Fire Fighting in Canada

Truck Checks: Sustainable apparatus

Sustainability, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

September 18, 2008  By Don Henry

Sustainability, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Let’s talk about sustainability from an apparatus-maintenance point of view.  From my work as chair of the apparatus maintenance section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, I have found that fire chiefs want to leave their fire departments in better shape, both financially and morally, than they found them. Fire chiefs face decreasing budgets and increasing expenses and may be tempted to reduce the maintenance budget (you do have a maintenance budget, right?). Reducing the maintenance budget may work for the short term if you have been doing a proper preventive or proactive maintenance schedule until now. Of course, such action would not be sustainable. It would only lead to increased breakdowns and costly repairs in the future, not to mention a decrease in the public’s confidence in your department’s ability to deliver service. If you repair and maintain equipment only when it quits working, then you have already embraced the concept of crisis maintenance. Crisis maintenance is marked by statements such as “Don’t go looking for trouble”, “It’s never done that before”, “What’s that noise?”, “Don’t worry, it will go away”, or, my personal favourite, “The B shift did it”.

So, how do we get off this insanity treadmill and onto the path of a sustainable future for your department? There are three things you need to do.

These life cycles include the service life cycle, the economic life cycle and the technological life cycle. Each life cycle is different. By fully understanding these cycles, you will be able to successfully justify the replacement schedule for apparatus to your local government (assuming you do have a schedule for replacement).


Let’s look at the service life cycle first. The service life cycle refers to whether the truck can be repaired and maintained. It’s very difficult to find parts for trucks that are more than 20 years old. This is a two-edged sword; if you approach your local government and say you need a new pumper because the old one is in very poor shape, I, as your  town councilor, would counter question the purchase of a new truck if you can’t keep the old one in good repair.

Economic life cycle refers to whether the truck is worth fixing. Most city departments look at only the depreciated value of a piece of equipment such as a Caterpillar or a track backhoe. If the needed repairs are more than 25 per cent of the depreciated value, the vehicle simply goes to tender or auction sale as it is not worth fixing. Unfortunately, this same yardstick is not always applied to fire apparatus. New fire apparatus is expensive and you may be encouraged to spend much more than 25 per cent to repair the truck. I know that it may take one year or more to specify and make a new piece of fire apparatus, and a new truck represents a major expense, but old trucks can easily nickel and dime you to death. Of course, newer trucks with electronic engines have fewer engine exhaust emissions and are more fuel efficient than trucks that used mechanical fuel injection systems.

The technological life cycle is the basis on which we should argue for the truck’s replacement. The newer trucks stop faster (ABS and disc brakes), handle better (traction control and roll stability) and can use less water (compressed air foam systems). In my view, the newer trucks are also much safer for the fire crews. There have been a number of truck safety improvements from the NFPA 1901 standard of 1996. You may think you should refurbish your old truck to at least incorporate these new safety futures; this can be done but it’s not cheap and may not be for you. Get a copy of the NFPA 1901 annex D of refurbishment of trucks. There is an excellent CD on this subject done by Fire and Emergency Training Network (1-800-845-2443 or The price is reasonable and well worth it. Get it before you spend thousands of dollars on a refurbishment.    

Instead, embrace, at the very least, a preventive maintenance schedule that reflects the uses of your department, not the department down the road. Even better, embrace a proactive maintenance program that uses such tools as fluid and oil analyses. Fire apparatus are complex machines that require competent, trained personnel. Get a copy of NFPA 1071 and follow it for both your pump/operators (who should also be familiar with NFPA 1002) and your emergency vehicle technicians. Train your emergency vehicle technicians or employ only persons who can prove they are EVTs. Make sure your operators are using daily/weekly and monthly inspection checklist for your apparatus. Too often, poor inspection practices are passed on to the new operators when they are trained to conduct their daily inspections at the fire hall. You will need to get on a creeper and have a trouble light to conduct a proper inspection. I often go to a fire hall and that’s the first thing I ask for – you would not believe the deer-in-the-headlights looks I often get.   

3. MEET NFPA 1901 OR ULC S-515
Remember that both of these standards are minimum standards. Overweight trucks have no place in the fire service. I started helping departments spec out trucks because I quickly realized that if the truck was made correctly from the start, the department would have a chance to achieve sustainability. It truly amazes me that the people in the fire service are so concerned with safety codes, electrical codes and building codes but when it comes to buying the truck it’s OK to cut some corners. It’s nice that you are concerned with other people’s safety, now build the truck right and put your seatbelt on when you take the truck  out of the fire hall!

I agree with the EPA definition of sustainability. I have a definition of insanity that goes like this: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

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

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