Apparatus Purchasing: Evaluating an Outside Spec Writer, Part 2

In 2012, the Rush (NY) Fire District retained an outside (third party) spec writer to “interact with apparatus manufacturers (OEMs) to coordinate preparing purchasing specifications” for a new pumper. Part 1 described the process from the successful bidder’s viewpoint.

Part 2 evaluates the process from the purchaser’s perspective. Apparatus purchasing committee (APC) members and past chiefs Bob Faugh, Mike Terzo Sr., and Dale Sweet were interviewed. Faugh and Terzo are current fire commissioners. Answers to specific questions (in italics) appear throughout this article.

Rush Truck Committee

“Truck committee” is local terminology for an APC. Faugh, says, “Our truck committee has considerable experience in purchasing apparatus. It includes four former chiefs. Most were involved in major purchases made in 2010; 2004; 2003; and with some on truck committees in 1995, 1992, and 1991. They’ve been through it before. Input from firematic line officers and firefighters was funneled through the department chief, Jim Bucci, who also sat on the committee.”

1 The rear view of existing Pumper 582, a 2003 model that has served the district well. (Photos by author.)

Why a third-party spec writer?

Faugh states, “In the past, we always had a dealer help write specifications. The district had no problems with any of the manufacturers of the apparatus and chassis currently in service and would have purchased any of them. This time we felt writing an open specification would result in multiple bids benefiting the fire department and the taxpayers.” He explains that there were two major reasons for going with an outside spec writer. “We knew the direction we wanted to go but weren’t sure of the best way to get there. Some had reservations [about whether] a dealer would write an open specification. We didn’t want to favor one manufacturer or exclude any either. It was best to have someone with no skin in the game. Another consideration was the time constraints on committee members. They spent a lot of time accumulating information, going to trade shows, and visiting other fire departments that recently purchased apparatus. We didn’t relish meeting with a dozen vendors trying to sort through sales pitches.”

Terzo concurs. “We spent a year at trade shows gathering ideas for this truck and talking with builders and inspecting their work,” he says. “We did the same for our previous purchase, the rescue truck. The third party saved us lots of time. We were spinning our wheels a little bit in the beginning with many ideas, and the third party took us in the right direction to getting what we wanted. Instead of wasting time meeting with many dealers, we got the spec narrowed down to those who were interested in building the truck.”

2 3 The rear view of the new Pumper 584. The new rig has all three suctions slide in on the right side with enclosed ladder storage on the left. The single high rear step compartment was split into an upper compartment carrying strainers and a lower compartment carrying a hydrant makeup kit. A tradeoff for redesigning and adding features to the back end was that the rear two-inch preconnected handline (tan in color on both rigs) remained high off the ground.

Sweet adds, “Many of us had time constraints. Our lives are much busier now than they were in previous years. The spec writer kept everyone focused by not letting the committee lean toward any one manufacturer. The committee had ideas that I believe were good but needed some direction in order to make them happen. The third party’s fire department experience and suggestions helped us decide whether or not to pursue those ideas and how to do it. I think the outside spec writer process worked well. It kept us from dropping the ball and helped keep moving things along.”

Faugh concludes, “We wanted someone to review our ideas and coordinate with manufacturers to see if they were interested in working with us and if they could build what we wanted.”

Was it beneficial to have suggestions and ideas offered by a third party who did not have an agenda?

Faugh: He was not hired to recommend what to buy or whose apparatus to purchase. He made suggestions on how to lay out what we wanted from both a firefighter’s and a manufacturer’s perspective and then he coordinated with interested manufacturers if they could bid on it.

Sweet: Yes, it helped. I believe using a third-party spec writer you are familiar with and has no ties to possible bidders is beneficial, and I would do it again.

Terzo: Yes, a third party brings an outside perspective to the spec. We all had ideas on what we wanted and how we wanted it, but the reality of having it come together came from the third party, who had the knowledge and knew the capabilities of OEMs that could build what we wanted. The third party also went to them and got drawings of what we were looking for, which gave us a good visual before going to bid. We changed our spec accordingly. I remember the rear layout of the truck was a long discussion. When the third party brought different drawings of configurations of the back end, we were able to sort out what layout would fit our needs. An outsider with a good understanding of the manufacturers gives an insight on the advantages of each without getting fed a line from the dealers. It is a big plus to get a third party who has hands-on knowledge of how trucks are built.

