BY BILL ADAMS
When the word vendor is used herein, it is synonymous with dealer and salesperson. Both are intended to be gender-neutral as are the words his, him, and he. Additionally, there is no inference or accusation that all fire apparatus salespeople are always belligerent.
There have been some vendors in the marketplace who have been described as rude and abrasive, although none I know profess being so. Depending on the circumstances, even mild-mannered and reputable dealers may become hotheaded and downright ill-mannered when triggered. Some can become belligerent and even vindictive. What sets them off?
I believe there are two basic reasons. The primary one is when a vendor believes or knows he has been lied to, deceived, or ignored by an apparatus purchasing committee (APC) or its designee. That is a harsh statement—one not easily proven but nonetheless one that should be discussed.
Any discussion concerning selling fire apparatus should acknowledge that most of the time there is a preferred dealer. Often, a preferred dealer is the only vendor an apparatus purchasing committee (APC) will interact with. I make no judgment on whether or not that is ethical or morally correct. That dealer will have a reasonable expectation of securing the order and probably has met with the APC numerous times to design the intended apparatus and develop purchasing specifications. It is reasonable to expect such a close relationship will result in a mutual understanding where each “knows” exactly what the other wants or means regardless of what is verbalized or in a specification’s verbiage.
Depending on how, and even if, the APC interacts with a nonpreferred dealer can trigger a response from the dealer. Some purchasing committees will unfairly lead a dealer on. As an example, an APC may require multiple meetings, request detailed engineering blueprints and specifications, and perhaps ask for an all-expenses-paid prebid factory inspection trip while promising to write an open and competitive specification.
However, if the APC has no intention of purchasing the vendor’s rig and was just working him over “for technical information, a free lunch, and a plane trip,” then the vendor may be justified in being aggravated. How an ill-treated dealer may react is unknown. Some may walk away, albeit disgusted and possibly out several thousand dollars in expenses with no possibility of making a sale. Others may become belligerent and justifiably so. Yet, others may become vindictive and attempt to belittle the APC and the fire department and even publicly humiliate both. That’s not right.
If an APC fairly and equally evaluates multiple manufacturers and does not like a vendor’s product—so be it. That vendor lost, the other vendor won, and the ballgame is over. Most reputable dealers will not cry foul and will move on because they might be the preferred dealer the next time and will expect a similar response from their peers.
The second reason, although a questionable one, for why a dealer may become belligerent is experiencing frustration with deciphering ambiguous purchasing specifications and being exasperated attempting to find a clear explanation of them. The preferred dealer should not have any concerns with purchasing specifications that are proprietary to his product or even written by him. Nonpreferred dealers may have a problem, especially if they have not had the opportunity to meet with the APC.
Some dealers will attempt to honestly decipher an ambiguous purchasing specification and submit a competitive proposal. In many instances when attempting to secure clarification of specification verbiage, an APC does not or will not return a dealer’s call or will not reply to an e-mail or a letter of inquiry. It is immaterial if an APC is nonresponsive by mistake or is disregarding the dealer by choice. It isn’t right. It can be very aggravating to the dealer and may elicit a very negative response—even a vindictive one.
It should be pointed out there are also some vendors who are inherently mean and miserable and will go out of their way to make everyone’s life as miserable as their own. They are the type who will harangue, challenge, and disparage an APC—especially in a public forum such as a public meeting, a prebid conference, or a public bid opening. And, they may use the ambiguous purchasing specification to justify their conduct. Their motto is: “Bid often and bid low regardless of the specifications.” That type of belligerency should not be tolerated. Throw them out of the fire station.
Below, in italics, are excerpts taken from a purchasing specification found online. The questions and comments that follow are from that fictitious, caustic, and belligerent salesperson you wished had not shown up at your public prebid meeting. They also could be from a disgruntled dealer who may have felt he was not treated fairly and equally by the APC. While some of these questions appear to be trivial, visualize yourself answering them in public. The mayor and city council may be sitting there. Don’t forget: You wrote the specs; you are accountable.
The map box shall have a dual-action sanded finish. “What is a dual-action sanded finish? Please describe it.”
A momentary siren brake rocker switch shall be provided in the switch panel on the dash. “You didn’t specify if it must be accessible to both the driver and passenger. You should really specify what you actually want.”
The pump compartment module shall be separated from the apparatus body with a gap. “Your description is incomplete. Do you have a minimum and maximum measurement for this gap?”
One (1) work light shall be installed in the pump compartment module to illuminate the piping and plumbing components. “You did not specify where you want it mounted. Do you care? Is it on the wall or ceiling?”
