This is an exact copy of an e-mail I received from a very upset Chief Krill.
Timberlake’s Apparatus Near Miss - Wednesday, February 3, 2010
We can no longer compromise the safety of our responders with inadequate maintenance.
Since I started 19 months ago, emergency responder safety has been my number one concern. We have modified our practices, improved training, and have taken a very conservative approach to emergency operations. A large part of the safety concerns were, and still are, the maintenance of our emergency equipment. I don’t trust our equipment enough to put our folks in hazardous conditions – that’s one reason why we only fight fires from the exterior right now.
Wednesday, we had a transmission specialist (Dave) working on Engine 621 and found some disturbing maintenance issues. We couldn't’t tell how old the batteries were because the dates were not punched out. Commissioner Rudebaugh deciphered the code to determine they were manufactured in July 2003. The batteries were producing less than 12 volts, which directly affects the performance of the transmission. Batteries are supposed to be load tested at least annually and must be taken out of service if they fall below 12.6 volts, we didn’t have a load tester so Tim Fulp borrowed one from Victory Auto Parts and ordered one for us. Batteries on fire apparatus should be replaced at least every 3 years. The voltage drop between the batteries and the transmission ECU was about 1 volt due to corrosion inside the power cables. Commissioner Rudebaugh expedited the delivery of 5 new batteries @ $122 each, cheaper than what we could purchase anywhere else, thanks Rudy.
Dave also noticed a box mounted under the battery tray that was rusting away. Turns out this is the box that contains the master power relay for the entire truck’s electrical system, as we tried to open the box, it was so dilapidated that it fell apart. The components and relays appear to be fine, but the box needs to be replaced.
If that wasn’t enough, we noticed there were two alternators, because as David put it “this truck is a power hog.” Two alternators are not uncommon on older fire trucks, but the 2nd one looked like it was installed by some backyard mechanic with scrap metal and sloppy welds. It will be sent out to ensure the creative mounting will not fall apart.
Hopefully the transmission problem will be solved with the new batteries. If we still experience transmission problems, Trans Pro will loan us a new electronic shifter. If that is the problem, the cost to replace it is $2,000, which is on top of the $700 for their labor Wednesday and $610 for batteries.
Here’s the scary part… After we let it run for 20 minutes on the front pad as Dave instructed, I took it for a test drive with Josh. As we headed west on 54, I noticed something odd with the accelerator pedal – it was stuck and would not release. I tapped it to try to break it loose and it stuck in full throttle position. Luckily we had the brakes fixed a few weeks ago (remember the mechanic said there was so much corrosion on the brakes that we were lucky the truck even stopped). I was able to keep the speed down as I shouted a few choice words pulling into the lumber yard parking lot. Once the transmission down shifted into 1st gear, the brakes would not hold back the truck (still stuck in full throttle) so I quickly switched it into neutral and shut it down before it red-lined. Imagine if we pulled in the driveway of a working house fire with the stuck pedal and ran right into the house. Turning West out of the station, the first stop is usually for a passing train, what if I couldn’t stop? Who would be personally sued?
After we caught our breath and trouble-shooted the problem, we discovered that we could pull up the accelerator pedal by hand to manually release it. I slowly nursed it to Station 3 to take it out of service and move Engine 623 up to Station 1. Tim Fulp met us at Station 3 and found that a sheath on the throttle cable broke and the entire assembly needed to be replaced. Jeff Laird and Tim removed the cable and will try to get it replaced soon. It’s also worth mentioning that the driver’s seat belt needs to be replaced because it took me 5 minutes to get the catch to release so I could get enough belt unwrapped to buckle in. I guess it has been that way for some time; it’s not going to be like that anymore.
It’s important to note that these issues are not related to the work on the transmission Wednesday. I learned this morning that some of our responders have noticed accelerator pedal issues in the past with this truck; the pedal would return slowly. We have become so used to dealing with substandard equipment, that many have come to accept these little quirks with all of our equipment. The throttle cable sheath on Engine 621 had apparently been cracked for some time; it just finally gave way when I happen to be driving it. Please do not accept any little abnormal issues with our equipment; if it doesn’t work like it should then report it immediately to the on duty officer and submit a work order.
I drove Engine 623 to Station 1 with the driver seat in the lowest position because the valve to adjust the seat height has been broken for some time. Some of the dash lights are out, the transmission control panel backlights are out, and the dome light doesn’t work when you open the door. So you have to manually turn on the dome light to see the button to switch from neutral, drive, or reverse. As Jeff Piephoff and I drove to Station 1, you could hear the lose compartment doors rattling behind us because most of the door’s insulation needs to be replaced.
