Apparatus Specifications: the Unseen World, Part 2

By Bill Adams

“Apparatus Specifications: the Unseen World, Part 1” (January 2014) described strange happenings that can occur when writing fire apparatus specifications (specs).

It also illustrated peculiar behavioral patterns spec writers can develop when doing so. This part examines additional aspects of spec writing that are little known, seldom admitted, and hardly addressed. The intent is not to fault or criticize the buyer, seller, or spec writer. Purchasers should be aware that certain specification verbiage can result in consequences they may not anticipate or desire or be in a fire department’s best interests.

Some departments are content inside their individual domains, with little concern about how other departments operate. Some don’t care what kind of apparatus others purchase. Progressive departments, striving to become better educated and more knowledgeable, look “outside the village limits” when purchasing apparatus. Most want the best value for monies expended, and every vendor wants a sale. It doesn’t always happen like that. Many times vendors decline to bid. Wonder why? Read the spec. Reading between the lines may reveal hidden agendas.

Top of the Line

Purchasers attempting to obtain the best product available often use the phrase “top of the line” in good faith. When a prospective bidder represents two apparatus manufacturers, a purchaser may only want to consider the “better” manufacturer. If more than one chassis manufacturer or various models of a particular chassis are available, purchasers again may opt for only the “best.” The same applies to body materials. As an example, a spec may read, “If a bidder can provide multiple materials, only its top-of-the-line product will be considered.” Although the purchaser’s intent is admirable, it may be hard to achieve. Is it the buyer or seller who determines what constitutes a bidder’s top-of-the-line product? What is the criterion for it? Top of the line is undefinable and immeasurable. Leave it and words such as better and best out of the document. Be specific in describing the product itself. It’ll make life easier. Also be aware that vendor-influenced purchasing specifications may subtly include that same phrase just to eliminate some of their competition.

Method of Construction

To establish a level of quality and create a benchmark to compare various construction methods that may be proposed, purchasing specs should describe how an apparatus is to be fabricated. It is acceptable to specify a method with an established track record and proven reliability. It is equally acceptable to preclude one that has performed unsatisfactorily.

Again, use caution. When a spec meticulously specifies a construction method and is very component-specific and dimensionally detailed, it can, and usually does, reflect a preferred manufacturer. It’s irrelevant if the document accidentally or intentionally incorporates favoritism. Prospective bidders know it exists. Obviously, the manufacturer will not complain when a department specifies that manufacturer’s construction method.

Some vendors might still bid while taking an exception-providing exceptions are allowed. Be careful not to inadvertently discourage potential bidders by inserting a statement similar to, “Because all custom manufacturers have the capability to bend, shear, cut, and weld, exceptions will not be considered for the method of construction specified.” That statement may be too restrictive for many manufacturers. They may decline to bid. That is detrimental to the competitive bidding process unless, of course, that is the spec writer’s underlying intent. Bear in mind that vendors also read between the lines.

Body Materials

This article shows no preference for bodies constructed of aluminum, stainless steel, galvanized steel, fiberglass, or polypropylene or if a manufacturer bolts or welds metallic bodies together. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if a substructure of like material supports a body. The spec writer should justify specifying or disallowing materials by determining how well existing apparatus bodies have withstood the elements and have held up to the duty cycle the purchaser has experienced and expects.

It is perplexing that many firefighters don’t know their rig’s body material, construction, or reasons for specifying them. Equally baffling is that the uninformed occasionally serve on apparatus purchasing committees (APCs). Many times, the apparatus vendor’s salesmanship solely determines the body material selection regardless of a material’s track record. That’s life. It is a testament to the salesperson’s expertise, product knowledge, and experience. It happens every day.

One fire department had no issues with several types of apparatus bodies it had in service. Meeting a specified structural and corrosion warranty was its main concern. Six manufacturers responded to its call for bids for a new rig with the following body specifications:

1.01 Formed 3⁄16-inch 5052-H32 aluminum or 12-gauge 304L stainless steel.
1.02 Bolted or welded type fabrication.
1.03 Finish grind all visible welds.
1.04 All cut and sheared metal to be ground or filed smooth.
1.05 Tubular or channel body substructure components to be same material as body or hot-dip galvanized painted steel.
1.06 Provide detailed body and substructure fabrication specifications including materials, metal gauges, and method of construction.

I am not endorsing or promoting brief generic specifications. I merely show them as one alternative to highly detailed and perhaps proprietary verbiage. Purchasers should be aware some vendors, for varied reasons, may not bid on generic specifications. Some only bid on specifications explicitly favoring their own product. Others may only bid on specifications they perceive to require a level of quality commensurate with theirs. Purchasers should interact with manufacturers before writing final specifications. Make use of prebid conferences. Ask, analyze, and prioritize before you finalize the spec.


It is imperative that every fire truck be safely constructed and meet every applicable safety standard regarding weight. It is nonnegotiable and not subject to debate. Common sense dictates that an APC consider every component’s weight when proposed apparatus design approaches an established or a maximum gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).

