Out of Service

Yankee ingenuity has long played a major role in the fire service. The “can-do” tradition has been operating behind the scenes since Ben Franklin organized the first department in Philadelphia, and it has led to an institution of doing more with less, making things work and extending the life of equipment.

For example, creating, converting and refurbishing apparatus are the sole means of apparatus acquisition for many departments across the country. And departments that transition from smaller to larger, rural to suburban to urban, or volunteer to career departments all face difficult decisions about service needs and fleet maintenance.

This month’s featured report (07-688) involves a piece of apparatus that’s one of the department’s “sentimental favorites.” However, when the sound of screeching brakes dies and the dusty blur of evasive driving clears, there’s more than one indicator that this crew was lucky it wasn’t the one put out to pasture.


Event Description

” ? Our brush truck has an overhead screen and seats for two pump operators but no seatbelts. We pulled out onto the road and activated our siren and warning lights. Our emergency lighting consists of one magnetic-mount mini light bar that’s placed on the back of the tank and one light bar on top of the cab. The switch that controls the light bar is not the right type, so you cannot run both lights at the same time. This had been noted in the daily inspection for several months.

” ? We approached the intersection where the two-lane road crosses the loop ?. Due to our slow speed and lack of proper emergency lighting, no one recognized us as an emergency vehicle. Traffic started slowing and my driver started pulling out. I told my driver ‘No!’ repeatedly, but he was unable to hear me over the engine ?. We pulled out with an 18-wheeler approaching from the driver’s side and a 1-ton pickup hauling a trailer approaching from the passenger side. Both vehicles were doing approximately 65-75 mph at the time, and both had to take evasive action to avoid hitting our truck. The 18-wheeler locked up his brakes and the pickup was forced onto the shoulder of the highway.”


Lessons Learned

  1. “Apparatus appropriateness: This truck is a converted 6 x 6 from the military. The conversion was done by members of this department. There’s a lot of pride involved, and feelings get hurt whenever it’s suggested that the truck is not the most useful. Our response area has evolved from rural areas with open pastures to patches of brush surrounded by high-speed highways and heavy traffic.
  2. “Maintenance: Our crews perform daily inspections on our vehicles and note the deficiencies. However, no action is taken beyond the report being turned in. We have noted missing and inoperative driving and emergency lights; tires with no tread, tires with cuts in sidewalls and tread areas; missing and broken hand tools; and frayed fuel lines ? Any repairs are usually attempted by the crew itself. We have addressed this with our shift officer. However, no improvements have been noted ? much of the old ‘baling wire and duct tape’ mentality still exists.
  3. “Communication: ‘No!’ can sound a lot like ‘Go!’ especially when an engine is screaming in your ear. My driver was not my normal driver and was unfamiliar with my commands. I was also distracted by having to juggle two handheld radios since our brush truck is not equipped with a radio. As the acting officer, I need to remember the high-noise environment and use more nonverbal cues to communicate dangers. In short, I’m going to throw the radio at him.
  4. “Route selection and driving: A truck that tops out at 45 mph should not be trying to dart across a 70-mph highway. Drivers must be trained on the limitations of the vehicles and the dangers of operating on high-speed roads.
  5. “Truck phase-out: This truck was a useful member of the fleet and was well built for its purpose of crashing through open field and light brush. But our area has evolved into suburban sprawl with very few needs for a heavy brush unit. We need to plan ahead for a smaller and faster unit.”



If you’ve spent any time in a military 6 x 6, you can empathize with this reporter and crew. The practice of converting vehicles from civilian or military use to fire apparatus is not likely to stop anytime soon. Obtaining a military cast-off is like manna for struggling fire departments and departments looking to enhance their fleets on a shoestring. Even with Fire Act Grants, NFPA 1901 Appendix A and generous gifts from the public, converted apparatus will continue to fill apparatus bays across the country. But we must find a way to retire old rigs before the shoestring frays and disintegrates.



  • Consider the vehicle’s capabilities in terms of your area’s roads. Many military vehicles are geared low and have governed speeds that make them a menace on the roads, even with warning lights and sirens.
  • Before embarking on any refurbishments, ask your local state police truck inspection team or commercial fleet trucking inspection shop to inspect it. Vehicle maintenance and safety issues must be identified and corrected before the first coat of red paint is applied.
  • Consult the appropriate NFPA standard for the vehicle’s desired classification and strive to meet the standard.
  • Define guidelines for using the vehicle. Some members believe that because the vehicle was once military, it can be driven harder and take abuse not normally given to civilian fire apparatus.
  • Develop a comprehensive apparatus check-out procedure that’s firmly rooted in best practices. VFIS offers a great program that departments can use to create and conduct proper vehicle maintenance and service checks. Visit www.vfis.com/education_training.htm and browse the categories.
  • Prepare a driver-training program that includes a detailed list of each vehicle’s dimensions, handling requirements, minimum driving hours for check-out and periodic practical driving exercises for qualified drivers.



  • Like anything, vehicles have a lifespan. To determine lifespan, take into account the engine hours, miles driven, physical age, repair list and defects. The key is to retire the vehicle before it fails catastrophically. Do not wait for the proverbial “hunk of junk” sign to be hung from the light bar before the rig is moved to the parade fleet. When the vehicle reaches its retirement date, put it out of service. No amount of sentimental longing for “just one more ride” justifies killing a firefighter.
  • Vehicle repairs must be performed by qualified mechanics. Most firefighters can readily replace light bulbs and wiper blades, tighten screws, etc. Leave brakes, fuel filters, alignments, suspension systems and tires to professionals.
  • Maintain a small cadre of drivers for converted apparatus. It’s better if only a few capable drivers operate these vehicles; in fact, fewer drivers on all apparatus has been shown to generally improve recognition of vehicle problems, reduce out-of-service time and reduce collisions.

Every fire department welcomes additions to the fleet. The converted rig, especially if it’s built in-house, will occupy a special place in the department’s history and members’ hearts. However, fire chiefs and officers at all levels must be able to recognize when a rig, which was tired when it was delivered, reaches its last legs.

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