By Bill Adams
Despite the good intentions of fire apparatus purchasing committees (APCs), they can inadvertently place themselves in awkward and uncomfortable situations by promulgating ineffectual purchasing specifications.
In particular, APCs should avoid writing specifications (specs) that may generate questions the committee can’t answer. The intent of this article is to help keep spec writers from unintentionally placing themselves in such a position. It is directed at fire departments that follow formal bidding procedures, whether by choice or by edict, with the presumption of receiving competitive proposals. It is immaterial whether the specification format is generic, performance, or proprietary. It matters not if it is a career or volunteer entity. Nor does it matter if the APC, a consultant, or a vendor writes the document. Likewise, it is irrelevant if the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) is a city council, town board, board of fire commissioners, or governing body of a volunteer fire company.
Readers must understand the basic premise of competitive bidding. Through the APC, the AHJ publishes, in quantifiable and comparable terms, a technical purchasing specification describing what it wants to purchase. Writing quantifiable and comparable verbiage is very important. It is the key to a successful bidding process. Bidders submit proposals based solely on the written verbiage in a specification. The APC and AHJ compare and evaluate what bidders propose to what was specified and then make a purchasing decision. It sounds simple enough. However, specification wording that is subject to multiple interpretations or has no definitive meaning can render the process difficult at the least and impossible at the most.
Leave No Doubt
A quantifiable item in a specification is one that is clearly defined. It has specific criteria that can be evaluated such as dimensions, sizes, capacities, and even manufacturer and model numbers of component parts and pieces. There should be no doubt as to what the verbiage means and what the fire department expects. Spec writers must establish a definitive baseline or benchmark to compare proposals.
The purchaser can set that benchmark as high or as low as it deems necessary by words alone. And, it can be done without necessarily writing a proprietary specification around a particular manufacturer. To illustrate, a specification may read, “There shall be one large compartment above each rear wheel.” A “large” compartment cannot be measured, evaluated, or compared. It is a useless description because it is not quantifiable. It can have different meanings to different people. Any size compartment proposed will legally meet the specification. If the purchaser does not care how big the compartment is, the “large” description is adequate although not required. A similar spec may read, “There shall be one compartment with approximately 13 cubic feet above each rear wheel.” The word approximately is another immeasurable description that cannot be evaluated. It’s as useless as large-save the ink. Again, if any size compartment is acceptable, the word approximate will suffice but again is not required or necessary.
A measurable spec may read, “There shall be one compartment with no less than 13 cubic feet above each rear wheel.” This establishes a benchmark that purchasers can use to evaluate and compare proposals. A bidder proposing a compartment with less than 13 cubic feet does not meet the specification; one proposing 13 cubic feet or more does.
A more precise specification is, “There shall be one compartment with 13 cubic feet above each rear wheel.” Bids proposing more or less than 13 cubic feet will not meet the technical specification as written. Only those proposing exactly 13 cubic feet will. Hence, literal descriptions are imperative. Abstract descriptions can cause unnecessary grief and aggravation during the entire purchasing process. Be aware that some bidders may attempt to validate their proposal by claiming they “meet the intent” of the specification or they “exceed” the requirements. In the last example, the fire department specified a compartment with an exact capacity. It did not specify a minimum, a maximum, or an approximate size or one that may be close in size. Close counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, not in fire truck specifications.
If the APC does not write precise, detailed descriptions, the fire department can end up with an apparatus that may not meet the invisible standards the APC thought it established. If not meeting those standards is detrimental to the function and operation of the apparatus, the fire department loses. Write carefully, or suffer the consequences.
Emotions and Egos
Some specification writers and APC members may become confrontational when questioned about their specification. It does not matter if they are first-time buyers or if they’ve been purchasing apparatus for years. Egos are egos, and most firefighters have them. Caution-elevated self-esteem may be detrimental to the bidding process.
Spec readers usually ask an APC questions when they do not understand what a statement in the specification means. Being asked a simple question is not necessarily a challenge to authority. How can a bid estimator price an item when it can have multiple meanings or not have one at all? It can be embarrassing when a vendor asks the APC what a description means in its specifications. It can be humiliating when the APC can’t answer the question-especially when there is no answer. As harsh as it may sound, the APC may have done a poor job.
Be aware that some individuals who do not understand the meaning of a specification’s verbiage may not be intimate with the fire service. They can be an “outsider” such as a city council member, the mayor, a concerned citizen, or a frustrated taxpayer. Be careful how you respond. Sarcastically or belligerently answering them may result in a “no vote” for the fire truck. Concurrently, there could be nonfavored vendors who would appreciate the opportunity to publicly embarrass a fire department that has written its specifications around another manufacturer’s apparatus. In that scenario, the committee may be placed in a very precarious position. Bear in mind that fire departments may write specifications infrequently while apparatus vendors work with them daily. Bickering with a disgruntled but experienced vendor in a public forum may not be in an APC’s best interests. Good luck.
