Others think that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 standard guaranties a quality apparatus.
There are people who think writing a long, very detailed specification will yield a great truck, while still others think buying a pre-engineered apparatus from a larger truck builder will give them the apparatus of their dreams.
We must not forget the “I-spent-the-most money” crowd who firmly believe big dollars translates into the best truck.
Finally, there are people who buy apparatus from dealers or builders with the best service reputation.
Ironically, all the different philosophies are correct -to a point. Let us examine each philosophy and see where they fall short and where they succeed. Cosmetics are important from a morale standpoint. Fire personnel seem to take care of apparatus that look good. Volunteer departments with good looking apparatus usually retain members easier. Additionally, a nice looking truck will have a better resale value.
However, a pretty truck that drives or operates poorly, constantly needs repairs or does not fulfill community needs is not a good truck. Looks only go so far.
NFPA 1901 does cover many ergonomic and safety issues, equipment needs and performance requirements. The standard is the foundation of a sound apparatus, but it is important to remember that the NFPA standard is the minimum. Those charged with specifying apparatus need to complete the Addendum B worksheet in back of the NFPA 1901 standards booklet. The worksheet asks many questions that need to be answered to go beyond the minimum. Example questions ask about how many people will be riding in the apparatus, how big should the water tank be and similar questions which are not part of the minimum standard.
Even when the worksheets are completed, the NFPA 1901 standard doesn’t cover every design or engineering issue involved with building an apparatus – it’s a starting point.
With the NFPA 1901 standard as the base line, writing your own, long, detailed specifications is not the way to go either. It is almost too easy to specify combination components and feature which are feasible, and might make sense when considered separately, but this creates a poor fire apparatus. When you write up your own detailed specifications you may, unfortunately, get exactly what you asked for and not like the finished product.
Truck Committee Members
Even if someone on the committee has design and engineering knowledge, the likelihood is that you cannot find someone to build what has been developed at a reasonable price.
Each builder has its own product designs, its own engineering standards and proven procedures.
Experience shows many apparatus built to a fire department’s own specs have more than their share of problems. In that situation, no one wins – the builders and the dealers very likely make no profit and the fire department gets a poor apparatus.
Another method is to simply buy a pre-engineered, common configured apparatus. The best part about this method is that the standard truck has been built before so most of the bugs are worked out.
The big challenge with pre-engineered apparatus is getting exactly what the department wants and needs to serve the community it protects.
So, if the common, pre-engineered apparatus limits customization, how about buying the best money can buy and just go with the most expensive?
There’s a saying that money cannot buy happiness. The same is true of fire apparatus. Going down that road will usually lead to an expensive and complicated truck with lots of things to go wrong and break and it probably does not meet the community needs.
The other alternative, buying from people who are good at caring for what they sell, is the best answer going. A great dealer selling an OK apparatus is better than a great apparatus with no service support.
With all that said, departments still need to buy apparatus that fulfills the needs of the community at an affordable price.
It’s easy to see buying the best apparatus isn’t easy. So where does one start?
If you notice, the reoccurring theme is that the best apparatus is the one that meets the needs of the community it serves.
This is more difficult to determine than might be imagined. There’s a big difference between needs and emotional, ego and politically driven desires.
The best way to begin the apparatus decision-making process is to select a small, operationally knowledgeable, non-politically motivated committee. This committee will determine the department’s and the community’s realistic needs.
The committee should: identify budget limitations; identify environmental issues like hills, altitude, road conditions, terrain; and study past run records to determine where calls were located, resources were used and the success of the department’s efforts.
Next, the committee should evaluate what’s available for mutual aid communities, what the department needs for insurance rating requirements and take a good look at the existing apparatus to determine what works and what doesn’t.
The committee will also need to review the department’s standard operating guidelines and protocols and determine what they require, and if applicable, look at how to get water to the fire. This will greatly affect apparatus design.
Population changes and projections for the next 10 to 15 years, including growth and decline and demographics, must be considered when apparatus is specified.
List Apparatus Jobs
Too many departments try to make a single apparatus do too much. Make a list of specific jobs required and review it carefully, being realistic. Do not spec it to do operations that will likely never happen, like planning for the 100-year storm, and do not duplicate resources that are realistically, and dependably covered by mutual aid departments.
For each job assigned to the new apparatus, make a list of the resources needed and consider the staffing, the number of handlines needed, the flows, water source requirements, tools, lighting, radios and other equipment that will have to be on the apparatus to effectively perform the assigned job. Look in the NFPA 1901 standards, or the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA)’s website for a comprehensive list of equipment that can be carried on an apparatus.
There are some mechanical factors that need to be considered, including whether the apparatus will need pump and roll, all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, a pto for the pump drive or other special pump requirements.
In addition, the department should not trivialize or forget traditions that must be maintained on new apparatus that might affect its design.
