Shaker Fire Department’s in-house mechanic had never worked on a fire truck when he was hired 33 years ago. Now he’s integral to the City’s commitment to public safety.
By Sue Starrett
At his job by 7 am, the affable Chuck Bates, mechanic for the Shaker Heights Fire Department, greets the firefighters at Station #2 on Warrensville Center Road and has coffee with them. Then their morning activities begin. These include an inspection of all the trucks and tools, as well as stocking, charging, and fueling the fleet.
If something needs to be fixed, a repair order is prepared. Bates then prioritizes the work, relying on stock from his inventory of brake chambers, hoses, and belts to make repairs. “Chuck treats the trucks like his babies. He loses sleep thinking about these issues,” says Fire Chief Patrick Sweeney.
“I don’t like to have things broken,” says Bates. “Some people think a fire truck doesn’t have problems, but that’s incorrect. It breaks down like anything else.” His colleagues at the department rely on his determination to fix things because they depend on him for their personal safety, and the well-being of the
Shaker residents they serve.
Shaker Heights is among the few cities in Northeast Ohio that has a dedicated fire station mechanic. Given the comparatively lean fleet, it is crucial that repairs are done quickly.
“We have the internal capability to manage the downtime of critical pieces of equipment,” says Sweeney. Preventative maintenance helps minimize breakdowns, lengthens the life of the vehicles, and ultimately saves money. Without Bates, fire trucks would have to be sent to Fairport Harbor and wait for repair while other cities’ vehicles were being serviced. Likewise, if the ambulances broke down, they would be towed to a repair shop and experience similar delays.
The son of a heavy equipment mechanic, Bates attended the General Motors mechanics school in Brook Park after graduating from high school. He knew Rudy and Bernie Rife, a father and son duo who worked in Shaker’s Public Works Department, and in 1971 they encouraged Bates to apply for a job in their department. He left his Newbury home early in the morning and got as far as Avalon Road before heading back to Newbury in frustration because he couldn’t find his destination. Fortunately, he returned the next year and was hired as a mechanics helper.
For many years, the Fire Department employed a superintendent of equipment who also was a firefighter. In 1985, Public Works “loaned” Bates to the Fire Department for what was to have been a few months. He was hired the following year as the SHFD’s first civilian mechanic.
Within a decade, Bates became chief mechanic, and today he is the longest serving employee of the City of Shaker Heights. During the intervening years, he and his wife had two children and are now the grandparents of four. Bates spends some of his free time acquiring broken antique cars, motorcycles, and engines – and, of course, fixing them.
The Job Comes First
When Bates arrived for work at the SHFD in 1986, he had never worked on a fire truck or with a water pump. “I had to figure it out. But an engine is an engine and a motor is a motor, and they all had to be ready to go.”
He attended several courses at the Fire Academy in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, but is primarily self-taught – and that education has continued. Trucks that once had manual transmissions and no air conditioning are now electric, and everything is computerized. One of Bates’ first responsibilities involved merging the frame and wheels from a 1986 pumper truck with the mechanical equipment from a 1967 pumper to create a new vehicle.
“It went from an all-manual transmission to automatic. No one liked it, but it lasted until it was retired in the early 2000s,” he says.
Bates continues to do all the repair analysis and work himself. His universe includes the fire engines and everything they entail, from ladders to pumps, along with other emergency vehicles. His fleet includes a ladder truck, a pumper truck, a reserve pumper, a command vehicle, three rescue vehicles, an EMS chase vehicle, a technical rescue truck, and several staff vehicles.
Since 2010, when he transitioned to part-time, Bates has been working three days a week. Chief Sweeney says he provides more than full-time service because of how quickly he identifies problems and repairs them, “adding immense value to the department.”
Emergency jobs don’t conform to any schedule, so Bates doesn’t either. One Sunday in July, the ladder truck sprang an oil leak. Bates headed to Station #1 and fixed it within hours. He also has repaired ambulances that have broken down at University and Hillcrest hospitals. And he goes on major calls, such as the July 2018 Fernway School fire, to ensure that trucks are running well and equipment continues to function. “The job comes first,” he says. “That’s how I was raised.”
The Shaker Heights Fire Department considers Bates to be vital to public safety and a true hero. “Crews going to fires face many hazards, and having reliable equipment is critically important to them,” says Chief Sweeney.
The lifespan of a fire truck is about two decades: 15 years of front line service and another five in reserve status. Recently, Shaker traded in a decommissioned 1995 fire engine, sent a 1991 ladder truck to the Western Reserve Fire Museum, and donated a 2004 rescue vehicle to University Hospitals for use in their community medicine program. With input from Bates, a new ladder truck is now being built at a facility in Wisconsin. From the moment the new truck arrives, and is ceremoniously pushed into the station, it will be meticulously cared for and maintained by Bates himself, which guarantees that it will be operational for
decades to come.
“We must ensure that our professionals are of the highest caliber, character, and competence,” says Chief Sweeney, “and Chuck Bates exemplifies those qualities in everything he does.”