Apparatus Purchasing: The Prebid Conference

Some pundits in the field of fire apparatus purchasing and specification writing encourage purchasers to hold prebid conferences (PBCs). They promote their value and expound on the benefits to the end user-the fire department. In reality, the usefulness of a PBC is only as beneficial as each purchaser makes it. Because a PBC can be individually tailored to meet specific requirements, there is no single explanation of how such a meeting should be run or what can be accomplished. In this article, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), purchaser, buyer, and fire department are synonymous.

How It Works

An illustrative description of how a PBC works follows: The fire department promulgates a “draft” purchasing specification that it disseminates to prospective bidders for review, after which interested bidders and the purchaser meet to discuss the pending purchase. Unless there is an anticipated purchase of multiple units or the purchaser is a high-profile customer, most PBCs are attended by local dealers rather than the manufacturers. The goal is to ensure that bidders understand the technical requirements of the specifications, the legalities, and the bidding procedure. It allows prospective bidders to ask questions and voice concerns about the document’s verbiage and bidding protocol. After the PBC, the purchaser evaluates the comments and makes changes it finds beneficial to the bidding process. It then puts out a final set of purchasing specifications to bid. The Cooperative Purchasing Program in the Houston-Galveston, Texas, area specifically notes in its invitation to attend a PBC, “The staff will solicit comments related to the requirements and specifications contained in this draft document.” It goes on to state, “Participants should be prepared to offer constructive suggestions regarding content and/or format. The objective is a clearly written and competitive specification.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that.

Procurement Scenario

There are advantages and disadvantages to conducting PBCs. They can be used to educate, interrogate, and occasionally intimidate both the buyer and seller. The purchaser in this scenario is subject to formal bidding protocols and does not favor any particular manufacturer. The intent is to publish an open set of specifications and, by being impartial and fair to all potential bidders, encourage multiple bidders to respond. It is a scenario not often seen in the apparatus purchasing arena. A vast majority of fire departments know beforehand which apparatus they want to purchase, and many departments know which they will purchase. Although seldom acknowledged, their specifications reflect it. Some will inappropriately use the public bidding process, including the PBC, to legally justify their purchase-a harsh but true statement.

Because there is no set format governing PBCs, purchasers can accept, reject, or ignore comments made and questions asked. They can modify the unwritten rules when conducting the meeting. The purchaser sets the agenda. Its decisions are final and binding. Those dealers unsure of a buyer’s modus operandi are skeptical of a PBC’s value and are reluctant to participate. I solicited input from several dealers and their responses are included herein. Several did not want to comment on the record for fear of alienating potential customers. Sometimes, the truth hurts.

Varies by Dealer

Whether or not PBCs are actually used varies from area to area. Steve Harris, a dealer covering Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, said PBCs are “few and far between in the upper Midwest.” Bob Milnes, owner of Fire Fighting Innovations, Inc., in Florida, notes, “Most departments don’t have the people in the logistics or support services groups who know how to handle a prebid meeting. [For] the last couple of years, I tried to discourage a department from having a prebid.” A dealer in the Northeast states, “We typically only see prebid conferences in career departments or departments using paid consultants.” Allan Smith, apparatus sales manager for Colden Enterprises in New York, adds that only one customer in his area, a large city, holds PBCs. And, Becky Gerard, dealer principal of Overfield Fire Apparatus, LLC, says that in Ohio, 10 percent of the requests for proposals and bids it receives offer PBCs.

Brian Horrocks, president of Horrocks Fire and Rescue, Inc., in Pennsylvania, comments, “The prebid is becoming more mandatory with larger municipalities.” But, John Witt, president and CEO of Safetek Emergency Vehicles Ltd., with facilities in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, says, “We have seen very few prebid conferences in Canada in the past few years now unless it’s a major purchase by a larger city and they invite proponents in to review the request for proposal or tender, our term for bid, documents.” In something seldom seen in the States, Witt says, “In some cases, they will do a request for information (ROI) to see who’s interested in bidding on their apparatus needs.” The ROI is an interesting concept that could save all parties time, grief, and aggravation.


AHJs subject to formal bidding protocol are legally bound to follow the purchasing statutes of their political subdivisions. Some laws require a PBC if a certain dollar amount of tax revenue will be expended. Be aware: That figure could be outdated. Purchasing statutes may have been promulgated decades ago-back when fire apparatus cost less than a small addition to the local school. Today, spending a million dollars for a fire truck is not unheard of. Local laws may dictate how, when, and where a PBC should be conducted. Be smart. Seek counsel. Fire departments can inadvertently find themselves in violation of purchasing statutes.

