By Bill Adams
According to the dictionary, La-la-land is “a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life.”
Some apparatus purchasing committee (APC) members and some chiefs have been accused of visiting, if not temporarily residing, there. I’ve been there. In the apparatus purchasing world, they’re the ones who beat their chests while loudly proclaiming they will purchase whatever damn fire truck they want-period. Sometimes they get away with it; sometimes they don’t. Occasionally, an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) will make a purchasing decision based on formal bidding protocols rather than the APC’s and the chief’s wishes. Then when such a rig comes in, nobody is happy.
An APC worked assiduously drawing up specifications for a new pumper-their first in 15 years. None of the members had ever served on a purchasing committee. However, their enthusiasm, youthfulness, and years of firefighting experience led them to believe they could go it alone when writing their purchasing specifications. They did a pretty good job of doing so-pretty good, but not 100 percent. Soliciting vendors’ input wasn’t considered for fear of it being biased. Seeking outside professional help would be too embarrassing. Asking the advice and guidance of more experienced in-house firefighters or from neighboring departments was beneath them. After all, they were the new breed and it was “their turn.” Always being first on the attack line, being the best chauffeur in the house, and making “firefighter of the year” for the past five years do not automatically qualify one as being the most knowledgeable spec writer on the planet. Not knowing the “ins and outs” of purchasing, especially in a regulated bidding environment, could lead to some very disappointed gung-ho firefighters and one lousy rig that no one wants.
In some competitive bidding environments, there is little to no legal oversight. One example is when an independent volunteer fire company makes a purchase. It can buy whatever it wants with little to no accountability. A regulated competitive bidding environment is one subject to legal oversight. The fire department may be part of or answers to a political subdivision. It is subject to formal rules, regulations, and the written law when dealing with tax monies. Temporary residents of La-la-land and the inexperienced can be found in both environs. They can receive a rude awakening in the latter. The intent of this article is to assist purchasers who have to, or choose to, adhere to competitive bidding rules.
APCs can be blindsided by not understanding the ramifications of using four simple words: exception, option, alternate, and clarification. They should be aware of what could happen when the words are used in bidding verbiage such as: “Exception to the Bid,” “Optional Bid,” “Alternate Bid,” and “Bid Clarification.” Some bidding protocols allow their use; some don’t. Some may give discretion to the purchasing authority whether to allow them.
It would be in the APC’s best interest to seek guidance from the AHJ, or it might be unpleasantly surprised at a bid opening. In the spec writing and bid process, clarity is paramount. Specification terminology and verbiage should never be subjected to interpretation by bidders and buyers. To ensure both are on the same page, APCs should define in their specs exactly what each term means and whether or not they will be allowed or considered.
Exception to the Bid
An exception is defined as an exclusion or an omission. For whatever reason, a bidder cannot or will not provide what a purchaser specifies. The bidder may not be capable of providing it or just doesn’t want to. Purchasing specifications allowing or considering exceptions usually require bidders just to list them. Purchasers don’t always ask for a written description for “why” an exception is taken. They should. Doing so will help in determining whether an exception is valid and acceptable. Unscrupulous bidders may take an exception solely to gain a financial bidding advantage. That’s not right and should not be tolerated. Reject such bids as being unresponsive. Making bidders explain “why” can help identify unprincipled bidders.
Purchasers should have the right to specify “no exceptions” for high-priority (essential) items. When doing so, they should understand that they may be restricting competitive bidding. The “no exception” clause can also be used to ensure a level of quality and workmanship-with the same caveat about restricting bidding. Both are internal decisions that should be resolved prior to writing specifications. Buyer, beware: Address the subject with the AHJ beforehand and be explicit in defining “no exceptions” in purchasing specifications. Doing so will help alleviate grief and aggravation if challenged after opening the bids. Using “no exceptions” to eliminate nonpreferred bidders and show favoritism to only one bidder is another matter-possibly a legal one.
Option is defined as discretionary or noncompulsory. Bidders may not be required to submit pricing for options, nor are purchasers required to accept them. There are two types of optional bids: solicited and unsolicited. When specifically requested, optional pricing is an excellent tool, allowing purchasers a multitude of choices. The most common is when optional pricing is requested for loose equipment or “extras” to be supplied with a new apparatus. “Extras,” in this context, could be items ranging from an additional inlet or discharge, fire hose, a nozzle, or an extra hosebed divider.
