Although some may deny partaking in the process and probably will publically renounce the practice, most fire departments write apparatus purchasing specifications (specs) around a preferred manufacturer-usually with the help of the local vendor. It’s a common occurrence. Get over it. I do not favor or condone it, and this article will not address it. This is directed at purchasers who, in good faith, attempt to write “open” specifications in an honest attempt to solicit competitive bids for a new fire truck. Use caution. You might be confusing potential bidders by unnecessarily using meaningless adjectives and flattering adverbs in your document.
An adjective describes or modifies the subject of a sentence. In the sentence “I want a glass of water,” water is the subject. In “I want a glass of warm water,” warm is the adjective. It gives additional information about the subject. It’s grammatically correct. An adverb enhances the adjective, giving further information about it. In “I want a very warm glass of water,” very is the adverb. It also is an acceptable method of writing.
However, when writing fire apparatus specifications, if that additional information cannot be defined, measured, and compared, it is useless. It has no value. If words do not give clarity and specificity to the subject, leave them out or confusion, misunderstanding, and undue embarrassment can result. Apparatus manufacturers often use descriptive adjectives and complimentary adverbs to give a favorable impression of their product. That’s life. Live with it. Outside specification writers may do likewise, perhaps to make their document look professional. Occasionally, fire departments will inadvertently use an indefinable description. All three may be clouding the subject and hindering the competitive bidding process. There’s no room for descriptive adjectives and adverbs in fire apparatus purchasing specifications.
In competitive bidding, a purchaser describes in measurable terms what it desires. The description must be quantifiable to potential bidders. It is imperative that purchasers be able to fairly evaluate and accurately compare what is being proposed to what was specified. If that process cannot be followed, you are wasting your time and the bidders’. How can you determine compliance to a requirement you can’t define? The importance of writing a comprehensible description of what you want cannot be overestimated. Vague and indecipherable words and descriptions in a purchasing specification are the first steps in compromising the intent of the competitive bidding process.
The fire apparatus marketplace is unstable. New apparatus sales have been reported off by 30 to 50 percent. When business was thriving, vendors (manufacturers, dealers, and salespeople) often did not bid against competitors’ proprietary specifications, nor did they submit proposals for vague and unclear specifications. In the case of bidding on a competitor’s spec, the success rate is somewhere between slim and none. In the case of vague specifications, bidders may have to expend an inordinate amount of time trying to decipher or guess what the fire department really wants or means.
Today many vendors are aggressive; they are hungry. Some may be brash enough to question a purchaser’s written word-once considered blasphemous in the fire service. Some may tender a proposal equally as vague and unclear as the published purchasing specifications. How do you handle that scenario?
The first lesson in Fire Truck Selling 101 was to never challenge the customer. That may no longer be the case. First, many vendors are forced to do so for economic survival. Second, and in my opinion, it appears new breeds of “determined” salespeople are entering the marketplace. Third, I believe that if it’s obvious an apparatus purchasing committee needs help, guidance, or perhaps a little nudge in the right direction, a reputable fire apparatus salesperson should offer it-despite the possibility of bruising egos and losing a sale. But, it’s the right thing to do. They’ll remember it later.
And last, if the purchasing committee writes a confusing, vague, or makes-no-sense description in its document, maybe it should be challenged. The authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) has entrusted the committee to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars for a fire truck. In today’s uncertain economic and political climate, both the AHJ and taxpayers may hold the committee responsible at the least and accountable at the most. It ought to know what it’s doing.
It is irrelevant whether a preferred vendor, an outside spec writer, or someone within the fire department writes the technical purchasing specifications. In the eyes of the public, the fire department “owns them.” As a political subdivision, the AHJ may publish the document, but ultimately the fire department, the apparatus purchasing committee, and probably the fire chief will be held accountable. They will, and should, be expected to answer direct questions concerning any verbiage in the document. It may not be fair, but that’s life. The buck has to stop somewhere.
A word of caution: When a political subdivision publishes a specification for a public bid, the spec becomes a legal document. The fire department, the purchasing committee, and the fire chief may find themselves in a public, possibly politically motivated, and legally regulated environment answering specific questions on the record. It could be an uncomfortable position-especially if the local media is on hand.
You could be challenged by agenda-driven politicians, concerned taxpayers, or nonpreferred bidders asking that you explain what you are saying in your specifications. It could be an unsuccessful bidder challenging an award to another vendor. In the following examples from actual specs, visualize being asked-in a public forum-to define underlined passages from your specifications. Explain how you compare these requirements to bids received claiming to have “met your specs.”
The following verbiage is from several manufacturers’ pump house/pump panel specifications:
- The horizontal control rods shall appear neat and orderly.
- Data plate is to be mounted in clear view of the pump operator’s standing position.
- The layout of the pump control panel shall be ergonomically efficient and systematically organized.
- The control shall be easily accessed through the side panel hinged access door.
- The control panel shall be laid out in a user-friendly manner.
- The rigid module mount system shall prevent unnecessary movement of the pump compartment.
- The control panel shall be configured in an organized manner, user-friendly, side-to-side across the entire panel.
- Two (2) bright anodized extruded aluminum grab rails shall be provided to provide easy entry and egress from the top operator’s position.
- Pump panels that offer little to no access without the use of tools shall not be considered compliant with this requirement.
- Relief valve to be accessible for future adjustment.
- …assembly shall be horizontally hinged to allow complete access to the compartment.
- …pump panel shall be provided to allow simple, efficient operation of all pump functions.
- Victaulic risers shall be “coped” to conform to radius of larger size waterway, so as to provide unsurpassed flow characteristics.
- Gauges to be located in a uniform manner no more than six inches from their respective discharge valve control.
- All components will be located so that they are readily accessible and do not require special tools for proper servicing
- …for quick, simple removal of any pipe section or valve for maintenance.
- …if the device is not properly stowed for travel.
- Controls shall be located in a convenient location.
- Complete understandable messages shall be provided in a ….
- They shall be properly labeled.
- The gauges shall be clearly labeled.
Say What You Mean
Does neat and orderly mean the same thing as ergonomically efficient and systematically organized? Is user-friendly better than being in a uniform manner? Will being in a convenient location meet your specifications? Will a simple and efficient layout be compliant? Do you want your controls clearly labeled or properly labeled? Which one did you use? Smile. Channel 10 news just walked in. Good luck.
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.