For example, a fire department could, by written invitation and in good faith, invite a dozen apparatus manufacturers to a PBC, only to end up being chastised in the media or being hauled into court for not following some obscure purchasing law adopted 40 years ago. Some examples include the law may require publishing a formal legal notice, or the minutes of the meeting must be recorded, or the meeting must be open to the public, or prospective bidders can’t be individually solicited. Some jurisdictions may restrict bidding to those who attend the PBC. Horrocks says, “Often these are mandatory meetings. Those not present are exempt from bidding.” Use caution.

Avoid Misinterpretation

Apparatus specifications are not verbalized; they are written. The verbal word of an apparatus purchasing committee is nonbinding. Get everything in writing. Most purchasers take for granted that bidders understand exactly and precisely what has been written in the document. Whether by design, deceit, or ignorance, purchasers can mislead bidders through improper use of the written word. How do you prevent a misinterpretation of your specifications? Conduct a PBC. Inform prospective bidders that no claim of ignorance, misconception, misinterpretation, or misunderstanding will be acceptable or considered at the bid opening. Purchasers can ask potential bidders if they have any questions about the verbiage. It may prevent bidders from submitting unsolicited alternate and optional pricing under the pretense of not understanding what was stipulated in the specifications. The Northeast dealer elaborated, “Prebid conferences allow a clearer understanding of what is desired and point out mistakes.” Gerard adds, “If the specifications are relatively complicated or are written in a pure performance format, a PBC can certainly clarify a number of items rapidly and fairly.”

Make Educated Decisions

Fire departments that purchase apparatus infrequently or write their own purchasing specifications may not be current on product knowledge or cognizant of changes in codes and standards. Specifying a part or accessory no longer available, legal, or compatible for the intended job can be humiliating. A PBC allows vendors to inform the purchaser of the latest and greatest parts and pieces in the marketplace as well as changes in applicable regulations. Astute purchasers will evaluate the input and advice of potential bidders, thereby preventing errors, omissions, and potentially embarrassing mistakes in their final specifications. Horrocks elaborates, “An educated decision always makes for the best business decision.”

Can a PBC allow the purchaser to educate prospective bidders? Yes. For example, fire departments often use local or regional terms, definitions, and descriptions in their specifications that are nebulous or unfamiliar to all bidders. A red line, a jump line, a trash line, and a bumper line may not mean the same thing to all bidders. Equally ambiguous are the deck gun, the deluge set, the monitor, the wagon pipe, and the master stream. What exactly do you want? Witt notes, “We are seeing more and more vague and poor quality specification documents that are aimed at low bid, not compliance. [We are also seeing] that many fire departments don’t even carefully read the response from the low bidder who, in many cases, says, ‘Yes,’ when, in fact, the specs are contrary to what the fire department specified. The fire department doesn’t even notice this until [it is] sometimes too late or a reputable/knowledgeable dealer points it out to them.” At the least, the PBC can eliminate vague and poor-quality purchasing specifications.

Questions and Perceptions

Purchasers appraise bidders based on prior business relationships, reputation in the industry, and the verbiage of the submitted bid document. Occasionally the written word does not entirely reflect the qualifications of a bidder especially when there has been no previous interaction. Nor does it always accurately portray the intentions of the purchaser. The PBC is an excellent opportunity for a purchaser to evaluate potential bidders and their capabilities. It is a two-way street, as prospective bidders can also ascertain if the purchaser is really soliciting competitive proposals.

Harris states, “You can generally get a gauge on whether or not the customer is open to the manufacturer you are representing.” He adds, “Attending the conference may also open the door of communication if it happens to be a customer you have not worked with. It will put a face to your name in the eyes of the customer.” Horrocks says, “The more opportunity to spend time with your customer, the better.”

If prospective bidders have questions or concerns, the PBC is the venue to address them. Smith asserts, “You can get answers directly from the agency’s officials, and you may hear another vendor ask something you didn’t consider.” Additionally, “It clears up any questions that may be unclear or gray,” claims the Northeast dealer. And, Gerard states, “It allows the department to answer vendors’ questions in a manner that is fair to all bidders.” The game is easier when all the cards are on the table.

The purchaser who, for whatever reason, does not intend to evaluate or consider exceptions at the bid opening can ask prospective bidders if they can bid on the draft document without taking exception. Ask why not, then amend your specifications, if practicable.

