Truck Checks: Why can’t I get my fire truck fixed?

Why can’t I get my fire truck fixed?
December 11, 2007
Written by Don Henry
Why can’t I get my fire truck fixed?
donhenryWhy can’t I get my fire truck fixed? I am frequently asked this question by fire chiefs and town managers, and from my experience there are three major reasons. (If you’re not satisfied with the level of this maintenance, or the cost of this maintenance, read on, if you are, stop now and go do something else.) 

The first reason
I have instructed heavy-duty mechanics and automotive mechanics in Alberta for the last 19 years. The heavy-duty mechanics trade, now called heavy equipment technicians trade, consists of 240 hours of school training given over four years for a total of 960 hours. During that time there is a grand total of 0 (zero) hours of instruction on fire apparatus. I suspect other provinces are very similar in their training curriculum. While the apprenticeship training program is excellent, there is no information on the unique systems employed by fire apparatus such as complex pumps, computer controls or load-shedding devices used on fire apparatus.

Here are some examples where the fire service is poorly served. The trade schools teach that the battery design of choice for starting large diesel engines is the 8-D battery group. A great battery, with a very high CCA, (cold cranking amperage), and a fine choice for an on-highway truck or off-road piece of construction machinery that starts in very cold weather. That’s just simply not what you want in a fire truck.

A fire apparatus needs a battery that is designed to provide current for a long period of time in the event of an alternator failure. Your battery choice should be the Group 31 type of battery; in fact this battery type is spelled out very clearly in NFPA 1901 and ULC S-515.  Because many technicians do not know this, I have seen Group 31 batteries replaced in fire apparatus when their life cycle was over with 8-D batteries. Why not? That’s what the technician learned in school and it does start the rest of the town’s fleet of sanding trucks, graders and tracked equipment.

Another example is the air brake system. A heavy equipment technician can recite to you the Canadian  Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (CVMSS) 121 system rating for compressor build-up time, that being from 50 to 90 PSI in three minutes or less. The standard for fire apparatus is, and I quote from NFPA 1901, “a quick build-up section in the air reservoir system arranged so that if the apparatus has a completely discharged air system, it is able to move within 60 seconds of start-up.”

A piece of apparatus could meet the 121 standard yet fail the NFPA 1901 standard; I know, I have seen it.

A third example involves the new electronic diesel engines. The manufacturer builds into the software the ability to warn the operator if the engine is low on coolant level, has low oil pressure or high engine coolant temperature. These engines also have two other features: they can de-rate their horsepower output or shut themselves off if they detect any of the above problems. These options are set in the engine software. Normally, the engine warning light comes on first, then the engine gets de-rated in horsepower and then, after as short a time as 30 seconds for some manufacturers, the engine computer shuts off the engine.

I think it is fair to say that most technicians would, if given the choice, feel that all three options should be activated on a truck. For a normal over-the-road truck that’s most likely correct but on the fire pump you would want only the warning light option activated. For example, if the warning light came on at the pump panel during an interior attack and the pump operator was not able to correct the action with an auxiliary cooler (you did buy the truck with an auxiliary cooler as per 1901, right?), then the pump operator would inform the commander on the scene. It may be necessary to continue the fire attack, even if there was the possibility of engine damage. If an uninformed technician at the truck dealership had activated the engine shutdown or de-rate feature, then the consequences could be deadly for the fire fighters in the house. NFPA 1901 is very clear about these computer-controlled engine shutdowns. They are not permitted.

The second reason
The technician simply does not understand how the fire service use the vehicle. For example, every diesel technician knows that you need to get the engine up to operating temperature before you accelerate the engine to wide open throttle (WOT). A five-minute warm-up is just not a reasonable option for fire departments. Also, an engine idle time longer than five to 10 minutes is discouraged by the engine manufacturer. They want you to shut down the engine if you are going to idle more than five minutes. This is just not possible at a highway accident or fire scene where the truck would be expected to idle for hours. I don’t think it’s necessary to have the technician be a full-fledged member of the department, but they must have a understanding of the way the truck is used so they can appreciate and develop a proactive maintenance plan to suit your department’s needs.

Here is just one such example. Most departments have an SOP that says if the truck’s fuel tank is three-quarter’s full or less when returning from a call then the fuel tank must be topped up. This causes some problems that are unique to fire apparatus. Most fire halls are very humid; this is caused by the fact that most departments keep their fire pumps full of water and there is a small amount of water that drips out of even the best adjusted pump packing. This in itself is not a problem, except each time the truck is parked back in the hall the diesel fuel in the tank cools and contracts. A small amount of moist air (water) is drawn into the fuel tank each time this occurs. This would not happen to an over-the-road highway truck because the tank would not be filled until it was very near empty and then most likely would not sit in a warm fire hall. The technician may incorrectly blame the fuel supplier for selling fuel with water in it but it’s just the nature of the work fire apparatus do.