APC members are best served not to let personal wants and desires or a rabid dislike for a particular manufacturer, vendor, or a member of the AHJ cloud their judgment. Emotions and personalities should not be reflected in specification verbiage. “What do you exactly mean by that statement?” is a question APC members should be prepared for. If you wrote the specs, you should have the answer. Do your homework. It may save some red faces.
Define and Justify Carefully
Fire departments can also unintentionally embarrass themselves when recommending a bid award-especially when the recommendation is based on inept, indiscernible, or missing verbiage in their purchasing specifications. In a fictitious example, a fire department publishes a set of specifications for a new rig. Two manufacturers respond with bids that are tens of thousands of dollars apart. The high bidder has a reputation for excellent craftsmanship; the low bidder does not. The low bidder is known for lowballing bids and has been accused-but never proved-of cutting corners. When the AHJ was reviewing the bids, the low bidder sent a letter stating, “We are proposing the exact same cab and chassis and the same manufacturers and model numbers specified for the discharge and suction valves, the fire pump, booster tank, motor, transmission, warning lights, sirens, light tower, generator, and paint. In addition, we are offering the exact type and gauge material specified with identical warranties. As such, we should be awarded the bid.”
The fire department preferred the high bidder. The AHJ asked the APC for a written recommendation. The APC reviewed the proposals, inspected similar apparatus the low bidder had delivered locally, and responded with the following reasons to disqualify the lowest bidder:
- The exposed corners of cut and sheared metal are not rounded. They appear rough. They were hand-filed down, not machine-ground down. Our specs specifically called for quality construction.
- On the hinged compartment doors, it looks like there’s a 1⁄16-inch gap on one side and a 1⁄8-inch gap on the other.
- There is paint overspray in a couple of areas.
- The patterns on aluminum treadplate do not “match” or “line up” on pieces that are adjacent to each other.
- Our specifications called for compartment floors to be rated for 500 pounds, and their specifications said the floors will be rated for 500 pounds without permanent deflection.
- Their welding machine was set so hot that you can see where they welded pieces together-the welds look burned.
- We tried the roll-up doors on one of their rigs. Two of them were easy to open, and the rest weren’t. One was real hard. The tension wasn’t adjusted the same.
- On one rig, the paint on the roll-up doors didn’t appear to match the paint on the cab and body.
- The committee didn’t like the workmanship on the rig two towns over.
- The vertical grab rails on the back of the body were real short; they could have been longer. The location was poorly engineered.
- The welds inside the compartment were not finish-ground. They looked nasty.
- The department next to ours has one of their rigs and the members don’t like it. The hose connections are too high off the ground. They weren’t designed well.
- The low bidder’s service center is not as well equipped as the other bidder’s, and it only has one on-the-road service truck.
Although the APC rationalized that the combined reasons were ample justification to recommend the higher bid, the AHJ rejected the recommendation. Why? There was nothing in the purchasing specifications that specifically addressed any of the individual concerns of the APC. All the valid reasons given by the committee could have been individually addressed in the original document. They weren’t. Unmeasurable requirements cannot be compared. A proposal cannot be rejected for not meeting an unwritten requirement.
Sometimes, such as in the preceding example, the purchasing committee will “grasp for straws” in an attempt to validate its reasoning to choose a particular bidder. Caution-do not let emotions cloud common sense. The days of wheeling and dealing, with decisions secretly decided in smoke-filled back rooms, are over. Political subdivisions have rules that must-or should-be followed. As an example, most purchasers are subject to a form of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) or the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which, according to New York State, is defined as the result of the following passage: “The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society.”
An APC’s written recommendation or a fire chief’s letter stating why a particular bidder’s proposal should or should not be rejected is considered a public document. Remember that in the competitive bidding process it is the written word that counts. Be careful what you write. You may see it in the newspaper. It could be embarrassing.
Some spec writers insert a generic statement into purchasing specifications similar to the following: “The purchaser reserves the right to reject any proposal and accept any that it deems is in its best interests.” It appears to be a legitimate-sounding, all-forgiving “we-can-buy-what-we-want” statement. But, it may not hold water if challenged. A purchaser may have to legally define “its best interests.” Some fire departments may not want to go there.
The Big Four
There are four characteristics that every purchasing committee wants in a new fire truck: quality, design, engineering, and workmanship. They are highly desirable, hard to define, and harder yet to specify when writing purchasing specs. Everyone knows what they mean but can be hard pressed to explain them in detail. A dictionary will give the grammatically correct definitions. However, in the world of fire truck specifications and competitive bidding, grammatically correct definitions may be hard to measure, evaluate, and compare. If an APC determines that a particular manufacturer demonstrates the minimum level of quality, design, engineering, and workmanship the fire department wants in an apparatus, perhaps writing a purchasing specification slanted toward that manufacturer is in order. That is a volatile topic that I will address another day.
BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.