4 Dual bifold access doors are provided on the pump house. The way the District’s specifications were written the bidder had to take an exception to provide them. There is a single speedlay with a capacity of 300 feet of two-inch at the front of the pump house.

Was anything “missed” by not working directly with the OEMs?

Faugh: No. We didn’t tell the manufacturers they couldn’t talk directly to the committee, and most didn’t have a problem going through the spec writer. However, one manufacturer would not deal with him and said so. Having someone make initial contact with manufacturers and doing preliminary work beforehand made it easier for the committee. Commissioner Terzo was the project manager for us. He was the contact person for the spec writer and for any questions or concerns by other commissioners, members of the truck committee, and line officers and vendors who opted to contact us directly. This also worked out great. The spec writer’s job ended when the specifications were written. He wasn’t involved in evaluating bids and wasn’t asked for recommendations after the bids came in. And, he did not inspect the apparatus at delivery. We did that ourselves.

Terzo: Not much. It makes for an even relationship with each vendor with them not knowing that they are or are not going to be the favored bidder.

Sweet: I don’t believe so. I think the committee covered it well.

Was there an advantage to numbering sentences and using an abbreviated specification?

Sweet: Yes. There is nothing worse than trying to cross reference our specifications to each bidder’s proposal. I think it was easier to follow for both the committee and the bidders. We still spent quite a bit of time comparing items in the proposals to our specs. There always seems to be a bidder or two that has some items added or left out of their proposals. Sometimes the lowest bidders are not necessarily the lowest when you find items that are missing or weren’t asked for. The numbered sentences helped us verify them.

5 Shown are the access doors in the open position. A dry reel is above the pump house with 300 feet of 1¾-inch hose. The first length is 100-feet long; the rest are fifty footers. The dry reel has worked well for the many vehicle fires they have on the local interstate highway.

Faugh: With numbering each sentence in our specifications, it was very easy for the committee to compare proposals and the exceptions taken to our specifications.

Terzo: Yes, and it was all divided into good sections as well. We used it when we were on our inspection trips. By forcing bidders to follow our numbering system, we controlled the bid process.

Mistakes and Oversights

After the specification was put to bid, prospective bidders made comments to the district, resulting in a single addendum to the document. The spec writer mistakenly wrote 1⁄8-inch stainless steel instead of 12-gauge stainless steel for one of the acceptable body materials. For some unknown reason at the time of the bid, a 450-horsepower (hp) motor was less expensive than the 400-hp motor specified. Neither the spec writer nor the committee was aware of it. Both items were changed. Misses such as those could be justification for holding a prebid conference.

An acceptable chassis manufacturer was a major subject of debate for the committee. The initial contact with the dozen-plus manufacturers resulted in many saying they would not use the committee’s initial choice of a chassis manufacturer. It was decided to open the specifications, allowing manufacturers using other, or building their own, chassis to bid. Lengthy discussions followed. The committee eventually opted to use specifications for a custom chassis available to a wide range of manufacturers. But, that was not problem-free.

6 The compartment is ahead of the rear wheels on the passenger’s side. The hard suction storage ends in the upper left side. At the preconstruction meeting, the factory engineers suggested moving the electric rewind cord reel the district had specified elsewhere to this location.

The spec writer attempted to open up the chassis specifications; however, bidders could readily tell whose chassis was specified. He also copied the chassis specifications from a neighboring department’s purchasing specification. It included some items not required, not desired, or inappropriate for the apparatus desired by the committee. It forced bidders to take unnecessary exceptions. More time, effort, and oversight could have been expended on the chassis side of the specifications, which reaffirms the advantage of prebid conferences.

Bid Results

“We were happy with the number of bids received,” says Faugh. “It was very aggravating that some bidders did not list all their exceptions, and some included items we did not want or specify.” Terzo adds, “We got many bids back on the open specs without having to put all our eggs into one basket if we favored one manufacturer.” Sweet points out, “In the past, you would get one or two bids and not much competition. This time, lots of bidders requested specs, and we received five proposals to evaluate. Competition is good, and I believe the district and its taxpayers got more for their money this way. The finished product still met the committee’s expectations.”

Faugh notes, “We actually accepted a bid with the most exceptions. It showed the bidder had spent a lot of time going over our specifications. They were very small and most worked to our benefit.” Regarding whether they would consider using an outside spec writer again, Faugh states, “No doubt about it. It was easier for the commission and the truck committee.”

