MABAS's rolling garage is deployed in the aftermath of long-term disasters, such as hurricanes and tornadoes. The mobile facility enables apparatus to be repaired on the spot and stay properly maintained, even when it is deployed for weeks at a time.
In April 2004, Illinois’ Mutual Aid Box Alarm System responded to tornadoes that killed nine and devastated the small town of Utica. It was the group’s first large-scale regional deployment, and then–MABAS President Jay Reardon said response was made easier by the devastation being so close to a metropolitan area. Utica is 90 miles southwest of Chicago, and that allowed MABAS to support the on-site forces. MABAS also was able to dispatch EVTs to maintain the vehicles for the duration of the incident.
“It was during Utica in 2004 that we learned … we would need support or reach-back capabilities for servicing fire trucks during a,” Reardon said.
Lessons from Katrina
That was an important lesson, as just more than a year later, MABAS responded to Hurricane Katrina with an initial surge of 12 ladder trucks, 38 engine companies, multiple squads and associated support equipment for a total of nearly 200 vehicles. MABAS had not developed a formalized plan for vehicle maintenance after Utica, but it did send a few mechanics to accompany the convoy. The EVTs took two vehicles with them for support: a converted plumbing truck with basic tools and equipment and an old Mack truck with a crane and trailer-mounted refueling tank.
Agencies responding to Katrina were advised not to come into the area unless they were self-sufficient, so as to not tax the local resources. Round Lake (Ill.) Fire Chief Paul Maplethorpe had a connection to a supply company that donated a tank, which was chained on top of a 20-ton trailer and deployed to the staging area in Effingham, Ill.
“I grabbed parts out of our shop — every tire and [for] stuff that goes wrong,” said John Rikje, a mechanic for the Gurnee (Ill.) Fire Department. “That’s what the military did and that’s what we did when I worked for waste management. You have to be able to help these guys when trucks break down.”
Rikje and the mechanics deployed with the task force and by the time they reached southern Illinois, trucks were having problems with overheating. The team also quickly went through tires on the fire trucks. “Tires look great with Armor All on them, but with 10,000 miles or 10 years, tires fall apart on the road,” Rikje said.
Ten vehicles experienced mechanical problems while traveling the 1,100 miles between Chicago and Louisiana. The convoy mechanics were able to resolve nine of the 10 vehicle problems; a blown engine could not be fixed in the field.
The convoy itself was divided into 12 individual convoys with around a dozen vehicles each. MABAS coordinators calculated the refueling locations and coordinated the stops with the state police along the way. Convoy commanders directed trucks to their fuel stops and staggered push-out times — about 30 minutes between the convoys — so they wouldn’t bunch up at refueling stops.
“Number four on the list of 40 lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina was, ‘Don’t move a convoy without maintenance support,’” Reardon said.
What initially looked like a two-week deployment for 150 vehicles turned into six weeks with nearly 250 pieces of emergency apparatus. In that time, three things became obvious: First, vehicles moving for any extended period of time need maintenance — not just repair. Second, fuel is a very valuable asset in a disaster zone. Lastly, fleet support is an important investment.
Formalizing the Plan
After returning to Illinois, administrators acknowledged the need to organize and formalize a mechanics’ component for MABAS deployment. The organization assembled a focus group with a half-dozen mechanics — including Rikje and the other mechanics who deployed to Katrina — and reached out to the statewide mechanics’ association. Because the mechanics were the subject-matter experts in apparatus maintenance and repair, MABAS made a commitment to support their input and asked what would be required to meet the challenges of long-term deployments and mobilization in the future.
The answer was a mobile garage that could provide onsite apparatus maintenance and repair during long-term deployments. Reardon submitted the $600,000 cost as part of MABAS’sfunding package through the Illinois Terrorism Task Force and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
The next step was to formalize the Fleet Maintenance Committee, which now is a standing committee within MABAS required to develop an annual plan that supports its primary mission — support mobilized equipment and resources sent to declared disasters. The plan is one of the core documents submitted as part of MABAS’s grant proposals, and becomes a reality 12 to 18 months after the organization submits the proposal, based on normal grant cycles.
Rikje and his team developed the mobile-garage concept over a six-month period, and made four major revisions to how the project could be implemented. Rikje originally worked for waste management and drove heavy-duty wreckers, so he was comfortable with the concept of roll-off trucks. Thus the vehicle design went from a straight-frame maintenance vehicle typically used on construction-site vehicles to a semi-trailer with added roll-off sea containers.
