Milwaukee Shops Keeping Pace With Increased Apparatus Needs

Milwaukee Shops Keeping Pace With Increased Apparatus Needs


Apparatus in the firehouse may impress visiting schoolchildren, but what gets a fire department’s job done is apparatus on the fireground.

As vehicle operating and maintenance costs rise while mounting false alarm responses add to apparatus wear and tear in many cities, increasing attention must focus on keeping the rigs in good repair.

The extent of the problem and some solutions are reflected in the operations of the Milwaukee Fire Department’s bureau of construction and maintenance, headed by Deputy Chief Joseph Shanahan. Three challenges face the bureau today: (1) an overcrowded shop with an overloaded work force; (2) aging apparatus with inadequate replacement; and (3) a tremendous rise in vehicle mileage with consequent havoc to maintenance schedules and normal life expectancy.

Early shop days

Milwaukee has a long tradition of taking good care of its fire apparatus. In a community widely known as a machinery center, the MFD began manufacturing and rebuilding in its shop back in 1885. The first superintendendent of machinery that year presided over only a portable forge, a hand-powered drill press, and 100 pounds of assorted bar iron.

But progress was rapid. Between 1903 and 1912, the MFD shop built nearly 30 hose, chemical and ladder apparatus. In 1911, the 18 employees ran up total shop costs of $10,000, labor rates then being 50 to 60 cents hourly. Repair parts were mostly boilers, wagon tires, and horseshoes.

Apparatus mileage increase is indicated by rise in number of alarms handled over the years by Milwaukee's busiest engine and ladder companies.

Since then, however, neither staff nor building has kept pace with the increase in the work load.

Here is a comparison of the work load in 1920 and 1975:

* Includes 18 steamers—only 28 motor appara-

Motor apparatus, not including autos and miscellaneous trucks.

Also, 1920 was a time when the city’s busiest fire company made less than 250 runs a year! The graph makes it clear how that has changed.

Shop facilities

The MFD two-story shop, 100 X 150 feet, was erected nearly 50 years ago for $110,000. Its high center bay, open from ground to roof (with a 3-ton overhead crane), allows aerial ladders to be partially raised and extended indoors. The second, or mezzanine, floor surrounding this open bay contains offices plus woodworking, tire and hose repair, canvas and mask areas.

On the ground floor are eight apparatus repair stalls, painting and welding areas, machine shop (two lathes, milling machine, shaper, etc.) and storerooms. Total working space is about 15,000 square feet. Depending on size and type of vehicle, as many as a dozen rigs can be under repair at one time.

But there are types of work the shop isn’t equipped to do, such as line boring of motor blocks, metal spraying of worn shafts, extensive body and fender sheet metal work, and complete paint jobs. That work is contracted out.

Shop burden increases

Each year, the shop fills about 5500 requisitions for specific work on Milwaukee apparatus. The annual operating expense is $265,000, about 25 percent of it for materials and supplies.

The shop burden nobody foresaw even 10 years ago was the sky-rocketing wear and tear on apparatus caused by the tremendous increase in responses, which are up nearly 50 percent since 1968. Annual apparatus mileage today is two and a half times what it was 20 years ago. Furthermore, as the graph shows, the burden on the most active inner city companies has risen much more than that.

Fire department shop in Milwaukee, completed in 1929, is next door to Station 3, right.

“I’m really pleased,” said Shanahan, “at the low rate of accidents we’ve had. The men are doing a tremendous job. But we have been lucky, too. In 1974 and 1975, we averaged 52 accidents annually—almost exactly the same figure as for 1961 and 1962. But our total miles traveled was 124,000 per year for 1974-75, versus only 48,000 in those earlier years. The accident per mile ratio has dropped way down.”

This occurred despite more traffic and larger, heavier vehicles.

