Apparatus Purchasing: Read Between the Spec’s Lines

By Bill Adams

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence starts off with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” To me, the meaning of the verbiage in its succeeding sentences is obvious, nonnegotiable, and not subject to individual interpretation. The representatives of the 13 colonies, known then as the united States of America and not the United States of America, all agreed to it. How does that relate to buying fire trucks? The Declaration of Independence has slightly more than 1,300 words – clear-cut, precise, and right to the point. There is no doubt about what the document says and means. Apparatus purchasing specifications (specs) today can easily run from 33,000 to more than 50,000 words. Despite the length and comprehensiveness of specs, there can be hidden meanings in the verbiage readily obvious to vendors but not necessarily to purchasers. They are subtle messages telling potential bidders not to submit a proposal. It doesn’t matter if they are by design, deceit, or ignorance. The intent of this article is to make purchasers aware of them and their ramifications. After all, they wrote the specs. Don’t confuse hidden meanings with nebulous and ambiguous terminology that cannot be defined or has multiple meanings.

Dissertations about apparatus purchasing usually explain the advantages and disadvantages of the various specification types such as open, generic, proprietary, and performance. Few admit there is such a thing as a deceptive spec that purposely masks hidden agendas. Hidden meanings can be in each type. I favor no particular style of spec and acknowledge hidden meanings may be inadvertently placed in them.

Favored Manufacturers

Spec writers often promote a favored apparatus manufacturer in their presentations and documents. Some are blatantly obvious. Others discreetly hide favoritism in the technical nuts-and-bolts portion of a spec as well as between the lines. There’s no problem showing favoritism in a publication or presentation as long as the forum allows or offers contradictory viewpoints. It’s different in the competitive bidding arena. In most political subdivisions, purchasing specs are legal documents that can’t or shouldn’t show favoritism.

It makes no difference if a fire department, vendor, consultant, or manufacturer actually writes the spec. The authority having jurisdiction owns it. Showing bias, favoritism, or obvious preference for one fire apparatus manufacturer (OEM) in a legal document can be problematic in those political subdivisions. The ethics, morality, or legality of doing so is not being debated, although purchasers should consider all when writing specs. In highly regulated and hyper-politicized settings, showing OEM partiality may put a fire department in a precarious and an unwanted position. Nobody wants to be accused of collusion, collaboration, or restraint of trade. It is the fire department’s problem because it wrote the specs. Be careful not to put your department in the position where it can be accused of “gorging itself at the feed trough of public funds.” It might not bode well with taxpayers. And, Channel 10 News might be waiting outside in the hallway.

Don’t Bid

The following observations are mine only and do not reflect any purchaser, vendor, or apparatus manufacturer. Seldom considered are the unfortunate positions apparatus vendors can find themselves in by reading and reacting to hidden messaging in purchasing specifications. Most vendors are knowledgeable about their products. Successful ones are cognizant of their marketing territory and can quantify the potential customers within it. Perceptive ones can read subliminal messages in a spec and will react accordingly. Most of the hidden meanings are sending signals to vendors to not submit a proposal. Astute dealers read them as: “We don’t want your fire truck,” or, “Don’t bother submitting a proposal because it will not be considered,” or “We are not going to purchase from your local dealer.”

Astonishingly, some purchasers chastise and blame vendors for not bidding on a fire truck when in fact the fault lies within their own spec verbiage. Unfortunately, some purchasers display a “holier-than-thou” attitude. It is a harsh but true statement that can be applicable to some – and I repeat some and not all – purchasers regardless of whether they’re members of an apparatus purchasing committee, the fire chief, or a designee.

The attitude is often displayed long before a bid opening. How? I venture that 90 percent of fire apparatus are “sold” prior to writing specs. Sometimes bid openings merely fulfill a legal formality to purchase from a preferred manufacturer. It happens all the time, but no one wants to admit it. The legality and ethics of doing so are not debated. When a purchaser picks a preferred dealer to work with, purchasers sometimes treat other dealers with contempt, disdain, and occasional outright rudeness. Purchasers often believe everything the favored OEM’s salesperson says is gospel. Suddenly, the rest of the vendors in the western hemisphere become irrelevant. They can be accused of telling falsehoods or of being ill-informed and are generally considered insignificant. It is like they’ve contracted some strange, incurable, highly contagious, and communicable disease. Purchasing committees will not schedule meetings with them. Telephone calls are not returned. That’s wrong. Reputable dealers would appreciate being told, “Thanks for your interest, but we are seriously looking at Brand X.” They might not like the decision but should be grateful for the heads up. It is unfortunate some purchasers do not extend that courtesy. Being rude is disrespectful in a business atmosphere.

