Apparatus Purchasing: Evaluating the Presenters

 Despite the specificity of NFPA 1901’s master gauge verbiage, the following labels were found at a 2011 equipment show.
Despite the specificity of NFPA 1901’s master gauge verbiage, the following labels were found at a 2011 equipment show.
Despite the specificity of NFPA 1901’s master gauge verbiage, the following labels were found at a 2011 equipment show.
Despite the specificity of NFPA 1901’s master gauge verbiage, the following labels were found at a 2011 equipment show.
Despite the specificity of NFPA 1901’s master gauge verbiage, the following labels were found at a 2011 equipment show. (Photos by author.)

Presenters who cover apparatus purchasing use various means to get their points across. Numerous articles are written each year relating to purchasing and writing fire apparatus specifications. Speakers elaborate on the topic at symposiums, trade shows, and conventions. In this article, “presenter” refers to those who opine in writing or speak publicly on a matter. Presenters include fire service members, manufacturers’ employees, dealers, consultants, industry experts, and pundits. Most describe the specification-writing and purchasing processes as if they take place in a perfect world. They do not.

A utopia, the ideal place where everyone lives in harmony and everything is for the best, is a rarity. Most presenters do an admirable job; however, some of us can be narrow-minded and biased. We sometimes promote personal agendas and fail to accept, or even acknowledge, other points of view. We may inadvertently be doing a disservice to the subject and the people we are trying to educate. No one evaluates presenters. This article will try.

Partiality

Technical dissertations regarding the design and mechanics of fire apparatus are usually made by those employed in that industry. Their portrayal of subject matter often favors their employers’ products. Read between the lines. Favoritism is a small price to pay for the technical and educational material garnered. If the partiality is too obvious, a magazine’s editor will squash it. If speakers are too biased toward their employers, it is doubtful you’ll see them on the show circuit again.

Current and former fire service members make presentations from the purchaser’s perspective. Hats off to active fire service members who contribute. They are on the front lines, and their viewpoints are as varied as their experiences. Although most do a commendable job, occasionally a degree of localism and pride is evident when they subtly infer the only successful way to specify or purchase a fire truck is the way their fire departments did. Pride is good, yet it’s another small price to pay for the educational trip. Objective analysis of diverse viewpoints is beneficial to all involved. Knowledge is invaluable.

Safety at any Cost

Some presenters are militant in advocating safety on the fireground and in fire apparatus design despite the expense incurred. Fierce proponents of firefighters’ well-being are admired for their steadfastness and tenacity. They could expand their dissertations to include financial considerations. There is a price tag for everything, and safety is no exception. When funding is adequate, no one questions the validity or cost of a proposed safety feature. In times of fiscal turmoil, purchasers may have to justify the cost of every line item in their specifications—including safety features. Businesspeople call it a cost/benefit analysis, where total cost is compared to the total benefit. Probabilistic risk assessment is a sophisticated term where one estimates the likelihood of a death or the severity of an injury occurring. Will the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) demand a cost/benefit analysis based on a risk assessment for each safety item proposed? No presenters want to touch that. They should. It’s coming.

Picking Your Dealer

Some presenters make it seem as if fire departments can pick and choose a dealer to work with. That is a half truth. Before specifications are written, every purchaser can exercise that right. After a call for bids, purchasers not subject to formal procurement procedures can select whatever dealer they want for whatever reason. They are not legally accountable. After specifications are published, purchasers following legal bidding protocol no longer have the option to pick and choose a dealer. The awarding of public contracts is contingent on bidders successfully meeting the requirements and specifications promulgated by the purchaser. It is a decision dictated by legalities—not whether a purchaser likes or wants to work with a certain dealer. It is misleading to indicate that fire departments can, at all times, select a dealer.