Of the five proposals received, one was extremely high, but there was only a seven percent spread between the other four. The bidder awarded the contract was in the middle price-wise. However, the award was primarily based on meeting the technical specifications and following the district’s instructions to bidders.

Several OEMs and dealers who previously sold Rush apparatus did not bid. Sweet comments, “I believe some didn’t bid because we didn’t meet and spend a lot of time with them. Also, it could have been because we used a chassis that was available to multiple manufacturers as our base. We didn’t want to use a chassis only offered by one manufacturer, as our goal was to receive multiple bids. We did not say ‘no exceptions’ to our chassis specifications, so I really believe they were not interested because we did not sit down with them. But, we didn’t sit down with anybody while putting our specifications together.”

7 The equipment layout on the driver’s side.

Do you see any benefits in using a third-party spec writer in the future?

Terzo: I see ourselves using it as a great starting point again on the next truck. Bring back the third party and change the hiccups we had on this one and buy the next one. A third party with experience in building fire trucks can bring simple fixes and ideas that you don’t think about. Configuring the rear of the truck was an example. We had an idea of what we wanted, and the third party was able to make it happen. He took our wants and configured them in different ways to show what it would look like, and there it was. We liked moving the rear lights sideways so we can have bigger access steps to the top of the truck.

How receptive was the manufacturer during the building process?

Terzo: Very. They changed anything we wanted and they were very receptive. The a/c unit was in the wrong place in the cab, but that was resolved amicably.

Faugh: Before going to the preconstruction meeting at the factory, we were given a list of questions and suggestions their engineers wanted to discuss. It saved a lot of time. Some of the items were not exactly what we wanted but were acceptable, and we are glad they made them. Only one change order was made during the build process, and that was at the preconstruction meeting. The final inspection went smoothly, with only a few minor items to be addressed. It’s been in service for almost a year. We’re happy.

Sweet: The manufacturer was very receptive and accommodating. They were more than willing to work with the committee. I have dealt with several manufacturers over the years as a fire chief, a career administrator in a neighboring district, and a committee member, and I believe they cared as much as we did about the final product.

8 The rig has wheel chock storage in the lower section of the driver’s-side pump panel.

How the Process Evolved

The spec writer’s initial meeting with the committee reviewed existing pumpers, discussed the basic layout (wish list) for the new rig, and established the committee’s ground rules. They wanted the new pumper “to be similar to their other rigs, to carry the same equipment, but to be much shorter in length and easy to work off of.” Much discussion followed-some “in depth.”

The spec writer sent a letter of authorization from the district to act on its behalf to more than a dozen manufacturers asking if they were interested. Those which replied were sent the wish list along with rough sketches showing the desired overall layout, rear view, and pump house with photographs of two existing rigs. Seven manufacturers provided positive feedback. The committee consolidated and evaluated the feedback. The collective responses from the manufacturers and many committee meetings resulted in opening up the body construction specifications, increasing the overall length, relocating several items, and not being so restrictive with the cab and chassis requirements. Several OEMs provided detailed blueprints and suggested purchasing specifications. One provided multiple views showing different layouts of the rear. An easy-to-work-off-of rear step area was a major concern for the committee.

The physical ramifications of relocating each item on the wish list were addressed as well as their obvious effects on fireground operations. As an example, when the committee considered recess mounting a third hard suction sleeve accessible from ground level, it was pointed out that relocating it lower could result in a loss in hosebed capacity in feet, or booster tank volume in gallons, or even raising the hosebed by so many inches. Multiple drafts of the specifications were made, and the committee received regular updates on the spec writer’s progress.

9 The adjustment control for the fire pump’s intake relief valve is accessible from ground level through the driver’s side pump house access doors.

The committee opted for a wide open performance-based specification for the apparatus body, pump house, and appurtenances. Only four dimensions were specified: an overall length, an overall height, and two specific dimensions for steps on the rear face of the body. Bidders were required to provide their own detailed set of manufacturer’s specifications including compartment dimensions, pump house dimensions, and methods of construction. Sweet says, “Most of the items that we were going to carry would fit in most manufacturers’ standard size compartments available on the length rig we wanted with the size cab we wanted. We checked that beforehand.”