These safety and state of the district issues are not new and are not just my opinion. Since 2005, there have been 8 different fire chiefs (4 associated with Timberlake and 4 from other districts) who all expressed the same themed safety concerns with the state of our equipment. In looking through the meeting minutes, you can also see numerous fire district members also upset about maintenance. After my experience Wednesday, I have never been more convinced that we have a fleet of junk fire trucks that we have never maintained properly. It is chilling to think what we will find next and is almost enough to say “take everything out of service until we know, without a doubt, it is safe to operate;” but that’s not a realistic scenario.
Our fleet has always been neglected, the more we learn about the poor conditions of our assets (vehicles, equipment, and facilities) the more shocking stories we have to tell. Each member of this district is empowered, without hesitation, to take a vehicle or piece of equipment out of service if there is any safety or operational issues with it. Even if you are en route to a working fire - stop and call yourself out of service, don’t risk anything.
We have come a long way with maintenance issues - as far as our personnel, time, and funding limitations would take us, but it is not enough, we keep finding more problems. We have taken the 2 white engines out of service because of maintenance issues, returned the 1966 tender to the department of lands because it was too expensive to repair, and continue to discover more deficiencies in our assets. The frame on Tender 631 was cracked, it went unnoticed for so long and got so bad that it was in imminent failure of the vehicle falling in half. The pending work order list is so long, it’s overwhelming.
As most of you know, Jeff Laird has been doing an outstanding job coordinating our vehicle maintenance issues for the past 7 months. We are sending each vehicle one-by-one to certified mechanics at licensed service centers for evaluation. What they find is always shocking and commonly ask “why haven’t you been maintaining these trucks?” The cost to catch up on all of this neglected vehicle maintenance is trending towards bankrupting this fire district.
If school buses were not maintained properly, would you place your children on them? If you knew an airline had maintenance and safety issues, would you book a flight with them? Well, why should we accept the unsafe conditions of the fire district assets? How do we know that the fire trucks will even make it to the fire?
There are numerous remarks about maintenance issues in past documents and commissioner meeting minutes, complaints from staff on the poor condition of vehicles, and an outcry to properly maintain them. One of the most revealing conversations took place on September 7, 2005. “Brief discussion took place regarding Preventive Maintenance. Commissioner Mertens expressed his opinion that LOF’s on smaller equipment could be done in house, however larger equipment should be sent out. President Scheu indicated his desire to have all preventive maintenance done in house, on a prioritized rotation list.” As a result, nearly all maintenance was done in house by personnel who were not certified mechanics – your safety was compromised. The short sided decisions to go cheap, ignore standards, and disregard safety in the past have caught up to us. I have never and will never accept substandard maintenance. If we can’t do something safely, we won’t do it. If we need to fix something, we are going to do it right - to standard, with quality in mind, and consider the long term impacts.
The 2010 application period for the Assistance to Firefighter Grant is expected to open in April. Jake Capaul and I will be drafting a request for a new engine (rescue/pumper) for Station 1. Although vehicle grants seem to be the most difficult to get awarded, we have no choice but to try. We have no funds to replace our existing aging fleet.
In 2007, we asked two different fire districts to consolidate with us, they both declined because of several issues, primarily because our assets are in such poor condition and the district in general would be too much work getting back up to minimum standards.
In 2005, our former insurance carrier proposed a huge rate increase because of the tremendous risk to insure the district (explained in person by the agent to me and Penney in 2008). The district switched carriers and went out to bid the following year. They asked the former insurance carrier to bid; they declined “because of the district’s losses.” Last year, our current insurance carrier conducted a loss control survey, they supported my findings in the 2008 Needs Analysis and put us on notice to shape up and fix some serious safety concerns. Other chiefs with knowledge of Timberlake and have read the 2008 Needs Analysis also agree with its findings.
I’ve preached the need for additional funding and the potential permanent levy override to fix our safety problems and get us back on track since the 2008 Needs Analysis. Soon, a newsletter on the State of the District will be sent to every mailbox in the fire district and new information will be posted on the web site. In March, we will be hosting town hall meetings to educate the community about our shocking state and express the need for additional funding. We are at risk of losing our fire district insurance rating and closing more stations which will result in increased homeowner insurance premiums to our residents and property owners. In April, the commissioners may decide if the residents will to vote on a permanent levy override and if so, how much that will be. If we proceed, the election will be May 25.
As former Commissioner Scheu reminded those in attendance at the April 7, 2007 commissioners meeting “once they become part of the decision process, then you are allowing yourself to be sued, because once you are informed of a situation you are held accountable.”
We cannot allow a tragedy to occur, we know we are at risk, these safety issues demand immediate attention.
Be safe, drive slow, and watch out for each other. Please report all maintenance problems, safety issues, and near misses to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for all of your continued support and dedication to the district. More information to follow including a message about “Quick Fixes and Fast Results” versus “Foundation Building and Long Term Planning” as it relates to Timberlake.
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