Fire Fighting in Canada

Truck Checks: December 2009

Sisyphus was an ancient Greek king who angered the god Zeus. He was condemned to push a very heavy boulder up a steep mountain. Just before quitting time each night he was to stand aside and let the boulder roll all the way back to the bottom of the mountain.

November 16, 2009 
By Don Henry

Sisyphus was an ancient Greek king who angered the god Zeus. He was condemned to push a very heavy boulder up a steep mountain. Just before quitting time each night he was to stand aside and let the boulder roll all the way back to the bottom of the mountain. The next day at dawn he would start all over again. It never got any better; he never got a day off and he knew if he did not do the job he would endure the wrath of the gods. Even if he had a better way to complete the task it didn’t matter – the gods did not listen. Sound a lot like where you work? Feel like you are on a modern-day treadmill and will never accomplish anything?

Preventive maintenance eliminates the vicious cycle of repairs and replacements.
Cuts to maintenance budgets affect apparatus reliability and safety.
Safety, and therefore maintenance, is key to comply with standards.
Departments that have embraced maintenance programs have lower costs.


In the September 2008 issue of Fire Fighting in Canada I wrote a column called “Sustainability for apparatus.” It pointed out the different levels of apparatus maintenance and the causes and effects of each. If your department has embraced crisis maintenance then you’re so deep in trouble you don’t need to read on; it may not be possible to help you. Be like Sisyphus – stand out of the way and just watch the rock roll to the bottom of the hill. Try to not let the rock run over you. For those who have worked hard to get to the level of preventive maintenance or, even better, proactive maintenance, read on.

If budget cuts have not yet happened at your place of work, they will. One of the first areas to be cut is always maintenance. Can you do more with less, you will be asked. If you have been outsourcing repair work, you will be asked to bring repairs back in house. This will be hard to do because you let your maintenance personnel go years ago. If you have not been outsourcing repair work, you will be asked to give that a try; can you cut back on staff and training?


If you have been conducting a proper preventive maintenance program, it may be possible for a short period of time to live off the benefits of a good program. It would be the same for Sisyphus to walk away from the boulder and, for a minute or an hour, the boulder may stay in place, but don’t bet on it. You are very quickly going to roll back into the hellhole you worked so hard to get out of – that being crisis maintenance.

Of course, your god (insert fire chief’s name here) will be very angry if he cannot ride his chariot to the next fire. It is very important that you help your boss make the connection between maintenance and firefighter safety. As the chair of the Apparatus Maintenance Section of the IAFC, I heard time after time during our two-day workshop in Dallas in August about maintenance budgets that have been slashed to the bone. Reductions to maintenance budgets affect fire apparatus reliability and vehicle safety. Please read the near-miss reports that are sent in daily to . A large number of these reports are maintenance related; further cuts to budgets will make this worse. While on this site, do a search of the reports for words like battery, wheel or brake. It is a real eye-opener. To make sure you are informed and can guide your chief, obtain and read a copy of NFPA 1911, Standard for the Inspection  Maintenance, Testing and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus. This standard contains excellent information on such items as out-of-service criteria. As an example, a driver’s seatbelt not working places the complete unit out of service; if a non-driver seatbelt does not work then only that seat may not be used and the unit may respond, unless your department’s policy is that the truck may not leave the hall without a full crew. Of course, you would never allow a firefighter to leave the hall without a fully functioning seatbelt. If your department does not have an out-of-service policy, ask for one to be developed or volunteer to help create one. Remember that NFPA standards are great but they are minimum standards; your department should develop standards that are more encompassing and related to your department needs.

It is our job as emergency vehicle technicians to make sure our fire-service leaders know and understand the effects of indiscriminately slashing maintenance budgets. For those departments that have embraced proactive maintenance programs, your costs are already lower than those of your neighbouring departments that have not done so. You have been living off a proactive maintenance dividend for years. I strongly recommend that departments that wish to reduce their maintenance costs start an oil-and-fluid analysis program. The $30 for a sample is a lot cheaper than the $30,000 engine.

Maintenance is a controllable cost; keep your focus on reducing costs but maintaining a safe level of service and reliability. This can be done by training firefighters to conduct proper daily inspections and by reporting problems to the EVT before the problems get out of control and expensive. Last summer, I walked into a fire hall that claimed to conduct daily and weekly inspections. I looked around and asked for a creeper and a trouble light. Have you ever seen the look of a deer in the headlights of your car  just before you hit him?



It is very important that you keep open the lines of communication between the fire service and the maintenance section. It is during times of financial trouble that departments can become very polarized and quickly develop an us-versus-them mentality.

This downturn in the economy will pass; let’s come out of it with stronger departments with solid apparatus fleets. Now is the time to put in place a preventive/proactive maintenance program.

The report on maintenance practices for the Boston Fire Department is available at

We all need to read and learn from the tragic death of Lt. Kevin Kelley, who was killed in a January accident after the brakes on a ladder truck reportedly failed.

Remember that when your only tool is a hammer all your problems look like nails.

Don Henry teaches in the Automotive Services Technician and Heavy Equipment Technician programs at Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at

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