Each of MABAS’s specialized response teams — technical rescue, hazmat, water rescue and recovery, and the Illinois Urban Search and Rescue Task Force — uses sea containers or field drop boxes, known as pods, to carry equipment. Eventually MABAS expanded that idea to packing each container with supplies for self-sustainment.
“There is the old military adage, ‘If you can’t sustain the fight, don’t start the fight,’” Reardon said. “If you’re going to go to the war you better be able to sustain the operation. The same principal applies to us in the fire service with the expectations that are placed before us today.”
The mechanics’ pod — aka the Mobile Field Mechanics Workshop — is designed to be moved or left in place while its chassis is off on other duties.
Speaking of the chassis, the design team decided to purchase a much heavier one than those being used for the MABAS sea containers or pods because the Mobile Fleet Maintenance Unit is tightly packed with necessary tools, equipment and a 60-kW generator for power and lighting. Inside the unit, secured drawers and racks contain a cache of nuts and bolts, air brake chambers, brake lines and repair kits. A Miller welder, drill press, bench grinder, vices and diagnostic tools also are secured inside the mobile shop.
“We needed stuff inside the container that would keep us out of the hardware store and out of the parts store,” Rikje said.
The design team also added a crane-lift unit that could be used both by mechanics to service vehicles, and by operational teams on the scene of a building collapse. The crane is similar to a standard model used in construction — and it’s a component that has proved useful.
“Too often in the fire service, vehicles are non-traditional and departments get stuck with single-purpose vehicles,” Rikje said. “It may seem like overkill, but down in Katrina, we were able to open up secondary egresses to neighborhoods, we moved boats and debris out of the way, [and moved] big tires and wheels by ourselves.
"It’s not a huge crane, but it’s significant and we know its limitations. We could use it in a technical-rescue situation if you needed an anchor point to rappel down a manhole.”
The final piece is a 2,000-gallon fuel trailer that is towed behind the chassis or left in locations where the need for fuel is identified. The trailer carries diesel fuel as well as 100 gallons of gasoline.
“What we’ve learned in disasters or any kind of large event is that fuel is a very difficult commodity to get and a very-high-value commodity to maintain,” Reardon said. “We’re looking at expanding our refueling capability beyond this with some additional capabilities to our search-and-rescue team capabilities.”
MABAS mechanics did much of the work on the mobile workshop themwselves. According to Rikje, building and outfitting the mobile maintenance shop became a labor of love for the mechanics involved, especially trying to fit it into the final budget.
According to Reardon, some participating MABAS departments have smaller fleet-service vehicles that respond to fires and provide local fleet support, but he doesn’t think any are as robust as the regional unit. In fact, MABAS is confident enough in the ability of its repair unit that it has offered to support the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS) in their responses.
MABAS deployed the mobile garage during hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, and the maintenance coverage included 500 square miles in the bayous of southern Louisiana. Mechanics were out and about doing preventive maintenance to keep the vehicles operational. The mechanics developed a maintenance plan and informed the incident commander of their schedule and tried to provide emergency service when needed.
The Mobile Fleet Maintenance Unit has been deployed on many training exercises, including to USAR readiness drills, which offer an opportunity to test the system.
What You Can Do
Rikje suggested that fire departments consider standardizing vehicles for large-scale deployments. If your department is deployed, and bring a package of parts for your vehicle and the truck’s specification sheet.
“If something breaks and you have a spec sheet, we can go find [the problem] quicker without opening hoods and scratching for numbers,” Rikje said.
Emergency-response agencies today can be called on a response that lasts weeks and traverses thousands of miles. Agencies must be able to self-sustain. Fleet-maintenance personnel need housing, food, water and essentials for at least the first 72 hours. But its important to have a system in place to maintain the logistical supply train.
“If everything is devastated, you have to have the ability to house those people so they can be somewhat relaxed, rehabilitated and refreshed every time they get done working an 18-hour shift in the field and are expected to go to work six hours later,” Reardon said. “If we in the fire service are going to be prepared for the new challenges, which is a declaration of disaster response — whether inside your state or outside your state — we have to be able to understand, define and resolve the issues of self-sustainment.
“There is a significant difference in responding to a fire for an hour and a half then returning to quarters and a deployment to a disaster response.”
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