Know When to Stop

It is disheartening when presenters pump up purchasers by advising them of their rights and what they should demand from apparatus manufacturers and dealers. Some suggest that their every whim should be catered to. Whether a price is negotiated or results from a formal bid, a legal contract is signed. At that point, a purchaser’s demands and whims no longer count. Dealers, manufacturers, and salespeople have a limited range to accommodate capricious and unpredictable requests after the contract is signed. Presenters should not encourage fire departments to demand things they are not entitled to. The simultaneous manufacturing of many highly complex vehicles to diverse technical and detailed specifications is a demanding task. Mistakes, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings often arise. Presenters should encourage mutual respect, tolerance, professionalism, and cooperation during the manufacturing process.

NFPA 1901

Being politically astute, presenters always reference, praise, and promote the features of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. They should—the document is important. It is doubtful any journal would publish a piece not referring to (or being overly critical of) the NFPA. Presenters, overly prejudiced to the organization, will explain, in detail, every requirement already mandated in the standard that is applicable to their presentation. They emphasize that purchasers must and should specify those requirements, offering personal interpretations of the benefits gained. We are beating NFPA 1901 to death.

There is no questioning the standard’s importance. It can save lives and prevent injuries. Changes and revisions must be disseminated to the fire service and explained in detail. Usually, there is a rash of NFPA articles right after a standard is revised—about every five years. Modifications to the standard are important; however, after they have been in effect for a year or so, give it a break. The current NFPA 1901 edition was issued and approved in 2008. In 2011, any presenter bloviating about the virtue of rear reflective chevrons, detailing the colors you must use, and the minimum area of coverage you must specify might be wasting your time and taking up space in a magazine. If NFPA 1901 says a requirement “shall be,” you are going to get it whether or not you specified it. Move on.

Most presenters treat the NFPA 1901 document with reverence. Publicly disagreeing with an NFPA 1901 requirement is not blasphemy. If one explains the reasoning for dissent, the disagreement becomes a justifiable debate with varying opinions.

For example, in chapter 16, line 16.12.2 describes master gauges. NFPA 1901 states that they shall be labeled “Pump Intake” and “Pump Discharge.” Depending on your locale and the training manual referenced, pump discharge is synonymous with discharge pressure, pump pressure, and engine pressure. One fire chief prefers “Pump Suction” and “Master Discharge,” while his simpler cousin just wants them to read in big letters “IN” and “OUT.” They’ll all work.

The preceding paragraph illustrates a presenter’s biased opinion: What to label a gauge is a local decision. In lieu of stating the exact verbiage to label a gauge, the standard could say that gauges shall be appropriately labeled or function-labeled. We are not a nationalized fire service yet. A rational discussion over label verbiage might be more beneficial than preaching to an apparatus purchasing committee in an article that it should specify that the stepping height between intermediate steps shall be no more than 18 inches for safe and easy access. Stepping heights are old news. Reiterating what is already mandated can be boring.

Where presenters could spark the interest of and educate purchasers is to elaborate on the areas where NFPA 1901 says a purchaser should consider or ought to consider an item. If the standard recommends something, there has to be a good reason why. Concurrently, the multiple annexes in the standard contain a wealth of noteworthy information seldom read, hardly discussed, and never debated in an open forum. Again, there is no intent to disparage the importance of NFPA 1901. Discussing and debating its content and suggested additions are encouraged. Presenters can do more.

Deal in Reality

Some presenters portray apparatus purchasing as always being a fair and equitable process where open specifications encourage competitive bidding. It is a fantasy world where proposals are always fairly evaluated, contracts are awarded in good faith and never contested, apparatus are always built 100 percent to specifications and successfully delivered, and everyone lives happily ever after. Optimistic dissertations make for cheerful reading. Unfortunately, it does not happen like that all the time.

For the benefit of those who purchase apparatus infrequently or have never served on a purchasing committee, presenters should also explain what can happen and has happened in real life. Describing the hazards, pitfalls, and drawbacks of the specification and purchasing processes is not necessarily being overly pessimistic. It is being objective, truthful, and educational. How often do you see an article describing where a fire department was mislead, ill-informed, and disgruntled with its last purchase? Did you ever hear about a purchaser being deceived into writing a proprietary purchasing specification? Have you ever read an article listing a dozen discrepancies a purchaser found on delivery of its new apparatus and how they were or were not successfully resolved? It could be interesting reading.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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