Fire truck maintenance: Is your rig ready for summer?

Summer is not the time to slack off on apparatus preventive maintenance; here's how to care for your rig during the dog days

According to Ron Fink, the first part of every New Year he feels like the H&R Block folks at tax time. By the end of the year he feels more like the old Maytag repairman of television fame. 

I spoke recently with Fink, one of the co-owners of Fire Line Equipment in East Earl, Pa., on the topic of preventive summer maintenance for fire apparatus. Surprisingly, Fink said that there's little in the way of preventive vehicle maintenance that differs between seasons. More important, he said, "Have an annual PM program and stick to it."

NFPA 1911: Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus, 2012 Edition is the guiding standard on this topic. When the technical committee on fire apparatus revised NFPA 1911 in 2007, it merged two other fire apparatus standards, NFPA 1914: Standard for Testing Fire Department Aerial Apparatus and NFPA 1915: Standard for Fire Apparatus Preventive Maintenance, into the document to create one unified apparatus maintenance standard.

According to Stephen Wilde, a member of the NFPA 1911 technical committee, "Anyone doing any type of fire apparatus preventive maintenance, inspections, etc., should take a look at [NFPA] 1911 because it's a great reference. I also think that there are still many people who are not aware of what NFPA has done with this document."

Wilde, who's also the president of the board for the emergency vehicle technician certification commission, said, "The 2007 edition of NFPA 1911 represented the first NFPA standards document that told the AHJ (authority having jurisdiction) that they had the option of going above requirements listed in the standard, but it could not delete or ignore requirements in the standard."

  • The fire apparatus shall meet all federal, state or provincial, and local laws for motor vehicle inspections (NFPA 1911, 4.5.1).
  • All inspections shall be conducted in accordance with the manufacturer's recommended procedures (NFPA 1911, 4.5.2).
  • It shall be the responsibility of the AHJ to develop and implement a schedule for the operational checking, inspection, diagnostic checking, and maintenance of the fire apparatus and its systems and components described in this document, based on manufacturer's recommendations, local experience and operating conditions (NFPA 1911, 4.5.3).
  • A complete inspection and diagnostic check of the fire apparatus shall be conducted at least as frequently as recommended by the apparatus manufacturer or once per year, whichever comes first (NFPA 1911, 4.5.5).

Going beyond standards
As we can see, individual departments and their apparatus maintenance providers have a lot of flexibility in developing their preventive maintenance schedules.

"I agree that the most important thing is to develop a PM schedule and then stick with it," Wilde said. "And that's where the NFPA 1911 comes into play. Say one of my customers comes to me and says I want an oil change on my fire truck, I will say to them, 'We don't do oil changes. We do preventive maintenance according to the manufacturer's recommendations for your apparatus and NFPA 1911.'"

Many departments typically address the annual preventive maintenance requirement for their apparatus during the first third of the year. Hence, Fink and his colleagues feeling like tax preparers in March. This is also the time when many departments are getting third-party testing done for aerial apparatus and pumpers.

"At Fire Line, we advise our clients to get their third-party testing on a piece of equipment completed two-three weeks prior to the date we have their apparatus scheduled for its annual PM," said Fink. "That way when we get the unit for its PM appointment, we can take care of any repairs that are needed to comply with the third-party testing results. We can take care of the repairs and the PM with one appointment."

Preventive maintenance light
For their volunteer clients, Fire Line typically recommends a full-scale PM once every two years due to fewer road miles and operating hours on their apparatus. On the off-year, those vehicles get PM light, which includes visual inspections, fluid changes and chassis lubrication, but does not get into more labor- and time-intensive tasks such as replacement of filters.

In all honesty, today's fire apparatus is better prepared for hot weather than we humans. The big-ticket item on everyone's list is without a doubt the air conditioning for the crew cab.

I'm still not sure how my colleagues and I survived those years riding in CF-Mack fire trucks without air conditioning during the hazy, hot and humid central Virginia summers. I'm sure I speak for fire mechanics and Emergency Vehicle Technicians nationwide when I say don't wait until the weather forecast for tomorrow is 90 degrees to find out that your unit's air conditioner is not working.

In addition to the air conditioning, Wilde offers advice for items that require close inspection during PM on your apparatus prior to the onset of hot weather.

  • Inspect engine oil and transmission fluids to ensure that neither fluid is contaminated (engine oil by engine coolant; transmission fluid by vehicle fuel).
  • Ensure that one of the two required brake system inspections (NFPA 1911) takes place on the apparatus prior to the onset of summer heat, which is brutal on large-vehicle braking systems.
  • Ensure that the engine coolant's concentration is within normal limits to protect the engine from higher heat, and that it's not contaminated with engine oil. 
  • Ensure that the radiator cooling fins are clean and free of any grit or debris that may have accumulated during winter driving.
  • Exercise and lubricate all discharge valves and suction intakes. Pay particular attention to the pump cooler valve and the engine auxiliary cooler valve as these have likely not seen a lot of action during the cooler months.

As the saying goes, "The best surprise is no surprise." Get that PM done before the dog days of summer and you'll be less likely to be dealing with the summertime blues. 

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