Basic preventive maintenance (PM) for any type of apparatus should begin with a systematic approach. In essence, any good PM program worth its salt needs to start with the drivers/operators. Statistically, the drivers should be able to spot at least 30 percent of all potential problems before they become a failure of some sort. That is the value of true, dedicated, professional drivers/operators. They are, in effect, the first vital links of the PM program.
Make a List
To begin, you need a good check list. Most manufacturers already provide these. If they don’t, National Fire Protection Administration (NFPA) 1911, Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus, has a good library of these in its Annex. Of course, these can and should be tailored to fit the user’s needs based on severity of service, terrain, climate, and the type of equipment in use.
Keep inspection, PM, repair, and parts records on file in a vehicle’s jacket or in an electronic database. These records need to include work order numbers, vehicle numbers, dates, engine hours, mileage, pump hours, ladder hours, generator hours, names of those conducting inspections or repairs, and pertinent data. Remember that manufacturers’ recommendations are guidelines that departments should exceed. For example, your operation may need to exceed the oil drain interval the engine manufacturer recommends because of the severity of your service. Keep in mind that diesel engines don’t like to be idled excessively. However, the nature of the beast in the fire service involves just that—excessive idling at fire scenes.
This brings to mind oil analysis, which is something I highly recommend. It is relatively inexpensive and can warn you about potential problems that can cause catastrophic engine failures. For example, fuel dilution, which is engine oil that has an excessive amount of diesel fuel in it, cannot only shorten the life of the engine, but I have also seen it cause engine fires. If the driver or technician does not spot the problem, the lab will definitely alert you with an SOS, via email, warning you and reporting the exact percentage of fuel in the oil so you can take action before it causes serious damage, a failure, or an engine bay fire. This is a problem that has become more widespread with some diesel engines built beginning in 2007 that are equipped with diesel particulate filtration.
Performing the Check
All inspections should begin with a “walk around” using the checklist. The driver or technician will note any damage, leaks, and so on as a note on the inspection checklist. It is important to carefully follow the checklist and inspect/operate all items without “pencil whipping.”
The following are some areas that involve operating the rig safely, and I will point out some tips for checking these important areas. Careful inspection by either a driver/operator or technician can prevent catastrophic failures and potentially serious accidents.
In the cab, check for excessive free play in the steering by rocking the steering wheel with the engine off. For a 20-inch steering wheel, the free play should not exceed two inches. If it does, it will warrant further inspection by a qualified technician to check for potentially worn steering components such as the gear box, drag link, tie rod ends, miter box, and other steering system components that could be worn beyond their limits. Because of the safety aspect of the steering system, address any problems right away.
During chassis inspection, check for loose bolts and look for any signs of cracks in the frame rails, cross members, and around all points where the suspension components bolt to the chassis. These are very important. Carefully asses any cracks found to determine how soon to address them and the best method to repair them. Also look for any signs of rust or corrosion. Surface rust in some areas can be expected, however deep flaking rust in heavy-duty rig chassis, particularly aerial devices, can pose serious safety issues and departments must address it.
For the spring stacks, check for broken spring leaves or those not properly lined up or square with the stack. The U-bolts securing the springs to the axles should be tight and not show any signs of movement. One quick easy way to check for tightness is to tap them with a hammer. If they give off a slight ringing sound, they are tight. If all you get is a dull thud, check the U-bolt torque. This is very important because loose U-bolts can lead to loss of a steering or drive axle while underway, and I can assure you it won’t be pretty or cheap to fix.
When it comes to brakes I firmly believe all drivers should be trained to inspect and adjust their rigs’ brakes—just like their cousins, the commercial over-the-road driver is required to do. Careful and diligent inspection of the brake system will go a long way in preventing serious accidents.
My last point is to weigh your rig when it is fully loaded. Units beyond their gross vehicle weight ratings can affect their safe operation. In the event of a serious accident, those responsible could be held liable for damage in a court of law.
CHRISTIAN P. KOOP is the fleet manager for the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Department. He has been involved in the repair and maintenance of autos, heavy equipment, and emergency response vehicles for the past 35 years. He has an associate degree from Central Texas College and a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Barry University and has taken course work in basic and digital electronics. He is an ASE-certified master auto/heavy truck technician and master EVT apparatus and ambulance technician. He is a member of the board of directors of EVTCC and FAEVT and a technical committee member for NFPA 1071, Standard for Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications.