By Bill Adams
I believe there are three reasons to expedite the purchase of a new fire truck. Two are valid, and one isn’t.
The first and easiest to justify is when an emergency purchase is warranted to replace an essential rig that is unexpectedly and permanently placed out of service. An example would be when a department’s sole aerial ladder is no longer serviceable, a spare rig is not available, and mutual aid is not feasible. Second is when the purchasing authority has to expend funds within a certain time frame, such as with grant monies or when job-specific budgeted funding may expire (you don’t use it, you lose it). The last and perhaps a controversial reason is political. A member of the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) or the fire department hierarchy may want a “feather in the cap” for electoral purposes. Let’s get a new rig on order or delivered before the elections; I need the votes. That is a crass statement and a calculated maneuver but one not unheard of. In most other instances, the purchasing process plods along at a pace convenient to the fire department. These are the instances addressed herein.
Apparatus purchasing committees (APCs) have been known to labor for well over a year to develop a set of purchasing specifications. That time frame is common in departments that purchase infrequently as well as in departments that do not have an administrative staff devoted to apparatus procurement. Unless it is a scenario similar to the three mentioned above, the AHJ seldom badgers an APC to step up the pace. No one seems to care about the length of time required to develop a set of specifications provided that the department specs exactly what it needs and wants. APCs are usually encouraged to take their time and get it right. Kudos to committees that investigate and evaluate.
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, Annex B, sentence B.3—Obtaining and Studying Proposals states, “When the specifications are complete, they should be distributed to apparatus manufacturers and contractors with a request for bids or proposals to furnish the specified apparatus. The request should specify a date, time, and place for the formal opening of the bids. This date should allow at least one month for the engineering departments of apparatus manufacturers to study the specifications and estimate the cost of the apparatus. More time could be required if engineering drawings of the proposed apparatus are required.” NFPA 1901 also states, “This annex is not part of the requirements of this NFPA document but is included for informational purposes only.”
Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook, by William C. Peters, states, “Most would agree that unless specifications are extremely complicated, 30 days should be sufficient and fair for all bidders to complete their work. If bids are accepted by mail, the time frame should be slightly longer to compensate for this process.”
The 30-day time frame, while generally accepted as a norm, is to my knowledge not a written requirement of any regulatory agency. No one knows where the historical 30-day figure originated or why it was chosen. It may be one of those unchallenged fire service traditions that has never been questioned. It should be.
Unawareness or Deceit?
After the technical nuts-and-bolts portion of purchasing specifications is completed, the front sheets (aka the boilerplate), including the basic legal requirements, are usually addressed. This is when and where the 30-day time frame is normally integrated into the document. It can happen several ways. In one, few people acknowledge the majority of APCs are helped in the specification writing process by a favored vendor. Often that helpful vendor will suggest boilerplate to the APC, which will include verbiage favorable to the vendor’s product. Included are warranties, service requirements, financial prerequisites, as well as the time period for bids to be returned. The less time a vendor allows for competitors to prepare a proposal, the better the chances are for that vendor to secure an order. This is not an accusation that all vendors will do this, but it could be a possibility. Most astute dealers will strive to legally beat their competition before they get to the bid table. That’s their job, and some are very good at it.
In another example, purchasers should be aware that individual states and their respective political subdivisions may have local laws regarding public bidding that may include a minimum time for bidders to respond. The AHJ’s legal staff will ensure mandated minimum legal time frames are met. If the 30-day minimum meets local laws, the legal beagles will have no problem. I doubt any have asked the fire department if that is enough time for the vendors.
One more example is the aforementioned traditional, “that’s what we’ve always done in the past.” How often does an APC ask prospective bidders how long they consider reasonable or required to prepare a proposal? They should—unless, of course, the APC wants the specifications including the front sheets intentionally geared toward a preferred vendor. A prebid conference is where vendor concerns, including the time to prepare a proposal, can and should be resolved.
In 2013, the National Institute for Public Procurement’s NIGP Business Council published a white paper online (https://www.nigp.org/docs/default-source/New-Site/white-papers/wenobidwhitepaper7-23-15.pdf?sfvrsn=2) titled, “We No-Bid and I’ll Tell you Why.” Several of its highlights below pertain to all purchasing—including fire apparatus. They are not germane to public entities. The reasons for not having time to bid are applicable to volunteer fire departments as well.
■ There was no opportunity to meet with the agency before or during the request for proposal (bidding) process.
■ The time frame was just too short for us to be able to adequately respond.
■ The specifications were written to clearly give a particular supplier an advantage.
■ Requirements too restrictive for time allowed.
■ No question-and-answer period where the supplier can ask questions of the agency.
■ Short time frame to respond.
■ Like procurement staffs, companies will need to spend a lot of time, resources, and money to respond.
■ Often, suppliers need to get input from many different departments and need a full review by their legal staffs. This takes time.
■ Specifications are too broad. Very general specifications provide an opportunity for an inferior product to win a bid.
■ Specifications are too specific. Very specific specifications are often perceived as written to favor a particular supplier.
Hypocrisy and Narcissism
Some APCs have no concept, care, or concern for how long it takes a vendor to develop a proposal—vendor being synonymous with the apparatus manufacturer, a dealer, or the sales staff. I believe it is hypocritical that an APC takes all the time it deems necessary to develop a set of specifications yet demands bidders to prepare a comprehensive, engineered, and highly detailed proposal within an unreasonable time period. APCs are quick to disparage and even disqualify a bidder for missed items in a proposal. Purchasers should realize purchasing is a two-way street. If the APC truly wants competitive bids, it should ask vendors how much time is required to submit one.
Be skeptical when a preferred vendor says 30 days is enough time for bidders to submit proposals. Bear in mind that the preferred vendor in the course of meetings with the committee probably has had months to prepare time-consuming documents such as a detailed weight analysis, electrical load analysis, and engineering blueprints.
It is unfortunate that some purchasing committees display a degree of narcissism when dealing with vendors. Having the authority to spend a half-million dollars for a fire truck may give some APCs a feeling of self-importance and haughtiness. What a blow to their egos to learn that they may not be the only purchaser in the fire truck world that has a pocket full of money. There are two schools of thought for why this phenomenon of only giving vendors 30 days to prepare a bid occurs. One is ignorance, which has been described. The other is deceit. If you don’t want competitive bids, so be it. But, be fair to the vendors. Don’t waste their time.
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.