How Long Do Fire Engines Last?

A few days ago in Boston, a 30 ton fire engine crashed into a building, killing the passenger in the front seat. The preliminary report cites brake failure:
My question: fire engines are basically customized trucks. They don’t (in most cities) travel a large number of miles, but they are driven hard (you have to get to a fire quick). So how long do these things last? I assume that most fire departments rebuild their trucks-I see quite a few older ones in use.
Anybody know what would cause both the prime braking system andthe emergency brakes to fail this way?

The primary fire truck at one of my company’s plants looks like it’s from the 50’s. It’s gorgeous, and would be a nice museum piece.

I’ve got a cowoker who just transfered here from an engineering position at a major fire truck company. But, today is his day off. If there’s no definitive answer by tomorrow, I’ll pick his brain.

Of the 5 my department owns, 3 are over 30 years old. FWIW, I’m in a small, rural volunteer department, so they don’t run anywhere near as much as an urban truck.

The typical pumper has 500 to 1000 gallons of water on board, which is waaaaay heavy, so the tires and brakes take the heaviest regular beating. Our 2 tankers carry 3000 gallons each, and are the hardest to handle when driving.

The auxiliary fire service in the UK (not the regular fire brigades) used Bedford ‘Green Goddesses’ built in the early to mid-1950s up until 1968, when they were mothballed except for occasional use right up to 2002 or so, when they were finally declared redundant and sold off, mainly to developing countries (where they might still be used today, I don’t know).
In theory, the oldest ones, if still in use, could be 55 or 56 years old…
Wikipedia article

As with any question regarding the fire service, it depends.

The first question is how busy is that piece of apparatus. An engine or a ladder in a major city such as Boston could be running out the door as much as 3000 to 4000 times a year - 8 to 11 times a day. Average distance is one to two miles to the call, then one to two miles back. As much as 40 or 50 miles a day, not including distance travelled to inspections and training, maintenance for the vehicle, or other extra duties.

Once a truck is on scene, it’s generally still not done working. An engine (pumper) uses the driving engine to power the pump. The pumping load applied to an engine is the same as the truck driving at 50-60mph. The suspension isn’t being stressed as it would be driving over the road, but the hourmeter is still spinning. It can be pumping anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 days, depends on the fire. Figure 30 minutes or so, average. That’s a lot of use for a vehicle, which, as was said above, doesn’t benefit from warm-ups or gentle driving habits.

In a slower department, the truck may roll out the door 200 times a year or less. Less use = longer lifespan (usually).

One also has to take the maintenance department of the city or town in question into consideration. How well do they take care of the trucks? That can be a reflection of the city administration towards the fire department. What is the feeling of the community towards the fire service? In Boston, throughout the 1970’s, the city administration hated the fire department, and thus they ran with old, decrepit trucks. Through the late 1980’s and 90’s, the apparatus situation was straightened out somewhat.

What are the financial capabilities of the city? When I was in college in the 90’s, the city of Milford, Ct bought a new fire engine every year. I don’t think they had a front line piece of apparatus older than 5 or 6 years. Compare that with Fall River, Ma through the early to mid 1990’s - the city’s been broke since 1929, and their fire engines showed it. They were running 1960’s trucks up until the late 90’s.

The fire department in my town, when I started in the early 90’s, was still running a 1948 Ford as a brush truck. We got rid of it shortly after I came on and replaced it with a home-built 1978 military surplus pickup. This past September, we removed a 1967 Mack pumper from service and replaced it with a 2008 engine. The oldest front line engine in my town is now a 1992, our ladder is a 2000. I’d consider that about average for a Massachusetts town.

In the airport industry, the FAA will (sometimes) give you money to replace an airport fire engine after 10 years. The airport I’m employed at just replaced a 1997 truck with a 2008. The '97 has been placed in reserve, replacing a 1989 truck that was the reserve truck (it’s up for auction right now if you are looking for a nice off-road toy…)

Travelling outside of southern New England, you can find quite a range of apparatus ages. On Long Island (home of the fire cathedrals), I don’t think there’s a front line truck less than 5 years old. Go into some of the less affluent areas of the country, or even in small towns, and you’ll find 1950’s trucks running as front line equipment. Those departments fuel their apparatus with money from raffles and pancake breakfasts - how they can afford to buy a new truck is beyond me.

The national concensus standard, NFPA 1901, the Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, says that no front line truck should be more than 15 years old, and no reserve truck should be more than 20 years old. That’s a nice idea, but realistically, it’s not always possible to make apparatus purchases to keep up with that schedule.

In regards to the Boston accident, those of us in the fire service around here have our ideas of what happened (it’s been a big topic of conversation in fire stations over the past several days), but I’m not going to post in a public forum any of those conversations out of respect for the investigative process that Boston is running through as we speak.

Barring sabotage, the answer pretty much has to involve substandard inspection and maintenance.

