Accounts of budget-challenged Detroit firefighters using pop cans, coins, door hinges, pipes and doorbells to get emergency alerts were alarming to say the least. But, in many ways, it's all too similar to fire departments continuing to use unreliable, outdated paper logs for equipment and apparatus maintenance checks.
Time to exit the fire bubble
Technology exists to establish bulletproof protocols for performing timely, complete and accurate maintenance checks.
What's cheaper — fighting a fire or preventing one? While the answer is obvious, the same line of reasoning somehow seems to elude fire departments when it comes to maintenance of their apparatus and equipment.
Why? In part, it's because of the proverbial "head in the sand" mentality to ignore issues that aren't imminent threats. Adding to the mix is the workload of today's firefighters, who generally are focused most on acute challenges, not potential problems.
Finally, there's often a sense of complacency because of reliance on technology to warn of imminent threats. What this doesn't take into account is there aren’t warning systems for many issues warranting maintenance. And sometimes, the warning technology itself malfunctions.
Apparatus and equipment continue to get more and more complex. Couple that with the fact that firefighters are being asked to specialize in more areas than ever before, and it’s easy to see why maintenance checks often take a back seat. But incomplete or non-existent maintenance records can – and have – come back to haunt departments across the country.
Just as thieves gravitate toward the most vulnerable targets, so do opportunistic attorneys and reporters looking to dig up some dirt. If your records aren’t complete and current, you might as well paint a target across your chest. Even if you’re not targeted right now, you sure will be once something goes wrong.
Much like concern over the nation’s deteriorating roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure, reports about lack of funding for aging and malfunctioning fire trucks and other apparatus are proliferating at an alarming rate. Financial hardships are forcing many departments to rely upon equipment nearing—or even at—obsolescence.
In turn, this ratchets up pressure on departments to ensure that maintenance checks and protocols are performed in as timely and complete a way as possible to maximize fleet and apparatus life, reliability and safety. Public safety watchdogs are keeping score on all of it. Underfunded departments doing the best with what they’ve got will be more readily excused when a malfunction occurs than those exhibiting negligence in their maintenance checks and repairs. Two examples below demonstrate the discrepancy.
All fire departments should perform some sort of routine fire apparatus checks to ensure readiness. This includes the daily, weekly, monthly, and periodic preventive maintenance (PM) checks. PM checks are usually done by the emergency vehicle technician (EVT) and will take the apparatus out of service for a day or two. However, the PM check and the in-station checks should support each other. If done thoroughly and competently, the in-station checks can reduce the downtime of a PM.
Every apparatus needs the tires changed, the chassis lubed, the oil changed, and numerous other tasks that cannot always be done in the station. Most departments have to go outside their system to get these bigger jobs done—something that’s not cheap but necessary. But, too many of them wait for the PM checks to take care of all (or most) maintenance issues at once.
When money and time are stretched to their limits, shortcuts proliferate. Overtaxed fire crews may begin pencil whipping what they believe are routine tasks involving equipment and apparatus maintenance. While this may seem like a minor issue, in reality it is an insidious disease—because overlooking a small check can explode into big trouble.
We’ve all read stories about what can happen when needed maintenance is not performed. Take the Charlotte Fire Department truck that malfunctioned and overturned on its way to an emergency call in May of 2014. According to WCNC TV, “the crew was headed down a hill on Ardrey Kell Road when the auxiliary brake failed to engage. The truck skidded as the driver attempted to turn the truck right on Bridgehampton Club Drive, and then rolled onto its roof. The truck briefly caught fire after the crash. An internal investigation will be conducted. The damage is estimated to be $800,000.”
If you've ever responded to a call (which I’m guessing is most of you), you've had to deal with the hordes of curious onlookers trying to catch a glimpse of what’s going on. And while that has always come with the territory, the age of camera phones and viral videos has ushered in a new era of scrutiny and accountability for fire departments.
Mistakes in emergency response are inevitable (we’re human, after all). But our goal as first responders is to minimize the impact and scale of these mistakes by preparing ourselves sufficiently and constantly working to improve. Doing so can ensure that our department doesn't become famous for all the wrong reasons.
Fire apparatus and equipment have come a long way during the past 100 years. Yet a majority of maintenance inspections are done the same way today as they were at the turn of the past century: on pen-and-paper log sheets.
With so much equipment to look after, logging everything by hand can be time- and labor-intensive and prone to mistakes. There's a lot to keep track of: daily and weekly preshift truck checks, inventory checks, personal protective gear and self-contained breathing apparatus bottles, hose and pump schedules, preventive maintenance and annual tests, advanced life support and basic life support equipment, drug checks, station supplies, and more. Combine that with all the other responsibilities departments have-running calls, training, maintaining certifications, and so on-and it's easy to see why streamlining and automating inspections just never seem to be top priorities.
As firefighters, we have a lot riding on our equipment. We demand more out of our gear than practically any other profession, because if it fails, it can cost a whole lot more than just money. How, then, can we ensure that our equipment doesn’t break down when we need it the most?
The answer is simple: Check your equipment regularly. This seems like a no-brainer, but when you consider the realities of the job, it’s not such an easy task. Consider all there is to keep track of: daily and weekly pre-shift truck checks, inventory checks, PPE gear and SCBA bottles, hose and pump schedules, PM and annual tests, ALS and BLS equipment, drug checks, and more. Now combine that with all the other responsibilities firefighters have (running calls, training, maintaining certifications, etc.), and it’s easy to see how inspecting your equipment could fall by the wayside.
It’s called preventive maintenance for a reason. Because – when done consistently – it can prevent costly, time-consuming, and sometimes deadly failures. But too many fire districts assume that annual inspections constitute preventive maintenance. The fact is, if departments rely only on annual inspections, they could be costing their districts up to 30% of their apparatus maintenance budgets each year. Performing in-station maintenance checks and thorough pre-shift inspections can catch critical issues early on, before they become major problems for their departments.
With budgets as tight as ever, here's a tip from a utility government fleet that reduced their out of service time and catastrophic failures by 30% - all with a program that cost virtually nothing.