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A Higher Level of Care

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I actually felt a shake, said Warren Leach, Fleet Services Division chief of Alexandria, Va., in mid-April – reflecting back nearly five years to when he had been sitting in his office about four miles south of the Pentagon, on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Frederic Ric Hiller, Equipment Bureau chief for Arlington County, recalled, Some of our mechanics saw the plane [American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757] flying north very low above I-395, heading toward Washington. Immediately after the Pentagon impact every single emergency frontline vehicle, all of our resources, turned toward the Pentagon. In our maintenance bays our mechanics immediately put every police car, firetruck and ambulance which was offline for regular maintenance back in service. Everything we had responded, and stayed on the site for two weeks. During that time our maintenance employees had 12-hour on- and off-duty shifts.

Arlington County is home to the Pentagon, the Armys Ft. Myer and the much-larger Arlington National Cemetery. By policy and law, the county is the first responder to a Pentagon emergency. Nineteen pieces of fire apparatus, 10 medic units with Advanced Life Support capability and 166 police cruisers serve Arlingtons 26 square miles, safeguarding 200,000 residents and a daily work force of about the same number, including 25,000 at the Pentagon.

Hiller, responsible for maintaining all of Arlingtons vehicles, vividly remembers 9/11 and the following two weeks. We were at the Pentagon within minutes, just after the first emergency vehicle arrivals from nearby Reagan National Airport. He described small scenes from that horrific incident: The plane came in so low that it clipped a light pole, which went right through the windshield of a taxicab on the adjacent Route 27 and just missed the driver. The impact destroyed a Pentagon firetruck, the crash unit that services their heliport. Two firemen, fortunately, had just left the truck and were a short distance away on the opposite side when the plane came in.

The nearby city of Alexandria is smaller than Arlington, with a population of 138,000 and not quite 16 square miles. It has 16 fire apparatus, eight medic units and 300 police vehicles. And like Arlington, on the morning of September 11, 2001, we immediately turned every emergency vehicle toward the Pentagon, said Leach. Sirens wailed unendingly through the day, as emergency vehicles from every jurisdiction within 50 miles converged on the Pentagon.

No Days Ordinary

9/11 was a monumental emergency – a unique event. But whether natural, man-made, a result of an accident or crime, emergencies will occur. The federal Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Administration may coordinate the response to regional or national emergencies, but most emergencies are local in nature. That means local jurisdictions are responsible for having resources on hand to meet day-to-day emergencies – such as multiple simultaneous traffic accidents, a lightning strike causing a major fire, a murderous rampage by a criminal, a terrorist attack, an elderly person falling down, or even a minor incident like removing the proverbial cat from a tree.

The good news is that both Leach in Alexandria and Hiller in Arlington, with 67 years of service between them, report that there was not a single case of a lubrication problem during the two weeks of high-stress, round-the-clock duty following the Pentagon crash. Nor in their knowledge and memory there has ever been a failure of an emergency vehicle related to a lubricant.

Urban and densely populated, Alexandria and Arlington County may not be exactly representative of the tens of thousands of other local jurisdictions across the country, but they clearly share similarities with all local jurisdictions when it comes to emergency response. Their performance over the years and especially during the Pentagon emergency suggests that, at least in suburban Washington, D.C., the critical nature of lubricants is recognized and proper usage adhered to.

Keeping Fit

Maintaining vehicles on a strict, regular basis is the key to avoiding failures. Sure, said Hiller, weve had emergency vehicle breakdowns but none directly related to lubrication. We use SAE 10W-30 in all of our gasoline engines and 15W-40 in most of our diesel-powered vehicles, and 10W-30 in the rest. We traditionally use only mineral oil, not synthetic because its too expensive. However, we follow the vehicle manual closely and use whatever is recommended; if the manual recommends a synthetic we will, of course, use it. For example, we use synthetic transmission fluid. Over the past few years all of our heavy-vehicle fleet has been converted to synthetic transmission fluid in order to qualify for an extension in our manufacturers warranty, from three years to five years.

Hiller added, Our emergency vehicles, police, fire and ambulances get a full preventive maintenance inspection, bumper to bumper, based on hours in use, miles of service and amount of fuel used. For heavy trucks and medic units our schedule is four times a year; for fire apparatus and police vehicles its every four months. That preventive maintenance visit always includes a careful review of lubrication needs, particularly the crankcase.

In Alexandria, a similar maintenance cycle is seen. However, says Leach, Our bumper-to-bumper maintenance schedule includes an inspection every four months for firetrucks and every three months for the ambulances. That time-frame works for us.

