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Old fire trucks: Repair vs. replace

There’s no magic formula for knowing when to stop spending money on truck repairs, but here are some guidelines to make that choice easier

A fleet of fire apparatus is a huge capital investment for a fire department. The decision on whether to make additional investment to repair a vehicle or to purchase a replacement is a large component of that investment. It is a decision that should be based upon objective criteria supported by objective data.

One way to find subject-matter experts on this topic is to engage with the emergency vehicle technicians who participate in the Emergency Vehicle Technician Association’s on-line forum, EVT Techtalk. I posed the following question to this esteemed group:

“What are some sound tips for knowing when to repair and when to replace an apparatus?”

Techtalk screen name FDMECH12 had this to say.

“Great question. From a technical standpoint, when maintenance cost exceed replacement cost is one of many benchmarks. Another is when new technologies exceed current unit capabilities and safety features. Also when cost per mile trends upwards.

“In addition, a lot depends on the AHJ’s [Authority Having Jurisdiction] perception of apparatus useful life cycle.... I have yet to see any definitive guidelines or benchmarks concerning normal running costs for budgeting or otherwise.”

Since 2006, NFPA 1911 has been the bible for apparatus fleet managers and EVTs. The IAFC’s Emergency Vehicle Management Section is another good source of information and guidance for your fleet management needs.

Document everything
Your vehicle maintenance records should start from the first day you put the vehicle into service. This is the beginning of your documentation of the vehicle’s lifecycle.

Many of today’s fire department management software packages, such as FireSoft, FireAdmin, Fire Station, FireHouse and FDM Records Management System, have very good vehicle and apparatus modules that enable the user to construct a vehicle’s lifecycle from day one of ownership. If you don’t have such software, use a database or spreadsheet program to start tracking those costs so that you can conduct an annual review of your apparatus maintenance and repair costs.

In addition to the basic information for each piece of apparatus such as make, model and the year placed in service, be sure to capture the following:

  • Frequency of repairs that take the vehicle out of service.
  • Types of repairs that required the vehicle to be out of service.
  • Cost of each repair that required the vehicle to be out of service.
  • The total number of hours that the vehicle was out of service due to repairs.

You may see a higher-than-expected number of repairs (frequency) when the vehicle is first placed in service. These repairs — the shaking out the bugs phase — should fall within the vehicle’s warranty period and should be documented in the vehicle’s record.

Under warranty
Back in the day, all apparatus had a one-year warranty period, said retired master fire mechanic Anthony Bulygo. With the advent of all the electronics aboard vehicles much of the fire service has opted to increase warranty periods to three years on some components and five years for others. For some high-cost items with known issues, some departments have opted to pay extra for a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty, he said.

Document those warranty repairs in your vehicle’s lifecycle as well. Although those repairs are not costing the department money, they do impact the hours the apparatus is available for service. This is also good information for the next time you consider buying an apparatus from the same manufacturer.

Once the apparatus transitions out of the warranty period, begin to document both the number of repairs along with the cost for each repair.

Your data should show a routine and consistent cost of operations for each vehicle from year to year. A good practice is to analyze individual vehicle data every five years.

Five-year snapshot
This is where the fire department management software packages really shine; they can generate such reports in minutes with a few mouse clicks. Be sure that you check out this feature if your department is looking to purchase new software or update the software package you’re currently using.

Such five-year snapshots of data, based on data you’ve collected from day one can be extremely useful in identifying a vehicle that’s trending away from “cheaper to keep it” status.

Pay particular attention to the standard deviation (STD) numbers as these can help identify emerging issues. Consider if repair costs exceed one STD while the other data remains within one STD. This likely means that you’re spending money on big-ticket items like engine, transmission or pump repairs.

Such a red flag would require more detailed analysis, for sure, but it’s there for a reason. You may decide that it’s time to start planning to replace that apparatus, which will likely take a few years.

Another consideration with age is the fact that chassis parts are no longer available. Today, we are seeing obsolescence of critical components at a point as few as five years, Bulygo said. Replacing outdated components may require rewiring and reconfiguring the dashboard or pump panel openings to fit the new components.

Unlike the automotive industry, the trucking industry is not federally regulated to supply replacement components for a minimum of 10 years, he said.

Out to pasture
Let us not forget that once the fire apparatus has lived a long and successful life in you agency, you do not just shred the unit. It will be sold, donated, or scrapped as needed.

Increasingly, it will be sold or donated to fire departments with lesser means and run until it will not function. Many times it will go outside the United States or Canada.

If your department decides to make such a donation of old apparatus to others, allow them to photograph or copy any historical documents on the apparatus, but make sure you keep the originals. If something major happens that ends up in litigation you have nothing to which you can refer and back up your excellent repairs, if you had handed off the original records.

Know the cost of repairs in the beginning, compare costs year-to-year, be aware of the time when costs rise to unacceptable levels.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.