Optional bids allow purchasers to pick and choose while staying within budgetary constraints. A key factor here is that it is the purchaser who decides what optional bids are acceptable. When an APC solicits optional bids, all potential bidders will have an equal opportunity to provide pricing. Bidders not supplying requested optional pricing do so at their own risk.
Unsolicited optional bids, especially for a complete apparatus, can “muddy the waters.” In my opinion, a purchaser willing to accept a bid for an apparatus that is “close to” their technical specifications-such as a demonstrator or stock vehicle-should request that pricing be provided as an alternate bid rather than an optional bid. Purchasers can be caught off guard and embarrassed by unexpected optional bids. In a public forum, it could be humiliating. The APC may be placed in the precarious position of explaining why it does not want to accept a lower cost and possibly inferior product. Again, interaction with the AHJ before writing specifications is essential. Inform the AHJ that some bidders might willfully disregard the AHJ’s published specs. AHJs, especially elected ones, may appreciate a “heads up” that unsolicited optional bids may show disrespect or even contempt for the work and decisions of both the fire department and the AHJ. You are prewarning them. It’s like a preplan.
Alternate bids are very similar to optional bids. To some, they are the same thing. I disagree. Alternate is defined as a substitute or a replacement. It is for something different than what was originally specified. Usually, alternate bids are for an entire apparatus rather than extraneous parts and pieces. Similar to optional bids, bidders are not usually mandated to provide them, but they are foolish if they don’t. They’ll be missing a second lick at the ice cream cone. And, purchasers don’t have to accept one. In regulated political subdivisions, there may be laws on the books defining both optional and alternate bids.
Like an optional bid, an alternate bid can be an excellent tool, provided it is allowed by the purchasing specifications. An unsolicited alternate bid can be as detrimental to the competitive bidding process as an unsolicited optional bid. Unless all bidders are made aware that alternate bids are acceptable, purchasers shouldn’t consider an unsolicited one. In some political subdivisions, it might be illegal.
Defined as an explanation or interpretation, I believe clarification is one of the most abused terms in apparatus purchasing. Nefarious dealers have been known to use a clarification to obscure their bids by artificially deflating the true price. It is not unheard of for a bidder to propose a less expensive and possibly inferior product, claiming he didn’t understand what the purchaser really wanted. Then, buried somewhere in his proposal, he’ll say, “But, if you really want what you really specified, add x number of dollars to our bid price.” That’s not right and shouldn’t be condoned. Throw the bid out. If bidders do not understand what a purchaser’s specification means, they should ask for a clarification before submitting a bid. A prebid conference should eliminate the problem.
To clarify also means to amplify or elaborate. If a bidder provides a clear and accurate description of an item being proposed, why is an amplification necessary? Is it just to make their bids and themselves look good? Some bidders might propose lower-cost items using clarifications saying they “meet the intent” of the specifications. It’s possible they are trying to “beat the system” while giving themselves a financial advantage. I do not recommend allowing bidders to provide clarifications in their proposals. If you do, read the proposals carefully. Look between the lines.
After a bid opening is when many purchasers are confronted with a scenario where a bidder’s interpretation and use of verbiage differs from their own. Their natural instinct is to blame the bidder. That’s wrong. If there are multiple meanings in the dictionary for alternate, exception, clarification, and option, who says which one is right? Apparatus vendors can have their own opinions. Both buyer and seller will use personal interpretations to their individual benefit: one for buying what they want and the other for selling their product. Neither can be faulted. A literal interpretation may not necessarily be the right one.
That’s why it is important for purchasing specifications to stipulate the AHJ’s interpretation and “use” of each. It is the purchaser’s responsibility because the purchaser writes the specs. Remember: If something is not in the specs, it does not exist. If bidders do not follow the bidding requirements, the purchaser has the right to disqualify them. If the purchasing specifications’ directions are vague and ambiguous, there could be a problem. In regulated bidding environments, the ultimate purchasing decisions may be made by nonfirematic-oriented people such as lawyers, bean counters, and politicos. Be careful. Their priorities might be the law, low bid, and votes. Good luck.
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial 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.