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Chief says routine for firetrucks falls short

First citywide inspection finds vehicle with bad brakes

Diego Muneton, a technician at Arcand Spring Co. in Allston, inspected the brakes yesterday on Fire Engine 41. Diego Muneton, a technician at Arcand Spring Co. in Allston, inspected the brakes yesterday on Fire Engine 41. (Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)
By Donovan Slack and John C. Drake
Globe Staff / January 13, 2009
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The Boston Fire Department lacks a rigorous schedule for routine maintenance on its firetrucks, relying on a bare minimum of annual inspections that falls short of the regimen of safety checks and repairs recommended by manufacturers, Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser said yesterday.

Adding to concerns that the department does not do enough to take care of its equipment, the first ladder truck inspected after the fatal crash Friday had to be taken out of service yesterday because mechanics discovered loose brake components.

The truck, Ladder 14, was the same make as Ladder 26, the vehicle that crashed into an apartment building in the Mission Hill neighborhood after barreling down Parker Hill Avenue. The accident killed Lieutenant Kevin M. Kelley, who was sitting in the front passenger seat.

Fraser ordered an internal review of the department's inspection and maintenance procedures after he discovered the apparent gaps.

City firetrucks undergo state-mandated safety and firefighting apparatus inspections once a year but do not receive preventive maintenance on a regular basis.

Maintenance has also emerged as an issue in the bitter firefighters' labor dispute. Some maintenance and light repairs are done by unionized firefighters, not licensed truck mechanics.

"If a truck comes in for some other reason, they'll look it over, but as far as a preventive maintenance schedule following manufacurer's recommendations, they don't do that," Fraser said.

City officials say they have been trying for years to hire licensed mechanics who are not firefighters and therefore not members of the firefighters' union, but have been stymied by the union, which opposes the move.

Union president Edward Kelly said last night that he does not oppose the city hiring nonunion mechanics as long as the change is bargained with the union. He blamed the lack of brake inspections on City Hall.

"Certainly had the city been doing that to our vehicles, Kevin Kelley would probably be alive today," he said.

The ladder truck in Friday's crash had not had a brake inspection since March 2008, maintenance records show. E-ONE, the manufacturer of that truck and 43 others in the city's fleet, recommends brake inspections every three months or every 125 hours of continuous service, whichever is sooner. Under that schedule, the truck's brakes would have been inspected three more times last year, with the latest inspection last month.

The National Fire Protection Association, which promulgates national standards, urges following manufacturers' recommendations.

"I intend to initiate a review of our maintenance division to determine how to establish and implement an ongoing apparatus preventive maintenance program," Fraser said.

Fraser's comments came a day after Kelly, the president of the firefighters' Local 718, called for the governor to authorize inspections of the Fire Department fleet by State Police, saying he felt the age and condition of the firetrucks was putting more firefighters' lives in danger.

Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that he was considering the union's request. "We're going to work with the city to give them the resources that they feel they need," he said. "Obviously we share an interest as everyone does in the safety of the firefighters and the adequacy of the equipment."

Kelley was in the passenger seat of Ladder 26 as it returned from a routine medical call about 2:30 p.m. when the driver, Robert Bernard O'Neill, apparently lost control of the truck as it hurtled down a steep hill.

Investigators believe catastrophic brake failure caused the crash, based on the lack of skid marks, dry road conditions, and survivors' accounts that O'Neill was frantically pumping the brakes and yelled "We're not stopping!" as it careered down the hill.

The crash and the revelations about firetruck maintenance come at a difficult time for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who is scheduled to give his State of the City speech this evening at Faneuil Hall. He rewrote his remarks in light of the tragedy and will be delivering the address as a wake scheduled for Kelley at a Quincy funeral home is underway.

"The mayor will attend the wake before his speech and will appropriately honor Lieutenant Kelley during his address," spokeswoman Dot Joyce said.

The Fire Department has 33 fire engines, called pump trucks, and 23 ladder trucks actively in service at any given time. The department also has backup trucks that can be used when the others are being repaired.

Each morning when firefighters begin work at the 34 firehouses around the city, they start the trucks to see that they are running OK. They check aerial equipment, in the case of ladder trucks, and water pumping mechanisms, in the case of engines, department spokesman Steve MacDonald said. They also check lifesaving equipment, such as the Jaws of Life. But they do not perform brake inspections, MacDonald said.

If something needs repair, supervisors at the firehouses notify the department's vehicle maintenance division, which either fixes the problems or sends the trucks out to specialized repair shops. More often than not, the trucks are sent to the outside shops because the maintenance division is composed of firefighters who are not licensed mechanics, MacDonald said. They do not perform brake inspections, either.

Commercial truck experts said rigs with air brakes require daily visual inspections by drivers and more thorough safety inspections every week or so. Truck operators also need to have a preventive maintenance plan for adjusting the air brakes.

"The brakes have to be kept in adjustment, and if they're not kept in adjustment, the braking power of the vehicle is greatly reduced," said Robert Clarke, a member of SAE International and trucking expert. "Maintenance is critical on these vehicles. They're not high maintenance, but they're not zero maintenance, either."

Jeffrey Mazza, owner of Bulldog Fire Apparatus in Woodville, said most fire departments have weekly inspections in which firehouse mechanics go through a checklist to make sure the truck is safe to operate. Those checklists include brake inspections, he said.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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