There is nothing inherently difficult about the work necessary to maintain brakes on older vehicles. There may come a time when replacement parts become rare and expensive, which could well be a financial argument for a new truck. But there is no reason an old fire truck should necessarily be dangerous.

Most heavy trucks have Air Brake systems, I do not know for certain what this truck had but in many situations especially “frantically pumping” is wrong, dangerous, and the reaction of panic.

Unfortunately some states do not require Firefighters to be licensed for these heavy trucks. Minnesota is one, and I don’t know how far spread that is.

Some are apparatus built on a conventional truck body, and some are custom, that means they are built from the ground up by the apparatus manufacture.

In this case from what little information is given at this time I would say the top cause would/could be “Human”.
Where do you get this term “Emergency brakes” from? what used to be called an emergency brake is today called a parking brake. There are features built into a system to assist in an emergency, but the operator needs to recognize signs of failure and take action before these features would be of great benefit.
An example of this would be the “Low Air Pressure Alarm”. If this alarm is activated it means (and I am giving an example for air brake systems only here) the air pressure is now below 60psi and a heavy truck going down a hill would have to use other methods of slowing down before that pressure would be able to stop the truck. One has to look for means of slowing down outside of the truck, that is why we have truck runoffs on our freeways in hilly areas.

As stated in a previous post many fire trucks have few miles on them, but the brakes do get hard use.
NFPA has guidelines that once read really become rules and OSHA sets laws that regulate many parts of the fire service. If this department that was involved with this tragedy is in violation of any of these, It will be hard on all involved.

Slightly off-topic: in the event of brake failure in a large truck like this one, could the driver simply have thrown the truck into park or reverse? Obviously, that’s going to mean a new gearbox, but would it stop the truck (or at least slow it?)

Your entire post was excellent, but this part is Golden.

I doubt it, I don’t think the reverse gear, or the parking ‘sprag’ or whatever it is called, would engage at all, if anything downshifting would be the most effective aside from steering the truck into many small soft objects, very soft ground, huge snowbanks or intentionally sideswiping a guard rail.

I drive an aerial built by the same manufacturer as Boston L26, only 5 years newer. The transmission in a modern fire engine is electronically controlled, to the point that the gear shift (if there is an actual handle) or control pad (three buttons, N, D, and R) is only connected to the transmission by an electrical cable. When you request (yes, request) a gear, the transmission’s computer evaluates what the truck is doing, what the engine is doing, and how to resolve all of those variables before it actually places the gears in a certain position. I know my ladder will not acknowlege a request to go into a lower gear if you are travelling too fast for it to safely engage. I’m gentle enough with my truck that I haven’t shifted into reverse while rolling forward, and I don’t plan on attempting it. Given the safety systems built to save the engine and drivetrain, I’m going to say that shifting into reverse would not stop a fire engine.

None of our trucks with automatic transmissions have a ‘Park’. The vehicle is designed to park in neutral with the airbrakes set. The one ancient tanker with a manual transmission is also parked in neutral.

Even with a light car, putting a forward moving vehicle in reverse is a guaranteed method of leaving the transmission all over the highway.

Yes, but it will also effectively slow a car. Since the alternative in this scenario was “die”, destroying the transmission doesn’t seem like that bad an outcome.

After years of lurking, a post that I couldn’t resist and had to join :smiley:
Mythbusters tested this recently, and using both an automatic and a manual transmission, absolutely nothing happened (other than a hell of a lot of grinding in the manual) when they put either one into reverse at speed, or the automatic into park.

This happened when I was living in Columbus in 2002. It was like a scene from the Grand Theft Auto games. The engine they were driving was an older one pressed into temporary service because the regular engine was undergoing repairs. The brakes failed coming up towards an intersection and the engine ended up crashing into a bar and tipping over.

Although entertaining, the mythbusters are not the final answer to many questions poised. Just because they say “It’s Busted” is “Bull”. But they do a good job on many test also, and it would be fun to be in their place:p

As for the Auto in reverse (car, old, not Fire Truck). I accidentally slipped my 1971 Buick centurion into reverse one morning and there was a very noticeable reduction in speed and I was able to get it into neutral fast enough to prevent destroying the trany.
Why/How? =Young/Dumb
It was a see how far car could coast into town on the return home from midnight shift. after about 10 times the natural caution exercised in placing selector into neutral gave way to a careless bump that went to far and almost left me carless:smack:

Thanks! Also, welcome to the Dope!

Your post notwithstanding, if my brakes fail at speed and my options are “do nothing, hit tree” and “stick it in park”, I’m still sticking it in park.

If you have the time to do a useless action like stick it in park, you would do yourself better to steer away from said tree, or maybe steer to the smaller tree;).

at under 3 mph the park pawl will not engage. you will here something like an old bait cast fishing reel with line pulled in the ratchet mode, sometimes referred to as sounding like a coffee grinder.

Well said, and one shouldn’t take Mythbusters as a be all and end all. In all honesty I don’t understand the why and how of what happened on that particular test and was hoping someone could either confirm or deny it specifically.