Apparatus Purchasing: Make It Simple, Part 2

Fire apparatus specifications (specs) have been characterized as proprietary, open, generic, manufacturers’, design, performance, contractors’, bid, purchasing, and even deceptive. Individual authors and speakers have their own descriptions for each that are often influenced by personal experiences and occasionally prejudiced by personal agendas.

By Bill Adams

That’s life. This article will not address the content, intent, or partiality of any specification or the ramifications of using one in lieu of the other. That’s a local matter-do what’s best for your fire department. It does address the format in which a specification, and in particular a purchasing specification, is written. The objective is to make the document less confusing and easily readable.

A purchasing specification is a document written by an apparatus purchasing committee (APC) and promulgated (put to bid) by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) describing a fire apparatus it wants to purchase. Some commentaries portray writing fire apparatus purchasing specifications as an overwhelming task so technically oriented that only highly trained professionals should be allowed to undertake it. That is not necessarily true. Although there are specific legalities and guidelines APCs must follow, purchasing specifications that are overly lengthy and not easy to understand can cloud the process and discourage APC members. There may be spec writers who, for pecuniary reasons, may intimidate purchasers when describing the process.

Playing on Emotions

Beware of questions and statements such as, “Would you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a new home designed by a self-proclaimed architect with no credentials, no experience, and no education in engineering? Would you let an apprentice electrician design and install your home’s electrical system? If you were an employer, would you let an employee lacking technical expertise spend half a million dollars of your money on a piece of intricate machinery? Why would you let any of those three write a set of purchasing specifications for your fire truck? Let a professional do it.”

Playing on Expertise and Knowledge

Read between the lines when you are told, “You’ve got to be very careful writing specs for a fire truck. New apparatus must meet the requirements of no less than 10 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) minimum standards with the primary document being NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. NFPA 1901’s Chapter 2 makes reference to more than 70 publications from 15 organizations ranging from the Society of Automotive Engineers to the United States Government. NFPA 1901 sentence 2.1 says: ‘The documents or portions thereof listed in this chapter are referenced within this standard and shall be considered part of the requirements of this document.’ So you’d better know what you’re writing.”

Purchasers shouldn’t be intimidated. It’s doubtful anyone working in the apparatus industry can name all the referenced publications or even the applicable NFPA standards! Most of the hard work has already been done-it’s all inside NFPA 1901. Consequently, an APC doesn’t have to concern itself with whether some component part meets a voluntary or a consensus standard of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the American Society for Nondestructive Testing (ASNT), or a mandatory requirement by some obscure government agency.

For obvious reasons, vendors will write a purchasing specification for a fire department for no charge. For a fee, consultants and professional spec writers will also write them. Kudos and good luck to fire departments that write their own specs. As long as specifications are precise, concise, and understandable, it is immaterial who puts the pen to paper. Choosing a spec writer is a local decision. Making specifications easy to read is a smart one.

The Real World

Vendors and outside spec writers do not appear to prescribe to the keep it simple and sweet (KISS) principle for streamlining and simplifying purchasing specifications. Their documents seem to be lengthy, flowery pieces of literary prose that are hard to read and harder to understand.

Purchasers who think spec writers start with a blank piece of paper each time they write a new specification are mistaken. Consultants and fire apparatus manufacturers-original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)-have individualized computer-generated “standard” specifications. OEM specs are proprietary to their product lines, and although the content may differ, the general format of all OEM documents is similar. Some OEMs use the same computer software program to generate their individual specs.

An OEM’s standard spec is used as a template-a master framework similar to a form where an OEM fills in the blanks with its requirements. OEM outsourced parts and piece suppliers also have their own highly descriptive specifications for their products. They follow the same general templates used by the apparatus manufacturers. When preparing a purchasing spec for a fire department, the OEM uses its standard spec and fills in the blanks as needed with suppliers’ specifications that meet the each customer’s needs. That’s why the descriptions of, as example, an outsourced fire pump, booster tank, or valve are nearly identical from one OEM’s spec to another’s.

The more “longwinded” an OEM and the component parts suppliers are when writing their descriptions, the lengthier the document is. The downside to a long, highly detailed and technical specification is that it may be hard to read. That can be difficult for an APC to “work with” in a committee setting. Chances of making grammatical mistakes and overlooking items increase in a lengthy document. You don’t need all those words. The KISS philosophy of keeping it short and sweet has merit.

