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Apparatus Purchasing: Abusing Specifications

Issue 10 and Volume 16.

Fire apparatus vendors and purchasers who misuse fire apparatus specifications negate the intent of writing technical purchasing specifications, impede the public bidding process, complicate fire apparatus purchasing, and generally do a disservice to fire departments. Whether manipulating the specification document is intentional, accidental, or through ignorance is irrelevant. A purchasing specification is a legal document and should be treated as such. It is not a training manual for a new fire truck, nor should it be an advertising medium for vendors. And, it should not be used as an elementary primer to educate firefighters on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. By definition, a specification describes, defines, or stipulates a requirement, condition, plan, order, design, pattern, or arrangement. A fire department promulgates a purchasing specification to describe what it wants to purchase. When responding to a request for competitive bids, a vendor submits a contractor’s specification, also a legal document, describing what the vendor proposes to furnish. The two are different—one describes what is wanted and one describes what is being proposed. Local governmental procurement policies dictate whether the purchasing specification, the contractor’s specification, or a combination of both is incorporated into a contract for a new apparatus. Whichever is used is immaterial for this article. Complicating the bidding process, some contractors’ specifications have evolved into two discernable formats: educational and self-promotional. Formats are not to be confused with types of specifications such as proprietary, open, generic, performance, and deceptive.

Impartiality

For various reasons, many fire departments do not write their own technical purchasing specifications. Often they are willingly helped by a favorite vendor who can influence the bidding process—a potential utopia for the vendor and a potential problem for the purchaser. This assistance has resulted in purchasing specifications and contractor’s specifications morphing into a single confusing document. Rather than each being compact, concise, and serving a single purpose, they have merged into a lengthy, confusing conglomeration of verbiage. A contractor’s specification can also be self-serving and promotional. A contractor’s job is to sell, and its specifications are used as a tool describing what it proposes to furnish, albeit with a flair and flourish. There is nothing illegal or improper in doing so. However, a fire department adopting a contractor’s specification as a purchasing specification raises concerns and may restrict competitive bidding—whether inadvertently or intentionally. A purchasing specification, as a legal document, should not advertise or promote one manufacturer’s product. Although it may appear to be inappropriate, improper, and unethical, it may also be illegal in some jurisdictions. Use discretion.

Know NFPA 1901 Before You Buy

NFPA 1901 is an informative technical dissertation describing the minimum requirements for new fire apparatus. Additional annexes are devoted to explanatory material. Do not underestimate its importance. Even if some purchasing committee members disagree with some of its provisions, it still is the bible of fire apparatus purchasing. It spells out what shall be; should be; ought to be; and, in most instances, why. It is the purchaser’s responsibility to understand NFPA 1901. The fire service must step up to the plate and educate itself on fire apparatus—not only for the purchasing process but for firematic reasons. The fire truck is your primary piece of equipment; everything else revolves around it. A purchasing committee empowered to spec out a half-million-dollar vehicle should know what is required by NFPA 1901. The fire service regularly expends monies for conventions, equipment shows, and educational seminars dealing with everything from securing grants to advancing a hoseline. It may be prudent to become educated in writing specifications for fire apparatus.

Keep Them Simple

Although all specifications make a general statement that “completed apparatus shall be NFPA-compliant,” many vendors make random references to NFPA 1901 throughout their documents. There is no apparent reason or logical pattern to why only selected items are spelled out to be compliant. Why do it for one part and not another? There are 60 or so certifications, test reports, and items of documentation that vendors must supply with an apparatus. Do you only reference ones that are important to you?

Fire apparatus specifications should be brief, understandable, and to the point. It is not necessary to list every requirement of NFPA 1901 in a purchasing specification. Purchasers can state the apparatus shall be NFPA 1901-compliant once and be done with it. Manufacturers know what that requires—they’ve been there before. Why list the candela-seconds per minute required for an upper level warning light if you don’t know a candela from a lumens, a lux, or a footlambert? Eliminating repetitive verbiage simplifies the document and makes it easier to read and understand. One purchasing specification example had the words “shall” or “shall be” written an average of 18 times per page. If written just once, more time could be spent on content rather than grammar.

Not making multiple references to NFPA 1901 does not absolve the fire department and purchasing committee from knowing the standard intimately. Do your homework before you are tested—prior to bidding. The time to begin the learning process is not when evaluating multiple proposals. There is little room for on-the-job training in apparatus purchasing. The new apparatus purchase will influence how efficiently or inefficiently a fire department will operate for years.

Skip the How and Why

A specification is not the venue to instruct the fire department on the function of every accessory, appurtenance, and accoutrement provided on a fire truck; why it is there; and how it works. As an example, NFPA 1901 states, “[a] supplementary heat exchanger cooling system shall be provided for the pump drive engine.” Why do purchasing specifications spell out how it works, why it is required, and that a shut-off valve and drain valve must be supplied with it? The purchaser does not have to specify all that because the manufacturer has to supply it to be compliant. The how and why should have been taught in Firefighter 101, in a pump operator class, during engineer/driver/chauffer training, or at the very least reviewed during a purchasing committee meeting.

There are occasions when detailed and comprehensive descriptions are necessary, appropriate, and even recommended to establish levels of quality and performance criteria and to establish benchmarks to evaluate competitive products. Be specific in accurately describing your needs, but also be sensible. If a purchaser will only accept proposals including, as an example, a model 1234 generator that is available to all bidders, it is not necessary to provide a two-page detailed description of the unit and how it works. Why list all its dimensions, how much it weighs, what color it is painted, and what size control panel is provided? The purchasing committee should have evaluated that data prior to specifying the unit.

Beware of the Hype

Concurrently, a purchasing specification is not an appropriate avenue for manufacturers to hype their wares. They should use brochures, videos, demos, and sales literature to promote their products. Common sense dictates that when you ask a vendor to help write purchasing specifications, its own product line may be favored. Beware of statements including verbiage such as “for a pleasing appearance,” “for strength and rigidity,” “for ease of operation,” and “for firefighter safety.” They are phrases vendors use to favorably describe their products that you, as a purchaser, cannot measure or evaluate. If you ask a vendor to help write a purchasing specification, establish ground rules. Tell vendors that your purchasing specification will not be acceptable if resubmitted as a contractor’s specification. Vendors have the option to develop an independent set of marketing specifications they can use to sell their products and educate prospective customers. If asked, it is their choice whether or not to supply a proper set of purchasing specifications for a prospective customer to publish. However, doing so may depend on how much they want your business.

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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