The last few months have tested the fire service — floods, tornadoes, explosions and building collapses. Responders answered the call and stayed until they were just too tired to go on or until they were relieved. Even after responders were relieved, they stood in the background to be sure that they could still be a part of the workings of the incident. Departments set up rehab centers so firefighters had a shady place in which to sit for a few minutes.
Departments have learned over the years how to deploy personnel and equipment so they can function effectively. But the hard lessons come after the incident, where departments learn what they could have done better, faster or with better preparedness.
This isn’t just true of on-scene tactics; it’s also true for apparatus maintenance. Conduct an after-action review to look at what happened with and what is needed for department rigs. Such reviews don’t have to wait until major incidents like those in West, Texas, Boston or Moore, Okla. But for purposes of this article, we will use tornados and explosions as examples.
The visual inspection
The first question EVTs should ask their drivers is simple: What do I need to know? While responding to a tornado or explosion, equipment travels through debris. This can include glass, boards, nails, steel fragments or even caustic chemicals.
Inspect the tires first, if possible before the rigs leave the incident scene. This can eliminate chance of a blowout on the way back to the station. If tire inspection isn’t possible at the scene, it must be the first and highest priority once the crews have returned the unit to its station.
For the first visual inspection, have someone drive the unit in a straight line and look for cuts or splits that open up while the vehicle is moving. Also look for nails and sharp objects at this stage. Check the inside walls of the tires from a creeper, and be sure the truck is chocked and off. Dallas had a rig come in with a substantially sized board jammed between the duals, and I still don’t know why it didn’t sling out coming home.
Demobilization follows the same pattern as old CPR instructions: look, listen and feel.
Look at the general condition of the unit. Is there any body damage or broken-off lights? Are all the tires still inflated? Is anything hanging off the rig like scene lighting, ladder skull savers, side steps or other items of that nature? Remember that in some cases, these units are coming back from figurative war zones — even the best operators are going to come back with damaged equipment after calls like these.
Put the unit up on a set of lifts and take a long look under the rig. Here you will look for leaks, broken plumbing, or low hanging plastic drain lines that are pulled out or strained.
Are there any scrape marks on the engine or transmission pans that might cause problems in the future? How much wire is wrapped around the drivelines and the running gear? Notice I didn’t say “if.” Think of what a tornado or explosion does to a house. Electrical wires, barbed wire and duct wires sometimes are all that remains — and then fire apparatus drives over it. During the inspection, wear gloves, safety glasses and at least a dust mask, because you have no idea what you will find under there.
Perform a complete fluid service and change all of the filters, right down to the desiccant cartridge on the air dryers. Transfer cases and rear-axle housings, as well, especially if the rig responded to a flood scene and traversed through high water.
Trust your other senses
Once you have done the visual inspection, move on to listening and feeling. How does the motor sound? Does anything sound different? Ask the rig’s regular driver to weigh in. Does it feel different when he is driving it? For example, is there lower power or slow takeoff out of the gate?
When there is a lot of debris from explosions, there is a lot of fine dust. Even though you changed the air cleaner element, don’t forget to clear out the ember separator screen. It gets clogged with fine dust prior to the intake hose or tube on the main unit. The dust and debris also wreaks havoc if you forget to look at the radiator front. It clogs the fins and can cause overheating problems. The same dust can clog the charge air cooler fins and cause low power from too much heat.
Don’t forget the fuel coolers and the transmission coolers. A little fine dust in the right places can be a mortal wound if it’s missed. Blow off all of the dust and clean and wash the top side and the undercarriage of the rig. If the emergency was a caustic environment, be sure to collect the runoff and treat it according to accepted safe disposal guidelines.
Get a good coat of wax back on the unit. Check the radios and be sure the antennae remain on the roof. That’s usually a surprise when the radio guru comes after you complaining your transmit signal is weak.
Check your fuel levels and if you refueled at the scene be sure you have high-quality fuel. Sometimes you don’t get the best fuel from a tanker that is there at staging to refuel. In the post-incident debriefing, consider planing for ample supplies of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF). The motor has to run the whole time the unit is on scene. Diesel is easy to get, but try and find DEF in the middle of a mess like a tornado scene.
After a, go over the unit with the same thoroughness as when you bought it. A good inspection finds what’s obvious; a great inspection finds what isn’t. Look, listen and feel — then do it again.
An EVT with more than 20 years of experience, Jimmy Faulkner currently is the service-center manager for the Dallas Fire Department. Faulkner was a customer-service representative for American LaFrance and previously owned Special Equipment Services based in Kaufman, Texas.