The third reason
How much money does your department spend on training and tools for the technician every year? (Yes, every year.) You should aim for an initial two to four per cent of the purchase price of the truck and then one to three per cent each year after that. Looking at some basic numbers, the purchase for a very basic pumper is in the neighbourhood of $250,000 (Canadian). You will need to spend an initial $10,000 for training and speciality tools for the truck maintenance – remember, the last truck you bought was 15 years ago. This should pay for the laptop computer and software for the engine, transmission, antilock brake controls and also the training courses and memberships for the technician to learn how to use them. After that there is an annual cost (about $3,000) for sending the technician to training course(s) to keep skills up and learn about new methods and diagnostic procedures.

If you think the cost of technician training is prohibitive, it’s not as expensive as standing in front of a judge and having him or her explain due diligence to you and your town lawyer.

Your local city or town council will pay a similar amount of money to keep, train and update the office staff on the newest and fastest computer programs to make sure they can collect the town taxes, water bills and dog tag fees, so why would it be any cheaper for the emergency vehicle technician. Remember, if you have read this far because you’re having trouble getting your truck fixed, please read on.

If you live in Ontario count yourself lucky (bet you never thought you would hear a person from Western Canada ever say that). You have an excellent EVT organization called the  Ontario Municipal Fire Department Mechanical Officers Association. They conduct superior training opportunities for your technicians. I know, I have seen their training. Their website is www.home.cogeco.ca/~omoa/ and their membership fee is reasonable.

Unfortunately, there are at present no other provincial Canadian organizations. It is possible now for technicians to join the Apparatus Maintenance Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.  This section is not just for fire chiefs; it also offers great training opportunities for the technician. Visit their website at www.ams-iafc.com .

Technician exams
There are also a number of technician exams that can be taken. They are offered by the Emergency Vehicle Technician Certification Commission (EVTCC). They can be found at www.evtcc.org . The exams are fair but they are not easy. If your technician is not familiar with NFPA 1901 they will need to get their nose into that standard. These exams are at present the only true method we have to accurately measure a technician’s knowledge of fire apparatus repair and maintenance across North America. The cost is reasonable, about $60 (Cdn.) per exam.

Not just for big cities
The common misconception is that the EVTCC exams are only for big city departments. In fact all department types, large to small, can benefit. Let me explain. In major cities your department may be blessed with full-time, in-house technicians who work only on fire apparatus. In Canada these are most likely journeyman-qualified technicians who may even have the inter-provincial red seal. These people have years of experience and have given your department a very low “failure-to-roll” rate over the years. The problem comes when a bean counter, also called an efficiency expert, comes to your city to cut costs. If the technicians who repair the city’s mobile equipment have the same qualifications (i.e. provincial journeyman tickets) as the personnel that repair the fire apparatus, then why not combine the EVTs with the mobile technicians and cut some costs? 

While it is true that a million-dollar tracked backhoe is no more technically advanced than a million-dollar aerial platform, if a backhoe does not dig a ditch today, people just go home, they do not die. Therefore, it is very important that these EVTs can prove that they have the knowledge and the training to differentiate themselves from the other mobile equipment technicians. There is, of course, a cost to training and examining people to this level but as a fire chief you will find it easier to defend your position of having full-time, in-house technicians if the bean counter knows that there would be no dollar savings by amalgamating the EVTs and the mobile technicians.

As the EVTCC exams become more common, they could even be used to select technicians for the initial interview during the hiring process. If you have looked around your maintenance shop lately you may have noticed a lot of grey hair out there. You do have a plan to attract, train and retain the replacement technicians, don’t you?  The exams also apply to the small city or large town. You may have a town technician who repairs the grader, Zamboni, garbage truck and fire truck. It’s a big responsibility to maintain such a diverse fleet of equipment and this person will only feel comfortable, when working on your fire apparatus, if he or she has had the opportunity to learn and demonstrate their level of competence.

And finally, you may live in a town that’s so small that you cannot have an in-house technician and may find it necessary to send your apparatus out for repair. Before you let just anybody touch your apparatus, would it not be a good idea to ask to see their credentials? Would you not base your decision on a garage that had invested the time and effort to learn how to repair your apparatus? If they are the only technicians in town suggest they take the exams. If they really took pride in their work and wanted to demonstrate their level for excellence I think many would take them, if given the chance.

As you begin to finalize your 2006 training budgets remember this: when the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails. You may not be giving your technician the right tools to do the job.

Don Henry teaches in the Automotive Service Technician and Heavy Equipment Technician programs at Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alta., where he has been a faculty member for 19 years. Henry also works closely with fire etc. in a partnership between the two institutions, and has  co-developed and delivers Canada's only post-secondary level fire apparatus maintenance program.

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