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Apparatus Purchasing Committees: Wrong People, Wrong Truck

Issue 9 and Volume 17.

Bill Adams

When procuring a new rig, many fire departments use an apparatus purchasing committee (APC), also known as a truck committee. Although more effective than having one person design and specify a new apparatus, there can be unseen repercussions when using an APC in both career and volunteer departments.

There are no established rules and regulations for organizing an APC, nor are there formal guidelines or procedures for one to follow during the specification process. That should placate those in the fire service who steadfastly resist outside authority by organizations not directly answerable to the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Insurance Services Office (ISO), and a plethora of governmental regulatory agencies.

The lack of a standardized nationwide APC protocol can be advantageous. Locally established committees are free to develop individualized operating guidelines suitable for the particular needs of each fire department. Many do and are very successful in doing so. On the other hand, some are inexcusably unsuccessful. An APC without a modus operandi can flail about the apparatus purchasing arena with no objective, no focus, no sense of direction, and a lack of oversight. An undisciplined ineffective committee can potentially specify an equally ineffective apparatus that may be in service for years. That would be a disservice to the fire department and an injustice to the taxpayers.

Some dissertations regarding APCs address the specification-writing procedure-the particulars of how and what to write. Others expound on the technical nuts and bolts for describing a rig’s parts, pieces, and accoutrements. Both are important topics and can be formidable tasks for those unfamiliar with the process. Some pundits address committee membership-the who and why certain people from chiefs to firefighters to department mechanics should comprise an APC. Committee makeup is extremely important.

This article addresses reluctantly acknow- ledged issues-the type many hope will quietly go away. Prepare yourself-they might not leave quietly. Whether by oversight or apprehension, fundamental topics seldom confronted are personalities, awareness, responsibility, and accountability-obscure dynamics that can be instrumental in an APC’s success or failure. Without hurting feelings or bruising egos, they are awkward to address in print and embarrassing to discuss in person. Most presenters shy away from them for fear of alienating. Sometimes the truth hurts. Whether a premise is accepted or rejected is immaterial. This article does not pass judgment on if or how they are handled. That is a local matter. The intent here is to make purchasers aware.

Personalities

Lacking social skills and being overbearing, boisterous, obnoxious, and self-centered may not be valid justification for preventing someone from serving on an APC-nor is expressing a personal opinion or seeking informal membership into that mysterious “good old boys club.” How do you approach a committee member whose personal agenda is counter to the fire department’s? Do some members promote their legacy rather than practice logic? I have no counsel in identifying and addressing purchasing personalities. But beware, because they are out there. Again, how to handle them is a local matter. Good luck.

Former Fire Chiefs

In the career sector, retired fire chiefs seldom, if ever, affect the functions of an APC. Their contributions usually end with retirement and protocols they instituted and are still in effect when they leave office. In the volunteer ranks, a former chief’s participation is an unpredictable hit-or-miss scenario. They can be valuable assets or bona fide liabilities. Their experience can’t be taken away. It can be invaluable. However, a reluctance to “let go” can be problematic, especially in organizations where former chiefs play a role in purchasing apparatus. An example is a former chief being publically elected as a commissioner in a fire district. An animated overbearing former “white coat” can make life miserable for any APC no matter what the former’s intent is. Use them; don’t abuse them; and, more importantly, don’t be abused by them. Good luck again.

Old Timers

The “old-timer syndrome” is predominant, but not unique, to the volunteer sector. Bluntly speaking, there are some in the fire service who are past their primes and have no business serving on an APC. If, by virtue of holding an elected or appointed position or because of department protocol, they have direct interaction with an APC, it may be advisable to steer their efforts away from the firematic operational aspects of a purchase. If their idea of progress is putting doors and a roof on a fire truck, they should not be involved in specifying apparatus components-a harsh but factual statement. The good old days are gone, and they will never ride the back step again. Are you prepared to tell them?

Awareness and Responsibility

Strategic planning and tactics and strategy are two topics an APC may not be aware of or responsible for. Both could be beyond a committee’s level of expertise. Some in the fire service are oblivious to what occurs outside their own firehouse walls-a callous but true observation. Not being aware and responsible can have far-reaching ramifications. An unguided purchasing committee can affect the operational effectiveness of a fire department by virtue of the rig’s physical features it specifies. It is immaterial if shortcomings are caused by an APC’s lack of knowledge; a lack experience; or the failure of the AHJ to provide complete, accurate, and definitive instructions.

An APC may be unaware of a community’s comprehensive long-range planning. It would be embarrassing to purchase an aerial device compatible for use on 1½-story wood frame houses today, then learning it is firematically unsuitable for the many multistory structures the town planning board has approved for construction in the immediate future. Equally embarrassing is specifying a large-capacity tanker (water tender) not knowing the county water department has planned to extend water mains throughout your entire response area within the next three years.

Imagine replacing both your pumpers with two equipped with minimum sized booster tanks, only to find out the county fire chiefs’ strategic planning committee is going to require larger tanks for all departments (including yours) participating in a countywide mutual-aid agreement. How responsible is a purchasing committee specifying a 100-foot tractor-drawn aerial for a volunteer station which staffing tracking studies show is unlikely to muster two qualified operators during weekdays? A rig purchased today can easily be around for two or three decades.

Tactics and strategy can change with each new fire chief. By virtue of a career chief’s tenure, career entities are usually more stable and consistent with fireground procedures. And, they usually embrace strategic planning when instituting firematic operational changes. In the volunteer sector, tactics and strategy can change with each yearly election. Anticipating what changes the incoming chief and future officers will embrace is a challenging task. The APC should address them. Does it make sense for an APC to specify a hosebed capacity “the same as we always get,” knowing the upcoming line officers have been clamoring for large-diameter hose in the future? Why would an APC specify a replacement hose wagon when the next person in line for chief plans on doing away with two-piece engine companies?

Accountability

A purchasing committee can only be held accountable for complying with the instructions and directions stipulated by the AHJ. If the AHJ merely mandates a committee to “replace Engine 2 with a similar rig,” then replacing Engine 2 with a sister ship is all the committee is responsible for. If the AHJ directs the committee to replace Engine 4 and Ladder 1 with a quint, accountability rests with that function. If you want that quint to be ISO-rated as a ladder truck or you want a certain size cab, you should inform the purchasing committee. Giving an APC leeway in the decision-making process does not absolve the AHJ from exercising oversight. A committee with no direction can discreetly influence fireground operations, policy, and procedure by virtue of its unfettered actions. That’s not right.

Membership

Most AHJ’s appoint the purchasing committee. Some may provide a liaison at the least or appoint one of their own as a committee member at the most. In some departments, membership is predetermined by the nature of a position held, such as first assistant chief, safety officer, repair shop foreman, president of the fire company, and so on. Use discretion. Just because a member holds a position in the department, especially an elected one, does not mean he is uniquely qualified to serve on an APC. Is he familiar with NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus? Does he know what the ISO does? Do you want APC members who will blindly believe everything a favorite vendor says? How do you handle that?

A daunting and potentially troubling scenario is when the AHJ acts as the APC-a common occurrence in smaller fire companies, some commissioned fire districts, and municipalities where administrators turn over all aspects of apparatus procurement to the fire chief. Be careful if the fox guards the henhouse. Every purchaser should be aware that, although seldom anticipated and certainly not welcome, it is possible the fire department can be held publicly accountable for the action or inaction of the APC. It may be irrelevant if a grievance is valid or not. In today’s 24/7 media world, an accusation’s mere seriousness or an allusion of inappropriateness may be newsworthy. That could be detrimental to the fire department. Choose your APC wisely. Train it well.

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.