While the “nuts and bolts” committee is working, a second committee comprised of people with business and general vehicle knowledge should be working simultaneously gathering information on the companies selling apparatus.
That committee should look at potential bidder reputations for fair dealing, service and product reliability.
It is important to know whether the builder has a local service center with dedicated fire apparatus service bays and whether they have dealers capable of providing service in the station. Also, determine whether the dealer and service center have fire service certified technicians available locally.
The second committee should also look at what brand of fire apparatus is sold and the builder’s reputation.
Price is always an important consideration and it is typically when departments talk to the apparatus dealers for the first time. It is important that the committee not let the dealer sell the truck at this point in the specification stage.
The secondary committee should also get and check references of the dealer as well as the builder, calling other departments and asking hard questions.
The potential bidder should be checked to see whether it has the financial, technical and manufacturing capabilities to build the apparatus the department needs.
If service work to the engine and transmission needs to be done, who will be doing that work should be determined before decisions are made and the same goes for pump work. Who will do service work on the pump and whether the service center be authorized by the pump manufacturer should be clearly spelled out.
The point of collecting all this information is to write specifications that limit bidding on the apparatus to companies your department has checked out and whose products you have investigated and approved.
A third small committee should be working behind the scenes to evaluate the recent apparatus delivered in your area as well as examine the new technology at trade shows and in magazines.
During the data collection process, the third committee should evaluate the new ideas found and determine whether they work, whether they make sense for the department and whether they’re cost effective.
Committee members should be asking if the departments with new apparatus had any problems with their rigs, and if so, how were they handled.
A list of recommended items to be added to the apparatus should be made as well as a list of what and who, to avoid.
Reviewing the item cost and determining whether an item is a want or a need can be difficult. Some features and desires may be separate and optionally-priced; these should be discussed later in the specification and bidding process.
This is where specific and special lights, trim and other items will likely come into play. A lot of emotion is involved when departments start talking about things like wheel covers, lettering, color schemes, striping, and bells and whistles.
When the three committees have completed their work, key members of each committee need to collectively fill out the NFPA Addendum B, “Apparatus Purchasing Specification Form,” and attach the list of jobs and resources compiled by the first committee.
The completed worksheet and attached list is what the department will hand the apparatus dealers who represent the pre-approved companies, as determined by committee work.
Fulfilling Apparatus Needs
The dealers selected to bid should be instructed to design an apparatus to fulfill the needs and desires detailed in the Addendum B form, meet NFPA 1901 standards, perform the job list determined in the worksheet and accommodate the list of equipment and hose, etc., the new apparatus is expected to carry.
The selected companies should then use their engineering capabilities, years of experience and proven designs to develop the specific apparatus to meet your department’s needs.
You do not want a prototype, experimental design or something that only looks good on paper. Trust me.
Give these companies 30 to 45 days to lay out your truck, write detailed specifications, determine a price estimate and make a drawing of their proposed apparatus. Have each dealer present his proposals to the key member committee.
Evaluate Each Proposal
Now comes the hard part.
Your key member committee must evaluate each proposal and make a list of questions, changes and comments on each.
This is also a good time to eliminate any dealer who is unresponsive or whose proposal is simply unacceptable. Each dealer should be called in, individually, to answer questions and make any changes. This is also the time to confirm the budget prices.
When finalists are selected, the key member committee might need to visit the factories of the potential builders, if they have not already.
It may be a good idea to visit some departments that have bought apparatus from the builder in your service area. Then, it’s time to pick the preferred builder/dealer group. Depending on state or local laws and any grant requirements, the department’s committee may be able to just negotiate with the preferred dealer or they may need to go to a bid.
If it’s determined a bid is necessary, use the bid specifications provided by the preferred builder, including all the changes, to which the dealer has agreed.
Expect to buy this truck and hold all the other builders and dealers to these specs, do not give in to changes.
If you have done your homework, hold your ground. If the truck you need comes in over budget, reject all the bids, go back to the point when the process was derailed, and try again.
But, I’m not done rocking the boat yet.
I do not recommend bringing in a local commercial truck dealer salesman to help write your specifications. The dealer most likely is NOT a fire truck designer/engineer, and will only wind up selling you the wrong truck for the job.
I hear this all the time. The deal you thought you got on the cab and chassis will not make the apparatus you need. A fire truck is not the same as a delivery truck.
Do Not Buy A Chassis First
If you want the chassis to come from your local chassis dealer, let the fire apparatus dealer/builder work directly with your local chassis dealer to work out the specifications. DO NOT buy a chassis first and than specify the rest of the apparatus around it.
The bottom line is to determine what your department and community really need operationally, then carefully add selected special features to the apparatus, follow NFPA 1901 and then select the dealer/builder that can design, engineer, build and service what you need.
That’s how you design the best apparatus.