Maintenance shops are responsible for periodic maintenance, and Arlingtons 28-bay facility is often crowded with police cars, school buses, fire equipment, even motorcycles. But it doesnt stop there. Emergency responders – police officers, ambulance drivers, fire department employees and other operators – are responsible for a daily check of equipment, including an under-the-hood check of the oil, Hiller says. Our commercial drivers have a substantial maintenance checklist, pre-trip and post-trip. A problem – for example, a low dipstick reading – is immediately reported to us and we check it out.

The same holds in Alexandria, Leach said. Our operators are instructed to do a daily check including the oil level. Its particularly the case for police officers who are authorized to take their vehicle home with them. They assume a higher level of care for that cruiser. But when an officer takes his car home, that gives him immediate access to all the tools of his office – thats a valuable community security tool. The officers take care of the vehicle and weve recorded no negative experience with oil issues on individual vehicles.

Separate Places

Arlington buys engine oil in bulk for its vehicles. A need to keep the various products separate (so we dont make a mistake and put the wrong oil in a vehicle, Hiller said) has moved the county toward new, compartmentalized underground tankage. Compartmentalizing oil helps us stay on top of the lubrication issue and control it. Our new tank will have three compartments: one for 10W-30 gasoline engine oil, one for 15W-40 diesel engine oil, and one for new oil required for ultra-low-sulfur diesel engines.

He added, Compartmentalization is particularly important with the new API CJ-4 quality level oil – and with the ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel with lower ash content were going to have to be especially careful of our maintenance procedures for lubrication. For example, weve recently reinstituted oil sampling and are sending our samples to an outside laboratory to check for acid, silicon, metals and antifreeze. We did that some years ago, but not recently.

He admits to being leery of the 2007 EPA-compliant diesel engines, and will happily let someone else work the bugs out. Though he will replace some pieces of equipment early next year, he has pre-bought the new units with 2006 engines. Meanwhile, his current fleet is operating on 20 percent biodiesel, which he believes will head off any lubricity issues that may arise when low-sulfur diesel is introduced.

We rely a great deal on the technical expertise of our vendors to advise us on issues regarding lubrication. Right now we use Citgo oil which we buy in bulk. Every three years we re-bid our contract to get the best product, Hiller went on. The best lubricant product for us is not necessarily the lowest price. We evaluate each bid very carefully against the specific needs of all the vehicles in our fleets.

Being Prepared

Washington Reagan National Airport, with about 18 million passengers annually and between 700 and 800 flight operations daily, squeezes into just 733 acres on Arlington Countys eastern boundary along the Potomac River. Planes using its main north/south runway follow an approach along the Potomac River, and about three miles from the airport must pass a cluster of high-rise commercial and residential buildings, crowding just at the edge of their flight path. Planes are required to maintain an altitude of at least 1,600 feet over this river approach, but Arlington County has recognized that an aerial mishap could happen in this area. So it developed and has maintained for a number of years an emergency plan in the event of an aircraft-building mishap. That plan was a centerpiece during the Pentagon incident, allowing Arlington, as smoothly as possible under chaotic conditions, to provide major assistance in bringing a measure of order to the scene.

Our emergency efforts worked well, Hiller observed, but we learned from that incident and changed things, too. Now weve got committees, teams and task forces operating that we didnt have before. We also have an emergency operations center logistics group; thats a big change. We were responsible for all the Pentagon logistics during the first 21 days after the crash. Overall, were more focused now, across the board.

Wrapping Up

Hiller closed with two other vignettes about the Pentagon crash and Arlingtons emergency vehicle response. Shortly after the crash, the fire was burning strongly and moving rapidly toward the worldwide communications antenna network on the Pentagons roof. We had to get a firetruck into the center of the compound to fight that fire. But the tiller on the tractor-drawn firetruck – the place where the driver sits and steers from the back of the trailer – was far too tall for an arch. So we just cut off the whole tiller, pulled it in and stopped the fire.

When a firetruck has been in service for a specific number of years, he noted, we replace it and offer it for sale. One of our trucks had already been sold and was awaiting delivery to a local jurisdiction in a nearby state. Didnt matter. Along with every other emergency vehicle, it went to the Pentagon, and I kept my eye on it where it was parked throughout the next two weeks, right next to the building under the large flag that was dropped from the roof.

Hiller added, It wasnt damaged and the sale went through soon thereafter.

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