There are a number of components involved in the purchase of apparatus. Committee work, writing specifications, financing and presentations are all important. Another essential element is inspection. Several different inspection trips should be anticipated – plant inspection, pre-construction, mid-production and final inspection.
Before getting into the types of inspection trips and what is involved, consider the expense. A general rule of thumb is that an inspection trip costs about $2,000 per person, depending on length of travel and stay.
The expense of a plant inspection may be covered by the manufacturer as it is made before the contract is signed, although the manufacturer may also find a way to build it into the cost of the apparatus. The expenses for all the other trips are definitely added to the apparatus cost.
A salesman once told me of a department that sent its entire specification committee on an inspection trip. That was 12 people, adding a cost of about $24,000 to the price of that contract. One has to wonder about the benefit of sending so many people compared to the cost in tax dollars.
I have found two to three people is a good number to send for an inspection. One person should have the authority to make financial decisions, one person should have technical expertise and the third could be a mechanic or someone else from the specification committee.
However many people you send for whatever length of stay, make sure it is clearly stated in the specifications, as well as what expenses are being covered by the dealer. The dealer will pick up the cost at the time of travel, but remember the end-user will pay for it in the contract.
You may want to conduct plant inspections to compare manufacturers before awarding a bid. The most important thing here is to treat all competitors equally. When advertising for bids, you may want to include in the advertisement that a plant inspection will be required before the award of the bid.
It is common to attract 10 or 12 interested bidders. That is far too many plant inspections. Look at the bid packages and narrow them down to not more than five prospective bidders. Three would be more manageable. If you go on an inspection trip to one manufacturer, you must go to all manufacturers on your short list to prevent an accusation of favoritism.
What To Look For
What do you look for on a plant inspection? You will start with a tour. Look for cleanliness and order. Look to see that safety practices are being followed. Are people diligently at work? Talk to some of the people on the line and take note of their job satisfaction and attitude.
Then you are going to examine the quality of construction. Start with what cannot be seen on the finished product. Look at the welds, how they are inspected and how imperfect welds are corrected. Look at the quality of the steel and/or aluminum used for the chassis and sub frames. Look at the cab construction and how it is built to protect the crew in event of a rollover.
Remember to take notes of key features throughout the tour. You will be comparing three to five manufacturers and it is easy to confuse or miss the details of each.
The fit and finish of the completed apparatus is just as important. Note how cab and compartment doors open and close, feel the comfort of the cab and the ease of entry and exit. Observe the visibility from the driver and officer seats. Note the quality of the upholstery and headliner. Observe the layout of valves and gauges. Make sure you get a demonstration ride to compare handling, noise, and drivability.
A One-Year Relationship
Finally a meeting will take place between the customer and a couple of people from the plant, possibly the head of sales and an engineer. Ask questions. Clarify concerns. Find out the length of time from signing a contract to delivery. Not only are you getting answers to your questions, but you are also getting an idea of the believability, sincerity and integrity of the plant representatives.
The notes you put together from the plant inspections will enable you to select the best manufacturer to build your apparatus. That decision will begin a one-year relationship and a commitment of several hundred thousand dollars.
Being overly conservative when it comes to spending taxpayer money, the first several pre-build meetings I held were at my department. I saw no need to travel two thousand miles just to talk with a sales representative and fine tune the specifications. The sales rep is not an engineer and does not work in the plant.
What we ended up with were numerous phone calls back and forth to the plant clarifying customer needs versus engineering capability. We even had some surprises at final inspection because something could not be done our way and had to be re-engineered.
The Pre-Build Meeting
Far more efficient and practical is a pre-build meeting at the manufacturer, sitting down with an engineer and plant rep, going over the intended specifications line-by-line. This gives an opportunity to compare what the customer writes in the specifications with what engineering can provide at a reasonable cost. Perhaps engineering can come up with design alternatives that are less expensive and still meet the practical application needed.
Every line item in the specifications must be discussed in detail. All changes must be in writing and signed off by both parties present.
A mid-production inspection might be necessary in some cases, such as a highly specialized piece of equipment. We performed a mid-production inspection on our custom fire/rescue boat. It was a good thing we did. Although the manufacturer had built fire boats in the past, the company had never built anything like ours.
From two separate fire pumps, to foam tanks with eductors and benches for patients on backboards, it turned out to be a custom boat with features to be prototyped and sold to future customers. Needless to say, the manufacturer had many questions and concerns to be answered at mid-production.
However, that is probably more the exception than the rule. Most of your standard pumpers, aerials and rescue units can be built quite successfully without the expense of a mid-production inspection.
One other benefit of a mid-production inspection is the open window for design changes that might be available. You may see a need for changes that would not be possible later on. Or, if the changes were possible later on, they would be cost prohibitive. If you see that as a potential, then by all means, conduct a mid-production inspection.
By far the most important trip is the final inspection. No matter how careful the team is at pre-construction or how precise the manufacturer is, there will be a list of items that need either correction or change after final inspection. We call this list a punch list.
It is much better to generate a punch list at the manufacturing plant, rather than waiting for the apparatus to arrive at the dealer or your fire department. Make it very clear that the apparatus will not be accepted and a check will not be cut until all the items on the punch list are corrected or a compromise is reached to your satisfaction. Yes, you will need to make some compromises, and that will be up to the decision maker of the group.
The final inspection is likely to take 8 to 12 hours, including the final meeting to agree on the punch list. Beginning on the showroom floor, go through the specifications line by line.
Where it says left and right turn signals, operate them and make sure they work. Where it says ground lights come on with the opening of each door, open each door individually and make sure the lights come on. I can give two examples with our apparatus: on one, the electric mirrors did not operate; and on the other, line gauges were mismatched to discharges. How did we know? We operated everything.
After inspection and checking everything you can on the showroom floor, take the apparatus for a drive. You need to include a driving test, a pumping test and an aerial test, if appropriate.
The driving test needs to include braking and acceleration to NFPA standards. Even though the manufacturer will show you documentation from a third-party pump test, you should pump every discharge and operate all suctions. The aerial will include raising, rotating, extending, and flowing the waterway. You may have to make arrangements for hoses and nozzles ahead of time to accomplish these tasks.
After parking the apparatus back on the showroom floor, make a final go-around looking at the cosmetics. Note every scratch, cracked lens and paint defect that needs touching up.
Finally a meeting will be arranged to create the punch list. All items listed by the customer should be discussed with the plant representative and corrective measures agreed upon. This is where some compromises may be made. Suppose a compartment was to be installed under the rear bench seat and it did not happen. Can you live with that and get a credit or some piece of equipment as a concession? Or do you need that compartment and decide not to accept the apparatus without it?
A word needs to be said about behavior and how you represent your department. I have heard many stories from sales people about select individuals and groups and how they conduct themselves on inspection trips. Some of the stories are about unruly behavior and are not flattering.
I hope the stories they tell about me are of good manners and thoroughness. This is work, not a vacation.
Editor’s note: Doug Cleveringa is a former division chief of operations for the Lake Havasu City Fire Department in Arizona. From 1991 until his retirement in 2007, he wrote specifications and purchased apparatus for the department.