Cantankerous Wisdom: Selling and Buying Fire Trucks, Part 3

By Bill Adams

Performance Specs?
The raisin squad was still verbally castigating apparatus salespeople over morning coffee when I mentioned one who said he didn’t like bidding against performance-based purchasing specifications because “it was too hard to poke holes in them.” Two cups of coffee later the squad couldn’t figure out how someone could bid against a performance specification. You either meet them or you don’t. Compliance is yes or no; there’s no debate. Why would someone even want to poke holes in a performance specification? What sane and rational salesperson would criticize how a fire department operates? Why criticize a purchaser for specifying, as an example, a compartment “large enough to carry one (1) Model XYZ 20-inch positive pressure fan on the floor and two (2) Model ABC 16-inch smoke ejectors on a shelf above the fan?” Kiss that sale good-bye.

Its incomprehensible that a salesperson would criticize a fire department’s specification or badmouth a competitor’s product instead of promoting the quality and value of his own. We collectively agreed the vendor doesn’t have a quality product to sell—or he doesn’t know how to. If I were on a purchasing committee and heard a salesman talking that smack, I’d throw him out of the station. The others said they’d politely ask him to leave. I guess times have changed.

Two-Way Street?
In an earlier “Cantankerous Wisdom,” I mentioned some purchasers can be as unscrupulous as some apparatus vendors. I said some—not all. That’s not disrespectful; it’s telling the truth. Purchasers usually have favorite vendors they’re comfortable working with. Most vendors accept that. Salespeople who work on a commission basis don’t get paid if they don’t sell a rig. Their time is valuable. Purchasers should likewise accept that. It is called mutual respect—something like mutual aid and mutual assistance—a reciprocal two-way street. 

It’s admirable when committees meet with multiple vendors to honestly evaluate both vendors and products. That’s the way it should be done. It’s disconcerting when committees either request or agree to meet with an apparatus vendor knowing they have no intention of considering its apparatus. That’s just not right. Meeting with other vendors just to placate the powers-to-be by saying the committee “looked at other manufacturers” is deceitful. Encouraging those vendors to spend additional time and expense preparing specifications and blue prints they have no intention of using is reprehensible. 

Engine 11 and Forgetting
While senior citizens tend to be forgetful, most white hairs remember the Cold War; fall-out shelters; hiding under a school desk in case of nuclear attack; and the Civil Defense Agency (CD), FEMA’s forerunner. When changing this column’s photo to one of Providence’s (RI) Engine 11, a 1954 Ward La France, I noticed the CD insignia on the door but couldn’t recall exactly what it meant. I researched it. During the 1950s, the CD had a program that “distributed to various cities and counties” more than 1,300 civil defense rescue service trucks. I remembered them. The smallest, built on a Willy’s jeep, brought back bad memories of receiving my army induction notice. I really didn’t want to remember that. The largest rescues were big walk-in jobs on Reo “Comet” chassis. Many fire departments got their first, and cost-free, exposure to rescue apparatus with CD rigs. All were painted white with blue trim. Getting back to Engine 11, I still wondered why it was painted red. After three days of computer searches and talking to other raisins I didn’t care anymore. 

But, I found some interesting data from websites and newspaper clippings. In 1952, Spokane, Washington, purchased its “second CD pumper with matching state and Federal funds.” In 1955, the FDNY sent 22 of their 65 CD pumpers to assist Danbury, Connecticut, during flooding. In the 1950s, Canada’s equivalent of our CD bought 50 pumpers—all painted red. A 1955 issue of The Pittsburgh Press had an article that said Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, purchased 10 CD pumpers, also with matching funds, that “under normal circumstances are not supposed to be used for one-alarm fires” and “were to be sent anywhere in case of an enemy attack.” It went on to say that they were not intended to be replacements for existing apparatus but could be used as “supplemental equipment.” Pittsburgh had 51 pumpers back then.

Amazingly, Pittsburgh’s fire chief went on record stating that he hoped “to use the pumpers for all calls.” The paper continued with, “…although he did not explain how he hopes to get around the governmental stipulation of them only being used for multiple alarms.” Imagine that. Even back then, fire chiefs tried to finagle the system to make conditions better for their troops. God bless them! The article ended with, “The government has stopped granting civil defense funds for firefighting equipment after the grant was made to Pittsburgh for the 10 pumpers.” I never found out why all CD pumpers were painted red and all CD rescue trucks were painted white, but then again it really doesn’t matter.

Credit Someone Else
I jotted down some words for an unknown reason. I don’t know where they came from, who said them, or if they were intended for me to read or directed at me to heed. I think they’re in the right order: “There are too many old people in today’s fire departments and fire service industry that are both unknowingly begging for change and innovation.”

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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