BY BILL ADAMS
Articles about fire apparatus specifications are authored every few years. At trade shows and seminars, presenters expound on the subject, edifying audiences with their opinions and recommendations on how to write them.
It is wise to revisit the subject for several reasons. First, the make-up of many purchasing committees can change with time, especially in those departments that purchase infrequently. Additionally, the dynamics of purchasing are subtly shifting from true competitive bidding to negotiated sales and purchasing via cooperative (co-op) contracts such as the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) Cooperative Purchasing Program. And lastly, the purchasing specifications themselves have become very lengthy, extremely detailed, and overly wordy. Times are changing, and purchasing committees should adapt to meet them.
This article will attempt to address the purchasing specification document in an open, objective, and common-sense manner. Hopefully, it separates the “wheat from the chaff.” The purchasing specification is the document a fire department promulgates that describes the apparatus it wants to purchase. It does not matter if the specification is generic, open, proprietary, or performance-based. And, it matters not if the apparatus is being purchased via the competitive bidding process in the political arena, through a co-op, or via a negotiated sale. Most likely, the purchasing specification will be part of a legal document such as a contract or purchase order between buyer and seller. It is important that the fire department understand exactly what has been specified in the document.
New purchasing committee members should be instructed in the intricacies of apparatus purchasing and instructed in the “hows, whys, and ways” of doing so and writing specifications. Procuring apparatus via purchasing cooperatives has lessened the requirement for fire departments to write their own documents. They rely on the expertise—or possible lack thereof—of a preferred vendor. Co-op purchasing can inadvertently inhibit purchasing committee members from educating themselves on the “nuts and bolts” of fire apparatus construction. They might not have the opportunity or inclination to learn and evaluate the differences in all manufacturers’ designs and products in the marketplace. Lengthy, longwinded, and repetitive specification verbiage might intimidate committee members to the point of discouraging them from serving on the committee. In a worst-case scenario, a committee might do an inadequate job because of being overwhelmed by the complexity of the document.
Temporarily setting the boilerplate (legal bidding protocols) aside, there can be daunting challenges when writing the technical nuts-and-bolts portions of the specifications. It may be beyond the resources of purchasers to be aware of items such as component part availability, product updates, and ever-changing codes and regulatory requirements. That is not a criticism; it is a statement of fact. The majority of purchasers need some degree of technical assistance.
Help is available in three general formats. The first, collectively referred to as the vendors, includes fire apparatus and component part manufacturers (OEMs), their sales staffs, and local dealers—who are all eager to help potential customers. For-hire specification writers and consultants are the second group that are equally willing to assist. The last are the pundits and commentators, who forever offer guidance and advice via seminars, social media, and writings such as this article.
Purchasers should be aware that all three groups can have agendas. Acknowledging and recognizing that fact should make the decision-making process of who “helps” write the specifications easier. I have no preference. Purchasers should take into consideration the saying “Take everything with a grain of salt,” which means you can accept something while maintaining a degree of skepticism about its veracity. Verify before you specify.
Vendors have a financial interest in providing specifications to prospective customers. They want to sell product. It’s their job, and many excel at it. I believe the majority are upfront and honest and will keep a fire department’s best interests in mind. Exercise caution because there might be a few who could be overly aggressive in promoting a particular product that is more advantageous to themselves. If there is apprehension about a vendor’s specification or intent, ask other vendors for their opinions. Advice is free for the asking.
CONSULTANTS AND SPEC WRITERS
Consultants and specification writers also have a financial interest in promoting their services. They get paid for it. I make no judgment on whether or not to use one. Nor do I offer counsel in choosing one. Some may have personal preferences for particular products ranging from apparatus manufacturers to component parts to specific designs. If a vast majority of the purchasing specifications they’ve written resulted in similar purchases from the same manufacturer, their objectivity could come into play. Investigate before hiring.
PUNDITS AND COMMENTATORS
Pundits and commentators can be as equally biased as the other two groups, although not expressly for a large financial gain. A pundit can be described as a specialist, an authority, or an analyst.
A commentator has been described as a critic, an observer, and a reporter. Neither can really be held accountable for their opinions. Their writings and presentations often reflect their backgrounds, whether they be employment with a particular manufacturer or experience in the fire service in the career or volunteer sector. Most have individual quirks they promote with a degree of regularity. As examples, some are safety-oriented— many overly so. Others might have fetishes for rear pumps, a certain body material, hosebed configurations, and so on. Pundits and commentators can indirectly influence purchasing committees. Read between the lines. There is no law saying you can’t challenge or disagree with pundits and commentators.