A commercially available four-door custom cab and chassis was specified. However, the wheelbase and gross vehicle weight rating were left to be engineered by the apparatus manufacturer. Sweet comments, “I have seen committees spec out these items before only to find out later that one or more of the items were not correct. All bidders have engineers who should be capable of designing it correctly. If not, and the vehicle is delivered wrong, the purchaser can hold the builder responsible.”

Specifications were abbreviated in a bullet-point format. A number was provided for each major section in the specifications, and a sentence number was assigned each bullet point. After the document was reviewed by the district’s legal counsel, the spec writer’s job was over.

The district considered its specifications to be open and performance-based, so “clarifications” in bidders’ proposals were deemed unnecessary and would not be considered. It believed a bidder either met a requirement or it didn’t. There was no in-between. From its specifications, “The district defines an Exception to the Specifications as any difference or variance in what the district has specified and what the bidder is proposing-no matter how slight, small, or insignificant it may be. Bids containing an unsolicited clarification in lieu of an exception will be deemed unresponsive and immediately rejected.”

The district also reserved the right to reject any proposal where a bidder’s exception did not refer to a specific sentence number in the district’s purchasing document. Equal importance was placed on manufacturers complying with the Instructions to Bidders as on complying with the technical specifications.

10 Shown are intermediate treadplate access steps to the chassis cab. Rush’s specifications called for access steps to be identical to its rescue truck. They are-in physical size. However, the new pumper’s cab sits two inches lower than the rescue truck.

The original intent was to mail bid packages to multiple manufacturers. However, legal counsel advised against doing so because manufacturers not receiving a mailed copy could be disenfranchised. The fire district is a political subdivision subject to state and local purchasing laws. “Our feeling was that if we missed someone it could come back and bite us,” says Terzo.

The pumper was built by 4 Guys Fire Trucks, of Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. The local dealer is Firehouse Apparatus, Inc., of Locke, New York. Frank Riccobono was the salesperson.

Features of the Delivered Unit

The existing pumper, Pumper 582, is a 2003 model. It has one hard sleeve and ladders sliding in the right rear side. A second hard sleeve slides in on the left rear, and a third is carried above left-side compartments. Pumper 584, the new rig, has all three suctions slide in on the right side with enclosed ladder storage on the left. The single high rear step compartment is split into an upper compartment carrying strainers and a lower compartment carrying a hydrant makeup kit. Two additional vertical handrails were specified.

The rear compartment doors were offset to the left, allowing a low large-diameter-hose suction inlet with a 2½-inch discharge below it. The 2½-inch direct tank fill was lowered from just below the hosebed to just above the rear intermediate step accessible from ground level. Lower rear lights, normally stacked vertically, were placed in the horizontal position, allowing a wide permanent access step on each side. The lower rear step compartment was shortened in height to allow the intermediate step above it and the steps over the lights to meet National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, height requirements.

A 2½-inch preconnect was added in the main hosebed for a ground monitor. A tradeoff for redesigning and adding features to the back end was that the rear two-inch preconnected handline (tan in color on both rigs) remained high off the ground-one item some of the troops are not happy about. The 600-foot three-inch and 1,500-foot five-inch hosebed capacities remained the same.

Dual bifold access doors are provided on the pump house. The way the district’s specifications were written, the bidder had to take an exception to provide them. The district’s specification specified one door. Because the specification was open, clarifications were not allowed. There is a single speedlay with a capacity of 300 feet of two-inch hose at the front of the pump house.

A dry reel is above the pump house with 300 feet of 1¾-inch hose. The first length is 100 feet long; the rest are 50-footers. The dry reel has worked well for the many vehicle fires the district has on the local interstate highway. Members angle the rig to protect the scene, pull what is needed, and hook into a side discharge. It is quicker, safer, and easier to pick up and get off the interstate. This reel is also used for minor nuisance calls where pulling a long preconnect is not desirable. A dry reel with extra 2½-inch line is on the opposite side. This is the third pumper so equipped.

The truck features intermediate treadplate access steps to the chassis cab. Purchasers should keep in mind that most manufacturers’ proposals and drawings show a rig’s angle of approach measured from where the front tires meet the ground to the lowest forward portion of the front bumper. Rush’s specifications called for access steps to be identical to its rescue truck. They are-in physical size. However, the new pumper’s cab sits two inches lower than the rescue truck. It has already resulted in one “oops.”

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.

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