Winter prep for firefighting aerial rigs

Here are some expert tips to keep your tower truck functioning through the winter months

Winter weather provides challenges for all types of vehicles and fire apparatus is no exception. The cold temperatures alone can adversely affect all types of fire apparatus, especially the operating systems on aerial devices. Cold temperatures can turn hydraulic fluids and oils in aerial devices into molasses and significantly decrease operating functions.

Tom Smeal, aerial apparatus program manager for Smeal Fire Apparatus, brought up another more recent threat to fire apparatus: the chemicals used by street and highway departments to pre-treat road surfaces when snow and ice forecast.

"Those liquid chemicals that they're putting down on roadways in advance of a storm are wreaking havoc on the undersides of fire apparatus," Smeal said. "We're also seeing that those liquid pre-treatment chemicals are finding their way topside of the aerial apparatus as well due to misting and that's having a corrosive effect on cables, pulleys, and other components of the aerial device itself."

Smeal says being proactive is the best means to ensure that your aerial apparatus will be able to do its job regardless of how cold the weather gets.

"We highly recommend that our customers have a thorough PM (preventative maintenance) of the apparatus in the fall before winter sets in," Smeal said. He also recommends that the entire undercarriage of the apparatus be power washed and that an inhibitor be applied to help ward off the corrosive effects of those pre-treatment chemicals later in the winter.

Be proactive
Smeal recommends that fire departments get a third-party inspection of their aerial apparatus at that time as well. "It's during that PM and third-party testing that you're going to find out about moisture in the different oils and hydraulic fluids that are critical components for your aerial apparatus to function properly."

Also, operate the waterway and monitor to identify any leaks in the waterway.

"Waterway leaks on the aerial device will cause ice to build up," Smeal said. "It doesn't take much ice accumulation to add a significant amount of additional weight to the ladder or platform."

During that fall preventive maintenance, Smeal recommends that fire departments consider replacing those oils and fluids, where possible, with lighter viscosity oils and fluids.

"Our customers in Canada and northern regions of the United States do that [use lighter weight fluids] and find that it really helps to maintain the normal operating functions of those devices," he said. "That's something that we picked up on from the utility companies [using lighter viscosity fluids during cold weather in their elevating boom trucks] because their stuff is out in those extreme conditions for long periods of time."

Belly bath
Keep the apparatus clean, especially the underside. It's important to get those corrosive pre-treatment chemicals off the rig's structural components on a regular basis, which depends upon the degree of exposure.

"Give that undercarriage a good rinsing using a low-pressure stream so that you're not driving those chemicals into hidden spaces and electrical components and wiring harnesses like you would with a high-pressure washer," Smeal said.

Regularly rinse down the aerial device itself using a low-pressure stream as well to ensure that those corrosive chemicals are at work on the device and its component parts.

But as much as possible avoid spraying electrical components and the device's steel cables. That, Smeal says, will get into the interior of the cables and cause them to break down from the inside out.

Work it out
Exercise your aerial device on a regular basis. Take advantage of the nice days that occur during the winter months to get your aerial apparatus out and put the aerial device through its paces.

"Getting all the fluids warmed up and moving through the device's components is a great way to keep it operating at peak efficiency anytime of the year, and especially during the winter months," Smeal said.

Another positive aspect of exercising the aerial device is that operators stay acquainted with what the normal operations look and sound like and thus make it easier to identify the abnormal when it happens.

"This is particularly important in those departments that don't run a lot of calls where the device is put in service," he said. For a fire department, it is a "buy one Get One" situation. "Your people are getting training to stay sharp, and your aerial device is getting its workout too."

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