Checks and Balances

Regardless of intent or motive, some bidders can be condescending about peers, patronizing to purchasing committees, and liberal when answering demanding questions. Such behavior typically occurs when a single salesperson meets with a purchasing committee. Putting all prospective bidders together in one room may eliminate peer bashing and arbitrary responses to inquiries and hopefully will provide verifiable and factual data. Asking six vendors in the same room if the 420-horsepower (hp) motor you specified will fulfill your requirements should generate similar responses rather than meeting with a single vendor who assures you that a less expensive 300-hp motor is more than adequate for your needs. That dealer may have one in stock-giving him an unfair price advantage and you a potentially underpowered fire truck.

Another possibility is that you may have specified, for example, an extended structural warranty recommended by a favored vendor who helped write your specifications and who said that the warranty is the industry standard. Other bidders may collectively state a warranty with a shorter time frame is the actual industry standard, that that particular length warranty is not offered by all other bidders, or that an extended warranty may cost substantially more. Now the purchaser is aware of the alternatives and cost differences and has the option to change the warranty requirements in the final purchasing specification. The PBC can keep everyone honest.

A drawback to having multiple vendors in the same room at the same time is maintaining a professional business atmosphere, especially if a boisterous, overbearing bidder is present. The purchaser sets the rules, acting as moderator, arbitrator, and occasionally judge and jury. Assure all attending that you will not tolerate unruly and unprofessional behavior and will ask offenders to leave. Milnes says, “When I first started in this business, almost all departments had prebid meetings that were pretty formal, and the vendors attending were well dressed and were, for the most part, gentlemen. Today, vendors show up in t-shirts and jeans and spend the time complaining about the specs and bad mouthing the other builders. Departments end up having to referee wrestling matches between vendors.” The dealer from the Northeast concurred, saying a disadvantage is that “it sometimes leads to bickering between salesmen attending.” Good luck.

Proprietary Specifications

Buyers should be considerate. If you are writing a tight specification around Brand XYZ apparatus and have no intention of considering other manufacturers or exceptions, don’t abuse their time or yours by holding a PBC. Be careful, because the PBC is a legal forum where you are likely to be publicly challenged if you write proprietary specifications. Be prepared to defend yourself in an open meeting.

One Midwestern apparatus salesman stated a PBC would provide a “welcome opportunity to question empty requirements.” Dealers also expressed trepidation that purchasers would disregard comments and suggestions. Witt says, “If the fire department wants an apparatus from brand A, B, or C, then justify this to the purchasing committee or council with proper and justifiable reasons and do a single-/sole-source purchase and avoid wasting everyone’s time. It’s costly and time-consuming to do a proper bid response under the guise of competition when a fire department wants a specific brand.”

One New Jersey dealer says, “Yes, there are times when you can point out inconsistencies or problems with a spec and the customer actually does something. However, in other cases, it is a total waste of time, and the customer is just going through the motions and putting out exactly the same spec it brought to the meeting despite almost all participants bringing up the same issue.” He adds, “Based on a response to questions, the manufacturer or dealer is able to make the decision whether the bidding opportunity is business it wants to pursue.”

Another New Jersey dealer states, “The advantage of a dealership attending the prebid conference is that it has a chance to evaluate if the customer is truly interested in a proposal from its company.” Milnes adds, “Sometimes there were complaints that the specs were written around a particular builder, and many times the department would make changes in the specs to open them up or explain why the specs were written for a particular builder.”

Use Caution

The PBC is not a forum for dealers to attempt selling a product not meeting the minimum standards stipulated in the draft specifications. Fire departments expend time and effort generating specifications. Bidders should consider that a particular size booster tank, a motor, or a certain length aerial ladder was probably specified for a valid firematic or operational reason.

The PBC is the place to ask if alternatives and options are acceptable. It should not be used to question the validity of a purchaser’s judgment or reasoning in choosing a proven design, a firematic procedure, or a product. Nor should it be used to give dealers a second opportunity to pitch the merits of their products-they are too late for the show. Salesmanship should have taken place prior to writing the specifications. Disparaging the fire department prior to a bid opening may not be a sound business decision.

The value of a PBC is perceived differently from each side of the fence. Dealers appear willing to participate if the PBC is held with the intent of publishing an open specification. They are more likely to participate if reasonably assured prospective purchasers will at least acknowledge and respond to their concerns and questions.

If the purchaser is up front, honest, and sincere in seeking competitive bids, the PBC is an excellent tool. Using it to develop a fair and equitable purchasing specification is admirable. Using it to merely check for mistakes and seek information from dealers you have no intention of purchasing from is disingenuous and justifies dealers being hesitant to participate. Using the PBC to justify purchasing what has already been predetermined is deceitful-bordering on dishonest.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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