Apparatus Purchasing: Business as Usual?

By Bill Adams

The fire apparatus industry and the American fire service in particular may not have felt the full impact of the fiscal uncertainty in today’s marketplace.

It is immaterial if the nation’s sour mood is caused by unemployment, the health care debate, economic recession, individual financial depression, or political ineptitude. Taxpayers appear to be apprehensive, wary, and reluctant to authorize large expenditures. Whatever uptick the apparatus industry may have recently experienced might be in jeopardy domestically. This article looks at possible pitfalls an apparatus purchasing committee (APC) may encounter in the future.

The good old days when buying a fire truck was fun, easy, and gratifying could be a thing of the past. Fire departments, accustomed to writing purchasing specifications (specs) for exactly what they wanted, went through their purchasing processes with little attention and few questions from the public. Exercise caution. Times are changing. Affluent communities may not be affected, but fire departments in cash-strapped municipalities will be lucky if they can purchase what they may desperately need just to stay effectually operational. Regularly scheduled apparatus replacement programs may be a thing of the past.

Fiscal Responsibility

Disgruntled taxpayers may demand public officials, including fire departments, exercise fiscal self-discipline. If the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) does not show fiscal restraint, the citizenry may do it for it. An APC may not consider itself as comprising public officials, but it is-acting as a legal representative of the AHJ. Doubt it? Ask your attorney.

Fire apparatus are expensive-probably the most expensive vehicle a municipality will purchase. Being a big-ticket and highly visible item, they’ll probably be one of the first things on a political subdivision’s fiscal chopping block. APCs would be wise to prepare themselves for a possible onslaught of financially strapped taxpayers demanding to know why the fire department needs a new rig, why the one it wants is so expensive, and why it can’t buy a cheaper one or recondition the one it has. APCs should preplan their responses very carefully as questions may have to be answered in a public forum.

It may not only be angry taxpayers an APC faces. The AHJ may be an elected body of politicos not directly affiliated with the fire department. Be aware, AHJs are not required to have an obligatory allegiance to the fire department. A politician confronted by unhappy constituents with the power of the vote may side with his political future rather than the fire department’s request to replace a 25-year-old pumper. Whether for political showmanship, reelection purposes, or a genuine concern for fiscal responsibility, an AHJ can grill a purchasing committee just as aggressively and intensely as an irate taxpayer. Don’t become complacent-you may get thrown under the duals.

Internal Strife

Few in the fire service will admit and fewer will address the fact that conflict can come from within. In the volunteer sector, disillusioned members may take advantage of the economy to express their personal displeasure with a new purchase. Older members may reflect their desire to return to the good old days by disparaging or voting against purchasing a new rig. It’s not right, but it happens. The days of riding the rear step, open cabs, and rubber coats are gone. Past-their-prime members should acknowledge it is someone else’s turn. Decision makers today should take care not to confuse experience and knowledge with animosity and jealousy. Doing so may come back to bite them.

Personality clashes can also occur in the career sector, although repercussions there can be swift, harsh, and final. Both management and labor must struggle with priorities in times of dwindling resources. Is the cost of two new safe and reliable rigs equal in value to having one less firefighter each to staff them? Answering that question is an unenviable position no firefighter should be placed in. I empathize with those who must make such decisions, especially when the choice is one or the other.

Know Your Specs

Additionally, a disgruntled vendor challenging a bid award to a competitor or one questioning the veracity of the APC’s decisions or published specification can create a political firestorm a fire department may not need, deserve, or be capable of extinguishing in the court of public opinion.

Be prepared. An APC can best serve itself if it can adequately explain what every widget is in its purchasing specifications, what each is used for, and why each is specified. When writing purchasing specifications, be aware that you may be publicly challenged about any part of the document. APCs should know the document intimately and be prepared to answer any questions about it. Do your homework diligently. The person asking the question may have already found the answer on the Internet. Don’t get blindsided.

Most fire chiefs will not tolerate being questioned on the fireground-nor should they. It’s human nature to become confrontational when questioned by an “outsider” about a new apparatus purchase. APC members, mostly being experienced, can likewise become contentious when challenged or questioned. Being argumentative and openly combative are attitudes that lack diplomacy and political correctness in today’s purchasing climate, whether dealing with a member of your own department, a politician up for reelection, or an aggravated taxpayer who can’t find a job and just lost his health insurance. The fire service may have to reevaluate the way it approaches apparatus purchasing. It may not be business as usual.

Public Opinion

Career, combination, and volunteer fire departments are all susceptible to the wrath of unhappy electorates. In one New England state, taxpayers disillusioned with the management and operation of a career fire district repeatedly rejected proposed budgets, forcing the closure of three of five staffed stations, causing the return of a leased ladder tower, and sending the district into receivership. It is up to the courts whether the fire district will be liquidated.

In the same state, a new landlord purchased the land under one fire district’s rented fire station and went to court to evict the volunteer fire department. Rather than build a new fire station, the fire district decided it was less expensive to contract with a neighboring district for coverage. That evicted volunteer department is fading into history. It is unfortunate that some taxpayers are not willing to pay for adequate fire protection. It’s tragic when they can’t afford it. It is incomprehensible that some are willing to wait 20 minutes for the first-due engine company to show up.

APCs should anticipate negative reactions to a proposed new apparatus purchase. Don’t rule out open hostility. Be proactive to residents’ concerns. Have a backup plan. It’s no different than having a preplanned second and third alarm response for the “big one” on Main Street. Don’t be caught off guard by the suggestions of purchasing a used rig, cooperative purchasing with other buyers, or tagging onto another department’s order.

Be considerate of taxpayers’ apprehension and be prepared to civilly, diplomatically, and factually answer questions. Write purchasing specifications smartly. Be innovative. Have specs reflect the mood of your taxpayers. After all, you are asking them to pay the freight.

BILL ADAMS is 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.

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