Apparatus safety — Driver or mechanic?

CarolinaFireJournal - Michael P. Dallessandro
Michael P. Dallessandro
04/29/2011 -

One of the line of duty deaths of 2009 that should have served as a wake up call for some fire departments around our country, was the January 9, 2009 death of Boston Fire Department Lt. Kevin Kelley. As you may recall Lt. Kelley, a 30 year veteran of the Boston Fire Department was killed when the ladder truck he was riding in, Ladder 26, careened down a steep street, crashed into two parked cars, broke through a fence/barrier wall and struck a building resulting in damage, injuries and the line of death of Lt. Kelley.

If you have followed this story during the year you may have noted that this incident has resulted in a fire storm of finger pointing and all of the usual players — the media, the union, the politicians and others have all tried to point at the other when it comes to responsibility. The bottom line here is that no fire apparatus accident in my recent memory has shed more light on the issue of fire apparatus and emergency vehicle preventative maintenance and repair.


Through my travels around our country the issue of fire apparatus maintenance and regular vehicle replacement has always been a thorn in my side. I have been to many departments where the apparatus floor is covered with shiny, modern, well-maintained vehicles and I have also been to departments where rusted rigs, with missing parts and equipment sit in the bay with puddles of vital fluids collecting under them in sheet metal pans with a garden hose stuck in the tank fill with a continuous flow of water running to keep the leaking tank full in anticipation of the next run. When I see apparatus like this I put most of the blame on the politicians and the government bean counters for the condition of the fire apparatus that serves and protects their citizens and firefighters, but sometimes I also have to fault fire department internal politics and/or weak leadership for this predicament as well.

After all, when was the last time you saw 15-year-old police vehicles or school buses running around your neighborhood? I am sure not as often as you see 15-year-old or older fire apparatus.

In the Boston incident, media sources have reported many key points about the accident, but have also printed reports alleging possible lack of driver knowledge about the mechanical safety of the vehicle and possible lack of department-wide driver training on how to handle critical vehicle component or systems failures. For the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on a fire apparatus driver’s recommended basic knowledge of his or her vehicle’s general mechanical safety and road readiness.

We can not expect fire apparatus drivers to be mechanics, however, there is often a fine line between what is considered basic mechanical and systems knowledge about a vehicle you are charged with operating safely, and a lack of knowledge that is considered dangerous. In most fire departments there are fire drivers who have a tremendous amount of experience in large commercial vehicle operations and/or mechanical experience. Many firefighters have served in the military and may have had large vehicle experiences there prior to their fire department service.

In volunteer fire departments many members make their living as truck drivers, mechanics or work for their local public schools or highway department or even water or sewer departments and have some exposure to dump trucks, tractor backhoes or school buses. Along that same line on the career side most career firefighters had civilian jobs prior to joining the fire department and may have driven trucks or twisted wrenches “pre-fire department,” but what about the fire drivers who never had this big rig, mechanical exposure? What should they know when they climb behind the wheel of their department’s pumper, tanker or aerial device?

This article will cover some basic general safety/mechanical components that fire apparatus drivers should know, and that should be operational prior to taking the rig on the public roadways. Also covered will be how to check some of these important components, and in some cases, will highlight the consequences that can come from a regular pattern of inattention to these details, simply disregarding these components, or from the very risky mindset that it is not my job to check these mechanical items because “I just drive them.”

Career or Volunteer, It Does Not Matter

In most cases, the items recommended in this article that should be checked or looked over prior to a rig being driven anywhere — a call, training or to pick up a pizza — can be reviewed in five to 10 minutes time. The only question that is different, based on the career or volunteer structure, is when to check these safety/mechanical items.

In a career department where firefighters are in the house for shifts, the most logical time for the driver to give the rig the once over is as the shift changes. This way the night driver can compare notes with the day driver and vice versa. The volunteer system poses a bit of a challenge for this routine because often people are not regularly scheduled to be in the firehouse. If they are, of course we should model the career vehicle check I referenced above.

