By Bill Adams
When I was in the fire truck business, what used to burn my bottom was a lack of accountability demonstrated by some buyers and sellers. It didn’t happen all time and not everyone was guilty of it. I’ve heard rumors it might even exist today. One definition of accountability is being responsible, which is an obligation or a duty to tell the truth and do the right thing. I’m not accusing all fire truck vendors and apparatus purchasing committee (APC) members of being straight-out deceitful. What I’m talking about is when straightforwardness is stretched to its limit. To be politically correct, it’s when a buyer or seller demonstrates a lack of candor—often seen in during the competitive bidding process.
YES/NO Bid Form
Some purchasing specifications use a format with two columns titled YES and NO. Bidders must check off the appropriate column at designated areas indicating compliance or noncompliance with the published specifications and return the entire document. Usually it is accompanied by a set of contractor specifications. It’s a relatively simple process with the belief all bidders will be completely honest in filling out the form. It doesn’t always work like that.
Concurrently, bidders have a reasonable expectation that purchasers will be equally responsible in evaluating proposals, and in particular, ensuring adherence by all bidders to the YES/NO bid form. That also doesn’t happen all the time. Unfortunately, both scenarios are hard to prove.
Admittedly, bidders can make honest mistakes. If called to task, erroneous bidders usually get red in the face, apologize profusely, and throw themselves before the APC begging for mercy. Most of the time, it works. To err is human; to forgive is divine.
However, there are some unethical bidders who will indiscriminately check off YES columns with no intention of fully complying. They hope they don’t get caught and if they do, they attempt to weasel their way out of it. That’s just not right. Some of those unscrupulous bidders make it a habit, if not a concentrated effort, to use the YES/NO format to conceal their indiscretions in giving themselves an unfair advantage in the competitive bidding process. That’s almost illegal.
Purchasers not well versed in the bidding arena may not be aware that a bidder has checked off YES when in reality his proposal is not 100 percent in compliance. That unethical practice is usually pointed out by other bidders who have been subjected to similar chicanery in the past. It is a justifiable reason to allow “public examination” of all bids at the time they are received. Disreputable dealers fear their honest peers.
When challenged, habitual offenders indicating false compliance usually start stuttering and grasping for words. They might say when checking YES that they mean they’re meeting the “intent of the specifications.” That doesn’t pass the smell test. Another lame excuse is saying there were so many places to check off, they must have inadvertently put the check mark in the wrong column. That’s easily solved. Just provide one column and instruct bidders to physically write the word YES or NO. Problem solved.
An example of using “meeting the intent” as an excuse is when a purchaser specs an onboard hydraulically driven generator and a bidder proposes a much less expensive portable gas powered generator of similar wattage saying it meets the intent of the spec—as far as the wattage is concerned. That bid should be thrown out as being noncompliant despite the bidder checking off YES. Unfortunately, it is difficult to reject a proposal because it appears unethical.
What happens when a bidder checks off YES in the purchasing specifications and what the bidder is proposing in the contractor’s specifications is not in compliance? Which specification prevails? What does it say in the “Instructions to Bidders?” A bidder may be trying to have it both ways—perhaps wanting to come back and renegotiate favorable pricing after the public bid opening. Isn’t that illegal?
A Two-Way Street
Purchasers can also be deceitful in nefariously using the YES/NO format to their own advantage. They could discount minor YES/NO informalities in a favored bidder’s proposal while disparaging and possibly rejecting nonpreferred bidders’ proposals with less serious YES/NO compliance issues. Who determines what really is in the best interests of the purchaser? Does it matter if the “best interests” are ethically or morally correct or even legal?
Many purchasers require a bid bond to ensure a bidder’s compliance and honesty and that the bidder will enter into a contract for the price quoted. The Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook, by Bill Peters, says a bid bond can “penalize a bidder that reneges on its offer for any reason, such as an omission, misunderstanding, or price increase discovered after the bid.” Bidders should have a similar financial surety to keep the buyers honest.
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment advisory board, 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.