No Exceptions

When a purchasing spec contains the words “no exceptions” in multiple places, it is a clear indication of a preferred manufacturer, method of construction, or dimensional data particular to one OEM. The document might as well say, “We don’t want your fire truck.” Combine that with the purchaser not responding to nonpreferred vendor inquiries, and you cannot blame vendors for not bidding.

Vendors can be “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” They shouldn’t be forced to defend themselves for not bidding when purchasers are sending clear messages, albeit between the lines, that the purchaser wants another OEM’s rig. That also is not right. Fire departments expect “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” when interacting with prospective bidders. That expectation of truthfulness should be reciprocal. Apparatus purchasing is a two-way street.

Purchasers often verbally pressure nonpreferred vendors to submit a proposal – regardless of what their specs say. Why should a bidder believe a purchaser’s verbal assurance a proposal will be fairly considered when the purchaser’s written, and perhaps legal, document says the exact opposite? A bidder may look at a purchasing spec with written verbiage obviously favoring another and, when reading the same between the lines, make it obvious the purchaser wants someone else’s rig. Consider that the purchaser would not return prior phone calls, and most sane and rational vendors will spend their time and resources elsewhere. It is hypocritical when the purchaser asks for a bid saying it will be considered. The purchaser probably needs three bids to legally purchase what is preferred. Unprincipled purchasers may say, “If you really want our business, you’ll find time to bid,” or, “Are you afraid of a little competition?” or, “Isn’t our money good enough for you?” Professional vendors will politely decline and say no thank you. Others might have a more graphic and direct response.

Service Centers

Potential bidders also look at the specifics in a purchasing document mandating a bidder’s service facilities. While service is extremely important, some requirements may be questionable. Specifying the exact square footage of a service center, a minimum number of on-the-road service trucks, an exact number of certified mechanics, the dollar amount of in-stock inventory, and the number of rolls of toilet paper available in the restrooms may be a bit over the top. Are those requirements particular to only one vendor? Especially telling is when the exact distance a service center can be from the purchaser’s location is specified. Reading between the lines, bidders know who the favorite son is. Why should they waste their time bidding? Purchasers should realize many apparatus vendors work on a commission basis. Put yourself in their shoes.

Purchasers might want to consider the possibility of being held accountable and challenged for their actions/inactions when writing purchasing specs. I believe times are changing in the fire apparatus industry. There are fewer family-owned apparatus manufacturers where handshakes forged business dealings. As OEMs merge and consolidate and become purchased by outside financial entities, local dealers may be forced to become more aggressive. Dealings with long-time customers may be subjected to strict corporate mandates and oversight rather than by a history of amicable long-time business and personal relationships. Remember the following:

  • Most purchasers are above board, honest, and informed.
  • Power to purchasers if they can purchase exactly what they want.
  • Reputable vendors will accept it, albeit reluctantly, when purchasers choose another manufacturer.
  • Most bidders will appreciate a purchaser’s honesty and forthrightness – if it is extended.
  • Don’t become holier than thou if questioned or challenged by vendors, the media, or taxpayers.
  • Specifying quality, design, engineering, and workmanship is justifiable in a purchasing document, and those requirements should never ever be compromised.
  • If specifying no exceptions, purchasers have no recourse if vendors do not bid. Live with it.
  • Don’t blame vendors if they don’t bid when, in reality, you really don’t want them to!

Purchasers should be considerate of the quandary they place nonpreferred vendors in when their purchasing spec discreetly tells them to stay home. If it is intentional, so be it. It’s commonplace and happens all the time. It can be a topic for another day. If it is unintentional, it is unfortunate because it can impede the bidding process. It’s immaterial who wrote the specs and equally irrelevant who a preferred OEM might be. What is significant is the potential Catch-22 position in which nonpreferred vendors are placed – at no fault of their own. It just isn’t fair to them.

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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