Apparatus Specifications: Nebulous or Ambiguous?

There are four categories of fire apparatus specifications: open, generic, performance, and proprietary. Simply put, when describing a hosebed, a proprietary specification (spec) mandates the exact physical dimensions required; the performance spec specifies how much hose is to be carried; the generic spec gives the approximate dimensions of the hosebed; and the open spec leaves the size and capacity of the hosebed up to the builder. The advantages and disadvantages of each are irrelevant for this article. Manufacturers’ specs are understandably proprietary while a purchaser’s spec can be in any format or any combination thereof. There is no rule or regulation stating which, if any, has to be used. Purchasers should use any combination to adequately explain what they want.

Buyers should be aware of another type of specification that is as bewildering and mystifying as the flamboyant name given to it-the nebulous and ambiguous spec. Both seller and buyer write this type of spec-some inadvertently and some intentionally. Nebulous is defined as unclear or vague. Besides meaning the same, ambiguous can also be defined as confusing. It is unfortunate when a fire department promulgates an unclear purchasing specification. How can a vendor price out a fire truck when it is unsure what the fire department wants? It is regrettable when an apparatus manufacturer, or the local dealer, offers a specification or tenders a bid that is similarly vague. How can a fire department evaluate bids when it is unclear what the bidder is proposing?

Not Always Intentional

Lack of experience sometimes leads to a fire department’s imperfect specification. It doesn’t purchase apparatus every day so it is understandable it may miss something. Exonerating dealers for imperfect specifications may be more problematic. Dealers sell fire trucks for a living and should know better. Both buyers and sellers have made honest mistakes in the past and will probably do so in the future. Often, an honest oversight in a specification will have people erroneously calling the document, and each other, nebulous and ambiguous. Bloopers, blunders, and errors can occur in anyone’s specification. Get over it; humans err. If there is no mischievous intent, work it out like professionals.

But, be cautious. A little-known, seldom-admitted, and well-kept secret in the fire apparatus world is that both purchaser and buyer have been guilty of purposely writing nebulous and ambiguous specifications. Some reasons are valid and, with rational reasoning, are acceptable. However, intentional misleading is questionable and should not be condoned. But, it does happen. Be aware that “literary chicanery” could exist in the next specification you read. Chicanery is defined as smoke and mirrors, flimflam, nonsense, and hot air. But, it can also mean deception-a rather harsh term to use in the business field. There are various explanations for why one would attempt to hoodwink a potential business partner. None are complimentary. Choose whatever definition fits.

Clarity Is Key

Before signing a contract, both parties should have a comprehensive understanding of a specification’s verbiage. Losing a bid because of not paying attention to the details in a purchaser’s specification is humiliating to a vendor. Taking delivery and having to pay for an apparatus with or without items you missed is embarrassing for the fire department. Saying, “Oops,” during a factory inspection trip is undignified. Saying it when the rig is delivered is mortifying. Saying, “Well, I thought it meant …,” does not hold water either. “I didn’t understand” is an equally porous excuse. Read your documents carefully. Below are some examples of ambiguous and nebulous specifications. Whether accidental or purposeful, they can impact a new apparatus purchase.

The authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) would not allow the fire department to use the exact compartment dimensions of its preferred manufacturer when writing purchasing specs. So, it eliminated the number of compartments desired and just specified the total cubic footage of that manufacturer’s compartments. It added a disclaimer to make it appear it had written an open specification: “In order to be fair and equitable to all bidders, exact compartments with dimensions are not specified. No less than 219½ cubic footage of space shall be provided to enable all of the department’s equipment to be carried.” It looked like a wide open spec, but it was targeted for the favored manufacturer. It made life miserable for other vendors and probably drove most away from the bid table.

One past-his-prime fire commissioner stated that he always puts two things in “his” specifications that all bidders must take exception to-something akin to a 7½-inch hydraulically operated booster line ball gate valve and a 10-foot roof ladder with tormentor poles, both of which do not exist. That way, he said, he could legally reject any bidder and pick the one he wanted. Or, he could reject all bids and start over. That is disingenuous. No wonder some vendors do not bid. Purchasers may be less apt to be nonsensical if they knew how much it cost to prepare and submit a formal proposal.

