Learning from Tragedy at the Boston Fire Department

On the afternoon of January 9, 2009, the brakes on Ladder Company 26 failed, and the truck ran down Parker Street in Mission Hill, cutting across Huntington Street, and crashing into a building, taking the life of Lt. Kevin Kelley and injuring the driver and several other passengers.

Following the accident, the City commissioned an outside study of the Boston Fire Department’s fleet management practices that put forward some harsh findings about the BFD and provided a clear set of recommendations. The study found that the fleet’s management was largely haphazard, as evidenced by a vicious cycle of poorly qualified mechanics who either did questionable work or were unable to properly judge work done by outside vendors, so firefighters became reluctant to report problems and get trucks serviced. A separate inquiry into the crash found multiple breakdowns in protocol — improper parts, limited testing, weak documentation.

The first step toward a solution was the city’s willingness to commission a clear-eyed, direct assessment of the problem. But the next step is harder — is there the will to make sometimes painful cultural changes and implement reforms? What’s changed in the BFD’s fleet management practices over the ensuing two years?

First, through a negotiated process, a better trained mechanical staff was put in place. A staff of 12 uniformed firefighters was moved back out into the field and replaced by a civilian staff with higher levels of certification. In addition, the position of Fleet Safety Coordinator was created to provide a central point for all fleet safety issues.

Next, a systematic program of preventive maintenance was put in place. Stunningly, until this point, the BFD with a large fleet of heavy duty vehicles did not do preventive maintenance — combine that with the disincentives to report smaller problems, and the conditions for a tragic accident were in place long before the 2009 crash. Firefighters now complete a daily visual inspection checklist for each piece of apparatus (currently on paper, but slated to automated shortly) and the maintenance division began using asset management software to track the condition of each piece of equipment. In the words of Boston Fire Department director of transportation Shawn Herlihy, the daily checklist “makes the driver responsible” for the equipment and the software “makes the department responsible.”

Third, the department restructured its relationship with outside vendors. Previously, outside vendors took advantage of the department’s poor fleet management practices. Under the old system, most major repairs were due to acute problems, so many were done under ’emergency procurement’ rules, effectively no-bid contracts. Then, the maintenance staff was not always qualified to determine if repairs were done properly, so some outside repair work was not held to a proper standard, allowing improperly repaired vehicles back into service.

Under the revamped system, major repairs can be done on a scheduled basis and are bid out to several vendors. The Fleet Safety coordinator or director of transportation certify all repairs.

The higher level of mechanic qualification also allowed the maintenance division to reconfigure what it outsourced and in-sourced. It was able to pull certain outside services in-house, such as inspection. The division was also able to become certified by several manufacturers to perform warranty work, which has the virtue of allowing them to do the work in-house while being paid by the manufacturer. In addition, performing this work in-house allows the BFD garage to take advantage of their 24-7 operations (versus a 9 to 5 outside vendor) and get vehicles back in service faster.

On the other hand, BFD chose to outsource its parts procurement to an outside vendor, who operates an on-site supply shop but carries the inventory. In the past, there was an in-house parts operation that had a costly and poorly documented supply of inventory and was deemed inefficient.

It took a tragedy to shine a light on the haphazard practices of the department. But, on the strength of an unblinking analysis by a fleet management expert and the will to make substantial changes, the BFD has made tremendous progress. They’ve done the big things right — better qualified staff, consistent and systematic preventive maintenance — and they’ve also done some of the smaller things — mixing in-house and outsourcing based on the organization’s strengths — very well. For a department that struggles at times to get good press, their progress in fleet management is a real success.


Crossposted at Pioneer Institute’s Blog.