Easy Steps to implement KISS

APCs can make purchasing specs easy to understand by abbreviating the format in which they are written and by changing the attitude of both the people who write them and the people on the purchasing committee. Condensing specs is easy. Changing attitudes will be a challenge. To make the KISS process workable, there are basic principles and theories that APCs should accept and follow.

  1. Regardless of whether specs are written in house or by an outsider, APC members must familiarize themselves with NFPA 1901 before the spec writing process begins. NFPA 1901 costs $54.50 per copy. Ensure each APC member has one-it will be an excellent investment. Have committee members read Annex B before meeting with vendors; it is a good primer. Seeing a copy of NFPA 1901 in front of each committee member may influence a vendor to ensure he crossed his t’s and dotted his i’s.
  2. APCs should realize that a vendor-supplied spec may be educational as well as biased. I do not believe a purchasing spec should be a tutorial. Its sole purpose is to inform prospective bidders on what the purchaser wants to buy. The spec does not need to say why the purchaser wants it, how it works, or what regulatory agency (if any) requires it. Don’t try to “teach” OEMs with a purchasing specification. Bidding your fire truck isn’t their first rodeo-they’ve done it before.

Regardless of whether a vendor-supplied purchasing specification is biased and proprietary, the decision to use it or not is a local matter. Choose wisely; carefully; and, more importantly, legally.

  1. As harsh as it sounds, an APC should remove a member not fully on board and willing to participate 100 percent. It matters not if the member is there because of seniority or a position held. If a member does not believe a new fire truck is necessary, why is that person on the APC? A fire truck is being purchased for fires in the future, not those in the past. When discussing the components of an anticipated purchase, the APC chairman should not tolerate comments such as “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter.” If an obviously disgruntled or disinterested member consistently complains, can’t make a decision, and just sits in the back row chewing tobacco yearning for the days of steamers and spittoons, get rid of him. Let him sit on the back porch drooling tobacco juice.
  2. It is essential that all APC members irrefutably accept the validity and live within the provisos of NFPA 1901. They don’t have to agree with all its provisions. However, they should not use the APC as a forum to constantly disparage the NFPA. Antiestablishment members continuously whining about NFPA criteria such as wearing seat belts and not wearing helmets in the cab are not contributing. Their personal dislike for NFPA 1901 is immaterial; expressing that dislike is disruptive. Replace them. They can go sit on the back porch with the drooler.
  3. There is no law, regulation, or rule stipulating fire apparatus specifications have to be written in grammatically correct complete sentences. Use bullet points. A bullet point has a graphic such as an asterisk or a number that starts a subject. The subject can be in the format of a word, a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph. Do what works best. You can streamline verbiage without compromising content.
  4. Avoid repetitive verbiage. For example, it is not necessary to incessantly refer to NFPA 1901 in the purchasing document. Purchasers can specify that the completed apparatus “shall be NFPA 1901 compliant” in one place and be done with it. It’s legal to do so. The burden to adhere to the standard will not increase each time a purchaser says to. The bidders know what is required to deliver a compliant apparatus.
  5. Other oft repeated and unnecessary verbiage is “shall be.” A spec writer can start off a page or a section or even the entire document by saying “The following shall be provided” in one place. Then use bullet points to list desired items. It also is legal to do it. It’ll make for an easier read. It is important to be explicit if items are to be shipped loose, mounted in a certain way, or located in a specific location.
  6. When an APC specifies outsourced items available to all OEMs, it is not necessary to provide a full word-for-word description for them in the purchasing spec. The manufacturer’s name and model number will suffice. Previously mentioned NFPA 1901 sentence 2.1 shows that referencing a third party indicates it is part of their standard. Using that sentence as a guideline, purchasers could write, “When the name of a manufacturer’s product is referenced by make and model number, it shall be considered part of these specifications as if its description were written in full.” That will save a lot of writing and lessen the chances of making mistakes. APCs should know a component part’s particulars before they specify it in a purchasing spec. There is no need to remind themselves.

It is crucial not to compromise the desired level of quality or minimize the standard of workmanship when abbreviating purchasing specs. Although it is understandable that some political subdivisions do not want OEMs to write a fire department purchasing specification, almost all APCs will interact with vendors. Vendors are an excellent resource for fire departments to find out what is on the market, what works, and what doesn’t. Use them; don’t abuse them.

Be aware that even if a fire department uses an OEM’s standard specification as a template when writing its own document, it can abbreviate and shorten those specs. Some OEMs may see the advantage in making their own specifications uncomplicated, easily understandable, and stress-free to read. They might even start condensing specs on their own.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment 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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