INDUSTRY AND SPECIAL EXPERTS
There is a unique player in the fire truck world, and this is the industry expert, a title that may be self-proclaimed or one conferred by others. Some pundits are considered industry experts. Most consultants are too. There are no known criteria or qualifications for one. It could be years of experience in the fire truck industry, years on the job as a firefighter, a combination of both, or just a good “gift ofgab.”
Even National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus,does not define an industry expert. NFPA 1901’s page 12/14-A defines nine classifications of members who serve on the 1901 Technical Committee on Fire Department Apparatus. (These are the people who write the standard.) They include manufacturer, user, installer, labor, testing laboratory, enforcing authority, insurance, and consumer. The very last classification is a Special Expert. It is defined as a person not representing the first eight classifications but has “special expertise” in the scope of the standard or a portion thereof. It is a committee’s decision as to how much influence it will let an industry expert have when writing purchasing specifications.
OBLIGATION AND JUSTIFICATION
I believe every fire department has the right—if not obligation—to specify fire apparatus deemed necessary and appropriate to adequately serve the needs of their response districts while at the same time providing a safe working platform for the firefighters staffing them. Purchasing specifications should be written to adequately provide the degree of design, engineering, quality, and workmanship required to accomplish the task. Should it be necessary for technical specification verbiage to be exceedingly definitive or even proprietary in nature to do so, so be it. Make sure it is legal, and be well-prepared to justify doing so. Regardless of the type of specification written, the verbiage should be clear and understandable so all parties understand without question what the document is saying.
NOT A TEXTBOOK
A purchasing specification is not an educational tool, nor should it be a primer about the specific requirements of NFPA 1901. Furthermore, it should not be a promotional sales tool for the myriad component parts manufacturers of a complete fire truck. All the preceding contributes to making purchasing specifications too long, too wordy, and too ambiguous in some places and overly descriptive and restrictive in others. The document should not intimidate the purchasers or the rank-and-file firefighters who are going to use the rig. It should be easy to read and understand.
SOME PERSONAL OPINIONS
My comments regarding purchasing specficiations follow.
- Purchasing specification verbiage does not have to be in full, complete sentences.
- It is not necessary to state “shall be NFPA-compliant” after every widget specified.
- It is legal to state in one place that the apparatus shall be in compliance with NFPA 1901.
- It is not necessary to repeat verbatim exact passages from NFPA 1901 in the document. When stating the rig must be NFPA-compliant in one place, the manufacturer has to comply with the standard in its entirety regardless of whether a purchasing committee states it has to be for one part and forgets to say it has to be in another.
- Fire departments should practice due diligence when specifying component parts. As an example, a widget can be specified by its manufacturer, model number, and add-on options such as color and size. If the widget is available to all apparatus manufacturers, it is not necessary in the purchasing specification to provide a several-hundred-word description of it including how it works, the benefits and advantages of using it, and why it is being specified. Too many words—not necessary. Purchasing committees should do their homework beforehand and know why the widget is being specified and how it works.
- Apparatus and component part manufacturers provide detailed and proprietary specification verbiage for their own products. It’s their job; cut them some slack. It is not necessary to use all their verbiage in your document. Eliminate what is not necessary. Challenge the manufacturers to help you eliminate unnecessary words.
- Do not use terminology that cannot be defined. A purchasing specification states what the fire department wants.When comparing proposals received, it has to compare what manufacturers are bidding. To be fair, the comparison should be done on an “apples to apples” basis. If you can’t define what you wrote, how can you compare it to what bidders are proposing? How do you define requirements such as heavy-duty, severe-service, best automotive practices,and first-class workmanship? If you can’t put a value on or quantify a description, don’t use it. It will just muddy the waters.
- Even if a purchasing committee is going to work with one manufacturer to develop specifications, it may be beneficial to eliminate unnecessary verbiage so all committee members easily understand the document. Preferred vendors will no doubt enhance the description of their products. Not every purchasing committee member may be a major in English Composition. Don’t intimidate your own people with a 120-page hard-to-read indecipherable document describing a basic pumper. However, there should be no doubt what is being specified.
- Some purchasing committees can become so enamored with purchasing from a preferred vendor, they can unwittingly believe everything that vendor says. I believe the saying is one “can’t see the forest for the trees.” I say don’t drink the Kool-Aid®.
- Provide a copy of NFPA 1901 to each purchasing committee member. It will be a wise investment.
- Regardless of who helps write the purchasing specifications, the fire department owns them and is solely responsible for their content. After a new rig is delivered and is sitting in the apparatus bay is not the time to say, “I thought,” “We thought,” “It was understood,” “I didn’t know,” or “The salespeople told us.” If a specification requirement is not in writing, it does not exist. 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.