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PPE Selection Step Three: Getting What You Need

Issue 2 and Volume 12.

(Part Three of Three)

One of the biggest decisions, literally a life and death matter, is the selection of personal protective clothing.

Conducting a risk assessment of the demands placed upon your firefighters is the first step toward getting the gear you need to best protect your people.

The next step is conducting a comprehensive field test evaluation that helps determine which gear best meets your needs as identified by your risk analysis.

Now, it’s time to take the final step: ensuring that you get the gear you need with the specifications you want. Successfully completing this step to your advantage is critical. After all, you didn’t spend hours of your department’s time and thousands of dollars determining what gear is best for you only to have the final decision fall into someone else’s hands.

It’s important to remember you have the legal right to demand your specification. A persistent fallacy among public institutions is that governmental or quasi-governmental agencies are prohibited from specifying patented products or brands.

This belief is rooted in an outdated assessment of the legal impact of the Sherman Act of 1890, which prohibited monopolies and the restraint of free trade by entities that combined with others to, in effect, lock out competition.

Through a series of court rulings and proceedings, the law now states that the specifier, or in this case the fire department, can choose what it thinks is in its best interest without having to give equal weight to specifications outside of those that he has chosen for his bid.

When the department has open specifications, it’s like asking for apples and getting oranges.

Why go to all the trouble and effort to write a detailed and complete Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) specification in the first place? Up front, it would certainly be easier to issue an open specification bid for gear that meets National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1971 and buy something from what contractors bid.

In this day and age when technological advances in bunker gear have made today’s PPE light-years better than what our fathers’ wore, isn’t all gear acceptable, anyway?

Well, anyone with any experience bidding gear knows that issuing an open specification is an invitation to disaster. In effect, the manufacturer that can most creatively cut features to the bare minimum to at least barely meet spec has all the advantages and will win the open spec bid.

For instance, undersized patterning that restricts motion can easily be certified, cuts manufacturing cost but makes for a horrible product to use and reduces product life. It’s far better to write a good spec that does not allow such manufacturing “gamesmanship.”

As every firefighter intimately knows, while certainly better than it was 20 years ago, gear is as unique and varied as are the fires fought. In fact, there are so many combinations of outer shells, moisture barriers and thermal liners, as well as design styles and features, produced by each manufacturer, that one set of gear by manufacturer X will wear, perform and protect completely different than another set of gear by the same manufacturer. That’s why leaving the specifications up for grabs simply doesn’t make sense.

Tight Specifications

It doesn’t take much effort to write a tight specification that keeps your department in control of the kind of gear it gets.

All manufacturers have technically correct, legally reviewed specifications, on-line with one keystroke, on all their products. Once you select your most desired product, one phone call or email will have the technical spec that is unchallengeable legally and technically in your hands.

The effort will pay dividends down the road for the people who matter most: the men and women risking their lives while wearing the gear you selected for them. Remember, when a department writes a tight specification for the product they prefer, they always have the option of accepting exceptions to the bid by alternate brands if the department making the purchase feel the exceptions are minor, or the cost difference between the non-specified product and the specified product is too great to justify the expense.

The law says that such a decision is the sole prerogative of the public purchaser. You, the fire service professional, maintain complete control over the process outcome- not the manufacturer, not the dealer, not anyone else.

In contrast, the firm willing to cut the most corners to reduce their selling price will usually win an open specification. Companies trying to win your business in an open specification know that they will most likely not be successful unless they find ways to reduce the cost, especially since open bids are open invitations to suppliers whose market segment is the lowest end, lowest cost gear.

Since the bid is open, all bidders will be able to meet your specification. This means that if a supplier submits a bid for a product vastly inferior to what you want and to what your firefighters deserve, but is cheaper than the competition, you will be under great pressure to award that supplier the business.

An open specification bid transfers power and discretional authority from the fire department to the manufacturer who is willing to do whatever it takes to produce the lowest cost gear. While that gear is likely to meet NFPA 1971 standards, it will not meet your specific needs. This is why almost all municipalities issue specifications that are strongly identified with specific brands and features.

Protecting The Protectors

Do not turn power over to the “value engineers” to decide what gear your firefighters will be wearing. Let the professional firefighting experts who understand the importance of having gear that protects the protectors best.

It is important to note, that court law clearly establishes the public purchaser’s authority to specify brand, and also to specify patented or proprietary products and features. It is also that purchaser’s right to act as sole authority to accept or reject alternative products as “equal.”

Please consider that it is now almost impossible to specify firefighter personal protective equipment without specifying patented products.

For instance, in turn out clothing, all moisture barriers, trims, outer shells, and liners that are certified products are fully patented. You cannot buy a certified turn out set without specifying patented materials, so why not go ahead and specify everything you want as well?

If it is important to have a certain type of fabric in your outer shell, thermal liner, and moisture barrier, it’s just as important, and it’s your right, to have the same level of specificity in the design features that actually make one brand of gear different from the next.

Then there’s the notion that all gear is basically the same, which could not be further from the truth.

While it is a fact that all manufacturers make gear that meet certain standards, there are many different ways they do so.

In fact, different types of gear from the same manufacturer will perform differently than other types under different circumstances. Perhaps your department handles large numbers of multi-story fires and does so offensively. In those conditions, your firefighters will want a specific combination of fabrics and features that maximize the protection afforded a firefighter under those circumstances.

Perhaps, your department rarely has a structural fire and when it does, it takes a more defensive approach, then you might want different PPE.

Ultimately, the people who know what the best type of gear is for your department are the men and women who serve in your department. They should be the people who help choose their next set of PPE.

Now that you’ve done all the hard work and are ready to write the specification for the bid, it is important to resist the temptation to reinvent the wheel.

Here is the place where you can heavily rely on your dealer and the gear manufacturer you’ve chosen in your field test to greatly simplify the process of writing a detailed, exacting specification that will ensure that you get exactly what you want.

Your dealer and manufacturer will be happy to help, especially since they want to sell you the gear as badly as you want to buy it. Also, it is in their best interest to make sure that you get precisely what you want since, presumably, their gear is your first choice.

There are hundreds of fabrics and design feature combinations that can offer the best possible protection for the your department’s firefighters.

The manufacturer you chose can help sort out which combination best meets your needs and budget limitations. That manufacturer probably has a specification worksheet that you can use to sort through all the different things available. By using your preferred supplier’s worksheet, you stand a better chance of getting all the unique design features they offer that will help ensure that you get what you want.

This entire process, from risk assessment to field test to choosing a specification, is yours to control from the start. You have the power and authority to get what you want, every time.

Remember that and, after all the hard work is done, you will be rewarded by delivering to your firefighters the best gear available to meet their needs and protect their lives.

Editor’s Note: Tony Wyman is vice-president of marketing for Total Fire Group. His background includes careers in journalism, the housing industry, and as a captain in the United States Air Force.

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