When a volunteer firefighter responds from home and heads into the firehouse to get into the drivers seat it is not reasonable based on the “emergency” or perceived “emergency” at hand that we sit there possibly delaying vital services to the community while the driver completes a five to 10 minute vehicle safety check. A system should be in place where “truck house” officers do this as a part of their weekly duties. However, in my opinion, this does not absolve the driver from having some responsibility for the basic knowledge about the vehicle’s critical systems and the condition of them prior to driving the rig.

Many volunteer systems firefighters respond from home and the rig often sits on the ramp awaiting a minimum crew to show up before they can roll. This wait time can provide a short reasonable window for a driver to compete a critical systems check even if they are “pressed for time” due to the nature of our business. So where does the line between driver and mechanic end?

General Vehicle Observation — The “Eyeball”

When a firefighter is ready to operate a fire apparatus one of the most basic and important tasks the driver can complete is a general “eyeball” of the overall general condition of the rig as presented. As you exit the dayroom or enter the firehouse for a call, looking at the rig as you walk up to it can tell you a great deal. Now I know there are some readers right now saying to themselves “yeah Mike, when I walk up to my rig, I look it over and say “what a piece of junk,” but even in departments with poor maintenance or low apparatus replacement budgets, drivers must “eyeball” the rig prior to driving it. The whole purpose of the “eyeball” is to recognize glaring safety defects or mechanical issues that “jump out at you” on first glance that may result in an accident or incomplete response due to mechanical breakdown. The “eyeball” can recognize a flat or very soft tire, open or partially open compartment doors, broken glass or vital fluids pooling under the rig.

A driver should be able to recognize if a fluid under a rig is coolant or hose water, or diesel fuel or window washer fluid. One day I got a good chuckle when a new apparatus driver in my department looked under the front of the rig for leaking fluids during a weekly truck check. The only problem was that this particular rig was a 1989 E-One Hush with the engine in the rear like a city bus. It is reasonable to expect drivers to know the location of the engine!

To expand on the issue of compartment doors — when eyeballing the rig, equipment mounted on the exterior of the rig and hose in hose beds or cross lays should also be properly secured and stowed. In Pennsylvania,  April of 2004, a hose and nozzle hanging from a rig fatally struck a 10-year-old girl as the truck passed her. While the quick “eyeball” prior to response or returning after the incident, for that matter, may not catch all issues, but it is a good safe habit for drivers to get into and goes a long way in preventing accidents and incidents.

Lighting, Sirens and Horns

In every speech or class I give about apparatus driver safety ( I cannot stress enough about how important it is for drivers of emergency vehicles to communicate their presence and their intended actions to other motorists. The only way we can communicate with other motorists is visually through lighting or hand signals (and by hand signals I do not mean with finger gestures) or audibly via horn or siren. To take your rig out on the road you MUST have working headlamps, turn signals, 4-way hazards, back up lights and tail/stop/turn lights. These are the basic vehicle lights required by most states’ department of motor vehicles (DMV) or department of transportation organizations (DOT).  If these items are not operational they should be repaired prior to the rig heading out on the road. Motorists, while they may not use the lights themselves when they drive, will cry that they didn’t see your brake lights or turn signals, if in fact they were not operational and the non-working light(s) contributed to an accident. Obviously, it is equally important for an emergency response to have working NFPA compliant sirens, emergency lighting and horns or air horns. However, if one bulb is out on a light bar your vehicle is probably not going to be rendered out of service or at critical risk for an accident, but repair should be completed ASAP. My rule of thumb is when it comes to lighting and audible devices — if they are on the rig, they should be in working condition.


Large fire apparatus and other emergency vehicles have many more blind spots than the car, truck or S.U.V. that your fire driver regularly drives to and from the firehouse. For that reason mirrors that are mounted on the rig are not optional equipment. The mirrors should be present, mounted properly so they do not change position while driving, and should be clean, free from cracks/cloudiness and should be properly adjusted. Mirrors are not one size fits all when it comes to their adjustment. Different drivers may have to adjust the mirror(s) to their visibility needs to insure a good field of view and the overall safety of the rig.