It is equally important for purchasers to realize that some vendors may use the subject of weight to influence a choice of materials favorable to the manufacturer they represent. Bear in mind, selling is their job, and some are very good at it regardless of whether they promote “heavy duty” or “lighter in weight.” Some just repeat what’s written in their sales manual. Listen carefully, and do your homework.

Vendors promoting “heavy duty” may advocate using 12-gauge stainless steel weighing 4.427 pounds per square foot in lieu of 14-gauge stainless steel only weighing 3.154 pounds per square foot. Proponents of “lighter weight” components may say 1⁄8-inch aluminum at 1.782 pounds per square foot weighs one third less than 3⁄16-inch aluminum at 2.713 pounds per square foot.

What does it really mean? Read between the lines and ask questions. Do 12-gauge stainless and 1⁄8-inch aluminum bodies have better warranties than their counterparts? Ask vendors the weight differences between identical bodies fabricated from different materials. Then ask them if the differences include substructure and body mounting systems. It matters. How much will the body material impact the required GVWR for tires, axles, and suspension? What’s the bottom-line difference in total cost?

If vendors appear to be bloviating in a strange language about weights, tensile strengths, or the resistance bending moment (RBM) of certain metals, make them explain everything in simple “firehouse speak” so younger, less experienced members understand exactly what they’re saying. You have that option.

Compartment Dimensions

Purchasers should use diligence when specifying compartment dimensions. Second to specifying a rig that doesn’t fit in the barn, the next embarrassing thing is when a fire department takes delivery of a new rig and finds its equipment does not fit in the intended compartments. It happens more often than one may think. Who wrote the compartment specifications is immaterial. Who is accountable depends on how the APC wrote the spec. Verbiage matters.

As an example, a purchasing specification may read, “Compartment No. 1 shall be large enough to accommodate one (1) Model ABC 4,000-watt portable generator mounted on a floor-mounted slide-out tray, two (2) Model DEF 16-inch smoke ejectors on an adjustable shelf above the generator, and one (1) Model GHI 200-foot capacity electric rewind cord reel mounted to the compartment roof.” If the equipment does not fit when the rig arrives, the vendor has a problem. It could be a major one. “Take it back; that doesn’t meet specs,” is one terrifying statement manufacturers don’t want to hear. Some vendors shy away from performance specifications because of the work involved and the subsequent accountability. Conversely, if the purchaser specifies exact, minimal, or approximate compartment dimensions and equipment does not fit when the rig arrives, the fire department loses. There is no legal recourse.

When purchasers write their own compartment specs with dimensions, they should exercise care. Clear door openings are usually less than a compartment’s interior width and height. Some manufacturers do not consider roll-up door tracks, gasketing, and the door roll in the raised position when specifying clear door openings. The usable space on slide-out trays and adjustable shelves is generally much smaller than a compartment’s interior footprint. The actual width of a slide-out tray depends on if the slide mechanisms are mounted on the sides of the tray or underneath it. Take into consideration dimensional take-outs for adjustable shelving tracks and shelf brackets. Are the tracks mounted on the side walls, the rear wall of the compartment, or both? Be careful not to specify compartment lighting that may infringe on usable space. Good luck if you write your own specs. Hope everything fits when you get it home.

An unseen drawback to being too particular is that it may scare away bidders-unless you want to. As an example, one fire district’s published purchasing specification read, “Interior dimensions of this compartment shall be 40.00 inches wide by 47.38 inches high by 25.88 inches deep in the lower 38.75 inches of height and 15.75 inches deep in the remaining upper portion. Clear door opening of this compartment shall be 33.25 inches wide by 38.75 inches high.” Another compartment’s clear door opening was specified as 58.25 inches wide by 25.12 inches high.

It’s a good bet such finite dimensions reflect a favored manufacturer’s body. Specs generally state minimal apparatus dimensions in simple fractions, usually no less than ¼, ½, or ¾ inch. In converting the above illustrated compartment dimensions to fractional equivalents, 0.12 inches equals 3⁄25, 0.38 inches equals 11⁄29, and 0.88 inches equals 22⁄25 inch. Is there a valid reason to specify dimensions that precisely? Most bidders look at explicit dimensional requirements and rightfully surmise the purchaser is sending a clear message, albeit dimensionally, whose fire truck it wants to purchase. Was that the objective?

When a fire department has specific or unique equipment requirements, manufacturers expect they’ll have to engineer compartmentation to accommodate the same. All bidders will be on an equal playing field. However, having to redesign and reengineer an apparatus body solely to meet a favored manufacturer’s body configuration may not be cost-effective for many apparatus builders. They may justifiably decline to bid. Don’t be hypocritical by specifying a dimension of 3⁄25 or 11⁄29 inch in one place and making a general statement elsewhere in the document that all measurements can have a plus or minus tolerance of 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 inch. You might look foolish.

Although overly detailed specifications may inadvertently restrict competitive bidding, some purchasers purposefully use them to help ensure the fire department “gets what it wants.” Read prepared specifications carefully. Choose wisely. To reiterate, the objective is not to criticize, promote, or denigrate specifications written by either manufacturers or fire departments. It is to make purchasers aware that specs’ verbiage may have unseen and possibly adverse effects. Good luck.

BILL ADAMS is 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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