Accident rate

A recent study by the New Jersey State Office of Highway Safety claimed that for vehicles other than fire apparatus the accident rate was typically one per 250,000 miles. The degree of hazard faced by men and equipment in Milwaukee is clear from the MFD accident rate, which is 150 to 300 times worse than that. Yet, knowing the conditions under which responses are made, one can only marvel—as Shanahan does— that the figure is not worse. No Milwaukee fire fighter has been killed, and only one seriously injured, in any collision during the last decade. There was one civilian fatality. Only a handful of rigs have received major damage.

General wear and tear, however, is another story. Engine 30, which made 4000 to 6000 runs a year for the last four years, was in the shop at the end of 1975 with “the whole underbody rusted out,” according to Shanahan. Its booster tank and other parts were replaced. The rig was then seven years old with 70,000 road miles. That average of 10,000 miles a year, nearly 1/8 of the total mileage fun up in the whole department, is comparable to the yearly auto use of a suburbanite commuting to the city.

Ladder 10, making well over 3000 responses a year, is a 1969 vehicle with 27,000 miles on it. It’s been through several clutches already.

Preventive maintenance schedules are swamped by such service.

Shanahan commented, “We had one of the finest preventitive maintenance programs of any city in the country. Other cities, inquiring for details of a good program, were often referred here. Our 1000-mile check sheet even included pulling all wheels to check brake linings.

“We no longer have this program. It began to go down the drain about 1963-64. You can see why. With 800 runs a year as tops, a rig needed a 1000-mile checkup only every one to one and a half years. Now, a number of them would require four or five such checkups annually, and we just can’t do it.”

A partial solution now being sought by Shanahan is an additional mechanic on his roster. With a helper, this extra man could make maintenance inspections in the field, making perhaps two a week in company quarters. A little of this is already being done. While the company answers calls with a spare rig, the two shop men spend about two 8hour days completing their work on the regular apparatus.

Another challenge to proper maintenance today is the increasing complexity of the vehicles themselves. In the steamer era, it was routine to make all necessary repairs locally, including boiler replacement. During the early years of motorization, the MFD shop converted many units from one type of service to another. Between 1926 and 1932, the shop built from scratch 14 pumpers plus six service ladder trucks which served the city well for decades.

But no longer is it possible for Milwaukee’s shop force to consider projects of such scope.

Apparatus more complex

As Shanahan pointed out, “Years ago, we had no tanks. Today, there’s enough piping on an engine to plumb a fiveroom house. We have gasoline saws, extrication tools, at least four demand masks on every rig, AFFF eductors—all these things don’t maintain themselves.”

Instead of the two-wheel hydraulic brakes of the ‘20s, today’s truck has the complex anti-skid braking system required by federal regulations. The hand-crank aerial hoist has given way to intricate hydraulic systems.

State and OSHA workplace rules have their effect too. The shop’s paint spray area met the old Wisconsin code for painting a maximum of 10 square feet per day. Now, even such a small operation must be equipped with approved ventilation and explosion-proof lighting.

Old apparatus cannibalized

What else is the shop doing to get on top of the situation? For one thing, an apparatus retention program was begun in 1973. Instead of simply disposing of superseded vehicles for junk, the shop keeps some to cannibalize for parts usable on similar rigs still in service.

“We try to keep on hand a parts inventory of about $30,000,” explained Shanahan. “Certain parts that may be difficult to get, we keep for years despite the questions we get from the city inventory people, who look over their computer sheets and see that certain items aren’t moving.”

Obviously there can’t be even one of every old part which might be needed. Salvage from scrapped vehicles helps fill the gap.

“Another thing that would help,” the deputy chief continued, “is a shop addition we have requested for storage. As it is now, we have to spend as much as 45 minutes at the beginning and end of every work day moving dead apparatus out of shop stalls so we can work on active jobs in those stalls. With the addition, we could park those vehicles elsewhere under cover until it’s time to work on them.”

Traveling crane takes repaired motor back to 20-year-old pumper. Mezzanine is used, among other things, for ladder repair and hose and leather work.