The upper panel shall house gauges and controls and be hinged to allow easy access to components. “Your document did not specify whether it is to be vertically or horizontally hinged. If it matters, you should have specified it.”
There shall also be one directional light mounted on the right side panel. “How high off the ground do you want it mounted? Do you intend it to meet a particular DOT standard?”
Mirrored stainless steel bezels shall be supplied around the openings in the pump panels for all discharge and suction inlet fittings. “Your document did not specify the method of attachment for these bezels. Does it matter? Is double-backed tape acceptable?”
The dunnage area above the pump house compartment shall be as wide as possible from side to side and as deep as allowed with the available space. “Most other specifications call for a minimum size. I assume there is nothing important intended to be stored there. What if the available space only allows a six-inch-deep dunnage area?”
There shall be a one-inch quarter-turn drain valve installed to drain the foam tank. The valve shall be installed in the pump house with a drain line extended to the side running board. “Don’t you want the drain valve located where you can see the actual drain? The way your specs read, the drain line can be on the curb side of the rig and the valve can be on the road side inside the compartment. That doesn’t make sense.”
A crosslay with the following specified components shall be provided for up to 200 feet of 21⁄2-inch hose. “Single-stacked or double-stacked? Or, do you have a desired width that you forgot to put in the specifications?” (This is a scenario where a preferred dealer “knows” what the purchaser has and wants. A dealer who is not familiar with the purchaser may not.)
All body structure and sheet material shall be premium grade stainless steel, Type 304L. “Don’t you care about the gauge of stainless used or the size of the structural members? Your specs don’t say so.”
The rear face of the apparatus body, vertical wall overlays shall be installed with a 16-gauge brushed stainless steel one- by one-inch corner trim piece, for edge protection. The vertical edge trim piece shall extend from the top to the bottom and shall be fastened at a minimum of three locations, top, middle, and bottom. “Your specifications here are nebulous. They do not say if the trim can be attached with stainless screws or double-backed tape. Don’t you care?”
To allow for proper air circulation and flow, each compartment shall have a venting route. The venting locations shall be determined by best fit for each body configuration. The vents will be chrome louvered plate and installed appropriately on the compartment interior walls. “What is a venting route? It appears this requirement is something directly from Brand X’s proprietary specification.”
The vertically hinged (compartment) doors shall each have a stainless steel spring loaded door holder. The horizontally top hinged doors shall have a gas charged shock to hold the door in the up position. “Your specifications only call for a single gas shock to hold up horizontally hinged doors. Don’t you realize the doors over the wheel well compartments are almost five feet wide by three feet high? There should be more than one shock on them.”
The left rear vertical body panel shall be reinforced for installation of a ground monitor mount by the dealership. “How do you want it reinforced?”
Brushed stainless steel sill plates shall be installed at the bottom of each body compartment door opening. “Screwed on or taped on?”
The compartment shall be divided horizontally into two (2) sections for storage of a CO2 fire extinguisher and a 20# dry chemical fire extinguisher. “If you want these manufactured to hold your extinguishers, you must provide the model number and manufacturer of the extinguishers or provide bidders with accurate measurements. We are fabricators—not mind readers.”
The aluminum flooring hosebed shall be manufactured in discrete sections to allow for ease of removal and stability. “Please define what is an acceptable dimension for a discrete section. You have to be more specific than just saying discrete.”
Vertically mounted Unistrut shall be installed in all apparatus body compartments, in the upper and lower sections. “Where do you want them mounted—the side walls or the rear walls? How many are required in full-depth compartments? How many in half-depth compartments? Are they bolted in place or welded? How long should they be? Is there a preference for material? You really have to do a better job in describing what you want.”
A permanent/fixed shelf shall be installed at the upper compartment break-line of each compartment specified. “Your document did not specify if the shelves are to be welded in place or bolted in place. You have to be more specific.”
There shall be two rear tow eyes installed to the frame rails, one each side, accessible below the rear center compartment. They shall be manufactured of one-inch plate steel, and each plate shall be bolted to the chassis frame rail with a minimum quantity of six grade 8 bolts. The two plates shall be anchored together with one-inch steel tubing to prevent swaying of the frame rails during a towing operation. All steel components shall be painted black. “This requirement looks like it was copied verbatim from Brand X’s proprietary specification. By the way, is the intent for these tow eyes to be used to pull the weight of the rig? If so, you probably should say so rather than just regurgitating your preferred dealer’s specification.”
Ambiguous specifications can be as confusing and detrimental to the bidding process as extraordinarily long and flamboyant ones. Remember that you wrote the specs and you are accountable. How you treat—or mistreat—a vendor will determine his response. Write carefully, and 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.