatus back in service because of the limited number of mechanics available to work on our rigs. In addition to this, the new mechanic is currently being sent to training sessions on pump and ladder work so that those repairs can also be made internally. This change in operations should provide us with a quicker turnaround on vehicles being repaired and undergoing routine maintenance.

    The service writer sets up the routine preventive maintenance schedule based on hours in use for engines and ladder trucks and miles for ambulances and the remaining vehicles. These inspections include a bumper-to-bumper inspection. The service writers sends out schedules and reminders; there are also reminder messages visible on the fuel pump LCD screen while fueling.

    Funding allowances for maintenance and repairs, determined by the service writers and the fire department, are set within the fiscal year budget. However, if a major repair that was not or could not be budgeted arises, an emergency request for funding can be submitted to the city manager’s office. The Internal Services Division bills the department for the costs of repairs, maintenance, and parts, which are charged against the department’s vehicle maintenance budget line item. The charges may include overtime needed to complete a job to get one of our rigs back in service sooner than normally expected. Most often, the fire department decides whether there is a need for overtime.

    We rely on our service writers to schedule the preventive maintenance; an officer from each shift acts as the department liaison between our department and the division, eliminating problems associated with several people calling back and forth, which leads to confusion.

    As with any program, there are always areas that can be improved. We have an excellent relationship with our Internal Services Division and continually work together to identify shortcomings and improve on them.

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