Overtime for mechanics

A third aid in dealing with the mounting shop load is overtime sessions for the mechanics. One man draws watch duty for every 24-hour period, staying in the shop for the first 16 hours, then sleeping at the firehouse next door for the remaining 8 hours. Any night or weekend emergency, including refilling mask air bottles, is thus quickly covered by one man. Following a 24-hour watch, he is off duty one day. In the overtime session plan, he voluntarily works an 8-hour tour in the shop during one of the two such off-days constituting the weekend changeover. In 1975, each mechanic worked two overtime tours. The program has continued this year.

Years ago, the entire shop force was recruited from fire fighter ranks. All were badge-carrying, uniformed personnel. But for some time now, MFD shop workers have been civilians. Because of that change, several years back the men were ruled ineligible for membership in the Professional Firefighters Association. During 1975, the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers became the shop bargaining unit.

Where do they come from?

Replied Shanahan, “We have transferred some from the department of public works who were familiar with engines, transmissions and brake systems, and you can hire mechanics from heavy truck dealers or shops. But the type of work we do is unique. These people are not familiar with pumps or aerial hoists. Before a man can be confronted with the whole range of problems we see, before he’s really adequately trained, he has to be here at least five years.”

Low turnover of personnel

Fortunately, the turnover is very low—another plus for Milwaukee’s shop operation. One man has been on the job 30 years, another only two years, but the average is about 15.

“When they come to us,” Shanahan said, “they tend to stay with us. Inasmuch as good machinists can’t be hired off the streets in Milwaukee for the $15,000 or less the shop can pay, we train them ourselves. Each man with long experience is bringing somebody up right behind him, teaching him what he needs to know.”

A final assist for the MFD shop force is the changeover to diesel power for all new or re-powered apparatus. For example, Ladder 2, a diesel aerial received in May 1972 and stationed downtown, has yet to require an engine tuneup.

Whatever the repair situation may be, key elements in keeping the rigs rolling are, of course, the two related policies of apparatus replacement and apparatus assignment. It was once common in Milwaukee to assign a new pumper to a downtown company, then move the superseded vehicle to a station farther out. Several such bumps might push the oldest rig to a quiet location on the city’s outskirts. This is being changed.

Try to balance mileage

“We try to balance out the mileage, which is what really sets the life span,” explained Shanahan.

For example: Take Engine A, a 1964 model with only 10,000 miles on it serving in a quiet station, and Engine B, a 1970 model with 50,000 miles in a very busy company. Left in its present assignment, Engine B might be junk in three to five years. Engine A, on the other hand, could easily last another decade or more.

When a new pumper is delivered, then, it will be assigned to company A, thus starting to age very slowly. Engine A, the 1964 vehicle, will replace Engine B, and with only 10,000 miles, it could last 5 to 10 years there. Old Engine B, in its turn, with much of its life used up, will replace a very old vehicle at a location where it can last another 5 to 10 years.

One reason for such careful planning is the fiscally cautious Milwaukee replacement policy—only two engines and one ladder truck to be bought each year. With 35 engine companies—soon to be 36—it will take at least 18 years to replace everything. With present response levels, several pumpers will wear out long before that.

Aerials better off

The aerial ladder situation is somewhat better because tractors can be replaced at a great saving. The ladders themselves seldom need more than overhaul or modernization. Also, between 1975 and 1977, the city will gain two engine companies by disbanding two ladder companies, thus decreasing the need for active aerials.

“The only trouble with that,” according to Shanahan, “is that when we replace a tractor and thus get a ‘new’ aerial truck, we get no addition to our reserve strength, which just keeps getting older. At one time this year, we had so many aerials laid up for repairs (the MFD has seven reserve trucks) that there were no reserves left at all.”

With new trucks taking two years or more to get, the situation will probably not change soon.

So here, too, it’s up to the shop to do its best to “keep ’em rolling.”

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