According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, thousands of pieces of fire apparatus across the country have been subject to a manufacturer's product recall over the past couple of years. In 2013 alone, NHTSA recorded 35 manufacturer recalls for fire apparatus with a total of 12,749 vehicles involved.
A fire apparatus recall has an obvious effect on a department's ability to provide service to its community; the severity of that impact is tied to the amount of time the apparatus is unavailable for service.
Another loss-of-service impact occurs when a vehicle may still be available for emergency response, but not able to provide its designed range of services. For example, a piece of aerial apparatus can remain in service for its personnel and equipment transportation functions, but the aerial device — ladder, platform, etc. — is not available for use.
In a scenario that's been playing out in communities across the country, the Anderson (Ind.) Fire Department had one of its two pieces of aerial apparatus recalled last year. In a November interview with WTHR 13, Fire Chief Philip Rogers said, "We have many built-up areas and this truck [100-foot aerial] is vital for those built-up areas. We use the truck for rescues. It's a very essential truck for our fire department."
Rogers elaborated on how the department is coping with the recall. "We can use the truck as needed as a water source. We can still use the ladder, raise it up and use it as a water tower.… We just don't want to put a life up there."
When the recall involves a piece of aerial apparatus, this reduction of the vehicle's capabilities is certainly an option while a department waits its turn to have the repairs made that necessitated the recall.
Those departments that experience recalls that affect their engines, tenders and support vehicles are not so fortunate; a recall for those apparatus types generally means that the vehicle must be parked.
Mutual aid has been a part of the fire service culture in the United States almost since the first formal fire companies were formed. That is, when they weren't fighting each other in the street for the right to claim first water on the fire and collect the fire premium from the fire insurance companies at the time.
The sheer number of apparatus recalls in the past few years has taken mutual aid — typically a reactive resource — into the proactive sphere of operations. Some departments — aided greatly by the capabilities of today's generation of computer-aided dispatch systems — have added resources from their neighboring department to the initial dispatch complement to make up for a piece of apparatus from their department that's out of service due to a recall.
Other departments are taking a less aggressive approach of having those neighboring resources pre-alerted so that their response time can be minimized should the requesting department need them.
Departments that rely on mutual aid from neighboring volunteer fire companies may find this approach to be more appealing to their neighbors as it can help minimize the staffing impact on the giving department. That might be especially true if the requesting department has a high call volume, but a low number of working fires where the mutual aid resource is going to be put to work.
Who hasn't had that unexpected expenditure that lays a big hit on the household budget? There is the car that died on the highway, the water heater that heated its last gallon or the youngster who has to have braces, now.
Fire chiefs, budget directors and local governments have been facing similar fiscal challenges when they've had a piece of fire apparatus recalled and they have no mutual-aid resources available.
When Pennsylvania's Centre Region Council of Government had its 100-foot aerial ladder apparatus recalled, the council's leaders were compelled to purchase a replacement vehicle because it was unclear (and remains unclear) when, or if, their recalled apparatus might return service.
CRCOG purchased a 1991 aerial truck from a fire department in Alameda, Calif., for $51,000 to replace its recalled aerial until it is returned to service. The ultimate apparatus solution will likely come from restructuring the council's fire apparatus replacement schedule to replace the recalled apparatus and push back replacing other apparatus in the fleet.
Out of options
Jeff Carman, fire chief for the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Fire Protection District, said, "Many of our Type III wildland apparatus had to be altered this last quarter, having their four-wheel drive disengaged due to a design flaw. There is currently no fix, so we are headed into next fire season with no four-wheel drive capability. This has affected many fire agencies across the nation."
The Gainesville Times reported in August 2014 that the Georgia fire department where three firefighters were injured in July 2014 in an aerial device failure had replaced its fire chief following the incident. Just a month earlier, in June, three Erie, Pa., firefighters were injured in a similar incident involving an aerial device manufactured by the same company as the apparatus involved in the Georgia incident.
The manufacturer said improper cables were installed during a rebuild. After the incident in Georgia, the truck manufacturer issued an immediate recall.
Following incidents like these that have precipitated apparatus recalls, fire department leaders can count on being asked by their bosses about what they knew, when they knew it, and what did they do about it.
Accounts incidents involving fire apparatus appear every day (unfortunately) across many on-line fire service trade journals, blogs and social media platforms. Depending upon the severity of the event, it may even attract the attention of national media outlets.
Fire service leaders need to identify reliable sources of information about fire apparatus incidents and monitor those channels to stay informed about what's happening to other departments. That process should include how to red flag information when it becomes available by asking these three questions.
- Do we operate the same type and manufacturer of apparatus?
- What was the cause of the incident?
- What action, if any, should we take based on this information?
Also, don't just be a user of information. Be proactive and share information on social media about fire apparatus issues that happen in your neck-of-the-woods. When other fire service professionals post reliable information about apparatus incidents, share it across your social media networks to expand the reach.
So, what are you and your department's leadership doing to learn about recall messages like this when they're first issued, rather than weeks or months later? And, do you have a plan for when one of your rigs is the subject of a recall message?