The Mechanics of Things....
We have talked a lot about the age of the Apparatus fleet of the Northshore Fire District and how vehicle age can lead to more costly repairs and other challenges, so we thought it would be good to talk with the mechanic, Gary Lancaster, whom Northshore Fire has contracted with over the last year and a half to understand a little more about this topic. There’s been a lot of work on each of the vehicles to get them to a level that can be regularly maintenance. He has been fixing the vehicles to the point where they can come into the shop at a typical service cadence of once a year for inspection and maintenance, the exceptions would be when there is more than 5000 miles per year or some reported issue from the crews about the vehicle.
Many engines or vehicles sit in the station without use for long periods of time and some others are mostly used for transport, meaning they go to a call and then right back to the station. We wondered how much wear and tear both situations would actually put on a vehicle. When a vehicle sits for longs periods of time, seals can get hard and brittle which could causes leaks (engine oil, axle, wheel seal or transmission leaks). For trucks that go to a call and back, there is still surprisingly a lot of wear and tear that happens. When you think about it, when our firefighters get a call they jump into the truck fire it up and immediately go out running it wide open (Code 3), this also means that usually the brakes get used harder as well, so clearly an impact on the life of the vehicle and its’ parts. If they get called to a fire event the vehicles are usually sitting in extreme conditions where there is a lot of heat. In fact, last year there was one engine that was near the scene and a spark fired up and got in the frame rail and melted an AC line, the crew lost the air in the truck and Gary had to repair the line. There have been other issues due to heat related exposure too and sometimes just being in extreme heat can require a part to be replaced as it gets compromised in such conditions.
Gary provided another example to further explain how just responding to a call can have an impact: “I had one engine that came in and the brake lining looked good at first, but it had gotten hot and the lining was cracked, so we had to go ahead and put new drums and shoes on that truck, and once I took the drums off I saw that they were glazed over and also had heat cracks in them, so they were replaced too. Because of what the engines have to do and the elements they get exposed to, you will see things like that, and I’ve seen that happen on vehicles with only 20,000 miles as well as 100,000 miles.”
There is not only mechanical work that needs to be done, but lots of electrical work on each of the rigs as well because there are so many gauges and lighting indicators that are embedded in the control panels that the Fire Apparatus Engineer (FAE) needs to operate the pumps on the engine when it is on scene. This complicates the repair a bit as it requires more investigation as to what is wrong and may be more complex. Currently, there a vehicle at the Lucerne Station that has the reverse lights and backup buzzer blowing fuses, Gary obtained the wiring diagram for it and was working on fixing it a couple of weeks ago. We asked how often things like that happen and his response was that he actually sees lots of wiring issues because the wiring would get bad or it would rub on a frame and short something out. Gary talked about another repair, where it was described that the pump would disengage and quit working and then all of a sudden it would work again just fine, after checking it out, he finally found the problem was a worn out wire that had been shorting-out and was kicking the pump in and out.
When Gary does maintenance and repairs to the pumps on the trucks, he says they work mostly like an auxiliary engine and some of the common repairs that he has had are when sensors in the tanks are not working. These sensors measure whether the pump is full or not, but if it keeps reading the same level all the time, then it’s likely the tank gauge may be bad. Often times he has to spend a lot of time and effort to figure out the issue – is it a short or faulty wiring or is it a pump or gauge that needs to be repaired or replaced.
The biggest challenge with older engines is simply the ability to locate parts, especially since there are some parts that are obsolete now due to the age of the vehicle. On a water tender they had a tank issue and because the parts were obsolete the district had to wait about 6-7 weeks for a tank sensor and panel gauge to get built and then when it arrived there was still some modifications that needed to be done. So, this creates a duration of time when the vehicle is not in service while we wait for the part(s). But this isn’t just for our very old engines, in fact Gary mentioned that obsolete parts can happen as soon as 15 years, there may be places that still have the parts, but the manufacturer is not making them anymore and this starts to make them cost more.
Bringing in a fire truck even just for an oil change, filter change or inspection is not an easy task as you still have to jack up the front end, check the king-pins make sure everything is good, check all the bearings and spin the wheels, adjust the brakes, and look at the brake lining itself. The tools necessary to do this job are pretty vast and Gary has to use a lot of specialized equipment. For instance, to conduct a diagnosis of the vehicles, he utilizes software which has to be updated every year. When he plugs a truck into the software it reports on everything (called multiplexing). When it connects everything communicates to each other: the engine, the tranny, the brakes, and light modules.
Depending what type of truck it is or parts it has it each may require different software for diagnosis, so you could have a fleet of trucks and have a need for ten different software packages, last year to cover the fleet at Northshore, just the upgrade to current software packages alone was about $10,000. Then there is a yearly subscription. But Gary also utilizes online manuals that get updated daily. This helps him when there are any changes or new parts. In addition, to the physical work of maintaining the fleet, he does a lot of research and reading to stay up with the parts and technology of apparatus vehicles, all updates and improvements that are being made in the industry and if he cannot figure something out he will make calls to the manufacturer to get something resolved.
My final questions to Gary was about the different types of vehicles we have and did he see more of one than another or other types of facts of the fleet. As an example in the shop the day that I stopped by Gary was working on Water Tender (WT) 7511. This is a 2009 vehicle and it carries 2,000 gallons of water, I asked if that created some additional concerns for that truck. He said because of the weight the truck has some sway bar front shocks, sway bar bushings, torque rod bushings, that all have to be inspected well. The importance of these parts for a vehicle carrying this much weight is that it helps to keep the vehicle’s body from rolling as it navigates turns.
How do they evaluate when an apparatus vehicle needs to be surplussed (equipment that has become obsolete, worn out, broken/damaged or is no longer needed by the district)? Typically, when the cost to repair the apparatus keeps adding up, along with a probable duration of how long it can continue to be used, and the likelihood of more recurring issues outweighs the value of keeping it in service. Many of our vehicles, you can tell that mechanically they are old and getting to where they need to be replaced, but most often it is the Medic Units that come in for service, simply because they get the most mileage even though they are younger vehicles, but they need to come in for oil changes, tires, and brakes.
All tires on the apparatus vehicles have a date expiry code on them for when they have to be replaced. It is a legal requirement to replace them, whether or not they are still good tires. On average the cost to replace a tire is about $1000 each and most engines have 8 – 10 tires, so even that can get pretty expensive in the cost of maintenance. Newer vehicles will still have regular maintenance either yearly or twice a year, but sometimes there may be little issues or factory bugs that have to be worked through, occasionally, there will be some minor maintenance, but not really anything major repair for the first five years.
I want to thank Gary for taking the time to share his knowledge with all of us and for keeping our fleet safe and on the road for our firefighters!