Tires and Wheels

I’ll say it like a kindergartner. The tires must be properly inflated. This sounds obvious, but poor tire inflation can lead to hydroplaning and/or loss of control of the apparatus and the potential for roll over. Tread depth, while not something you would check prior to response, should be periodically checked to insure safety. Front “steer” tires would in most cases be considered safe with no less than four mm of tread depth and your rear “duals” should have no less than two mm depth. Keep an eye out for nails, screws or other items that may be stuck in the tire and for sidewall damage or “bulges” that could let go under the stress of operation.

Another key point to remember about fire apparatus tires is that quite often departments that do not log many runs can have rigs that are 15 years old with 10,000 miles on them and that still have the original set of tires. Tires can begin to breakdown around their fifth or sixth year of service, so even if you have great tread depth, and low miles, remember if the tires are aging they might need to be replaced.

As far as your wheels go, drivers need to eyeball the lug nuts to make sure they are all present and that there are no signs of rust or paint chafe under them. That is a clear sign that the lugs may be coming loose. It is a good idea during firehouse downtime every so often to get down on your knees and get your hands on the lug nuts to make sure they truly are tight and seated correctly.

Inside the Rig

Every seating surface should have an operational seat safety belt. I do know that there are some rigs out there that are so old they may not have belts. Again budget being budget in some areas I am sure you would like a shiny new rig if you could get one so you make do with what you have. If your rig has seat belts and they are not operational, this is not an apparatus replacement budget issue, it is a lack of maintenance and almost a derelict behavior issue. Bottom line is get the belts working or replaced or retrofitted in older rigs. If people are not properly belted the rig should not be rolling.

Heaters, defrosters, wipers and interior lighting should work as well. For obvious reasons, even if it is not raining when you head out on the call, we all know the weather can change or a vehicle can pass you and kick up all kinds of mud or slush which can cover your windshield unexpectedly at the worst possible time. Make sure these items are working as well.

Hit the Brakes

Clearly the braking system is the most important system that should be free from defect and deficiencies and is also the system that actually requires mechanical knowledge, experience and tools to maintain properly. However, a driver with limited mechanical knowledge, who is on the ball can recognize potential brake problems. Prior to driving the vehicle anywhere, the driver should never just roll out of the firehouse and into the roadway. The driver should make sure they have a minimum of 90 pounds of building air or more and always allow the rig to roll a few feet and firmly depress the brake pedal. The rig should come to a complete stop with no pulling to one side or strange sounds such as air hissing or grinding of brake components.

During downtime, apparatus drivers should, on a regular basis, crank the wheels all the way to both the left and then the right sides and with a flashlight look inside the wheel well and “eyeball” critical suspension, steering and braking components.

What does somebody with little or no mechanical experience look for in there anyway?

  • Shocks should be free from leaks and connected to the vehicle on each end.
  • Springs should be in place and held together with properly bolted shackles (bolts should have nuts on the other ends).
  • Vehicles with air bag suspension should have bags that appear to be in good shape and not torn, punctured or cracked.

For air brakes, the air chamber air feed hose should be connected on each end, and the push rod should be connected to the slack adjuster with a pin and cotter key. Keep in mind that a qualified technician should complete any adjustments or service on brakes or slack adjusters.

In closing, let me say that while this may seem like a great deal of knowledge for a driver to have in order to drive a fire truck, or even too much to check prior to a response, once you become familiar with these items only a few minutes are needed to give your rig a safety once over. However, the most important part of an apparatus maintenance program is regular preventative maintenance and timely repairs as needed by QUALIFIED technicians and regular replacement of rigs that have seen there better days.

If your rig is poorly maintained or derelict and there is an accident involving significant property damage, injury or death, the buck is going to stop with somebody — is it going to be you?

Your comments or questions are always welcome to [email protected]
Comments & Ratings

  2/21/2013 11:07:50 PM
GG Radebe 

Jnr Firefighter 
I enjoyed reading this article and I have learnt a lot from it as I am a new hero to the service. Now I know thing to check for my safety and stafety of other

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