A dealer helped write a purchasing specification for a pumper with a rear-mounted pump. It prepared what appeared to be a department-generated performance specification. In reality, it was a misleading document. In looking closely at the technical specifications of major pump manufacturers, the verbiage for midship- and rear-mounted pumps is very similar. By massaging a few words and eliminating the “midship-mounted” in the document, the vendor thoroughly baffled the other dealers. The pump operator’s panel was to be located inside the left rear compartment, but the specs didn’t exactly say that. They said, “The pump operator’s panel position shall be located on the driver’s side and be protected by a roll-up door.” Everyone else bid a midship-mounted pump in a separate pump enclosure behind a roll-up door. The spec writer duped the fire department by purposefully confusing other dealers. That’s just wrong and borders on being deceptive. Exercise caution when reviewing specifications. Today, a fire pump can be mounted anywhere from the front bumper to the rear step. A pump panel’s location is restricted only by your imagination. Ensure the specification you review states specifically where the pump is mounted as well as where the pump panel is located.

One vendor, helping to write purchasing specifications for a complex unit, did not want to “engineer” the apparatus for the rest of the bidders. He eliminated the common dimensions normally found in a spec such as the wheelbase, compartment dimensions, the front bumper extension, the rear overhang (the dimension from the center of the rear axle to the tailboard), the back of the cab to rear axle measurement, and the pump house width. He just specified the overall length of the apparatus, telling the fire department, “Any reputable manufacturer with reliable engineering that really wants your business can calculate the other measurements.” He went on to say the verbiage reflected an open and competitive specification. It read, “In order to be fair and equitable to all manufacturers, specific measurements are not included. The Department is only specifying the overall length of the apparatus-giving each bidder the opportunity to design an apparatus that easily fits its standard methods of construction.” The document looked good and sounded good but actually was too vague and confusing for other bidders. They shied away. It wasn’t worth the time and effort to figure out what the department wanted.

One purchaser wanted to “beat the system” when specifying a full-length walkway in the main hosebed. Rather than calling the proposed area a walkway and having to pay for a nonslip stepping area, adequate lighting, and compliant grab handles, the purchaser merely specified one extra hosebed divider. The manufacturer had no idea what the purchaser’s true intentions were. When the apparatus was delivered and paid for, firefighters learned what was intended. What if the professional organization representing the firefighters filed suit against the AHJ and the manufacturer, claiming that an “unsafe working environment” was being provided? The purchaser bagged the manufacturer.

Could this happen? One fire chief, who favored a particular manufacturer, was enraged when the contract was awarded to another bidder. The chief did not want the rig and would not even talk to the local dealer-to the point of refusing to attend a preconstruction meeting. The successful bidder called him to attempt to clarify a nebulous requirement for the hosebed covers. Before listening to the problem, he said, “You bid the truck; you figure it out. Just make sure it’s right when we get it,” and hung up. The dealer sent an e-mail that the chief deleted before reading. The verbiage that covered the crosslays, front bumper hose well, and main hosebed said, “All hosebeds shall be provided with a 3/16-inch aluminum treadplate cover, hinged on the long axis, with hand-hole cutouts and manual stay arms.” That is what the manufacturer priced. Because of the ambiguous wording in the specification and the unprofessionalism of the purchaser, the manufacturer built the 72- by 130- by 3/16-inch treadplate cover for the main hosebed according to the spec: hinged on the 130-inch side, complete with hand holes and stay arms-almost 200 pounds worth. It was heavy, awkward to handle, and almost impossible for two firefighters to raise. And, when raised in the firehouse, it hit a ceiling fan. The department meant to spec a two-piece main hosebed cover-oops!

Nebulous and ambiguous specifications are not necessarily intentional, evil, or wrong. But they can be.

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.

More Fire Apparatus Current Issue Articles
More Fire Apparatus Archives Issue Articles

No posts to display