Cantankerous Wisdom: Selling and Buying Fire Trucks, Part 4

By Bill Adams

Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?
Raisin squad members are predominantly inactive volunteers at least 60 years old. Most draw social security. Actives also call us the white hairs or the wrinkle squad. Morning coffee at the fire station occasionally reverts back to fire apparatus dealers and the squad’s belief that none tell the truth, few are honest and trustworthy, and most don’t deserve a Christian burial when their time is up—retired salesmen (yours truly) included. It is irrelevant whether a rig they sold had a directional light burnout 10 years after the sale or the department was forced into buying a rig it really didn’t want. It’s always the dealer’s fault. In defense, I said whoever signs the check—the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) —is often cajoled into making a purchasing decision because the apparatus purchasing committee (APC) did a lousy job writing its specifications. That started World War III with a former chief and a former commissioner. I believe an APC must control the decision-making process as much as legally possible. It is important to remain in the driver’s seat—especially so after a bid opening.

Disclaimer: This piece is NOT a condemnation of all fire apparatus dealers and vendors. There’s no claim that all are devious, deceptive, unethical, or unprincipled—although most of us have been accused of it. Some vendors are very aggressive. An occasional few might lack tact and diplomacy. Astute vendors will use every means at their disposal to make a sale, and if it includes taking advantage of a poorly written specification, so be it. You wrote the specs; blame yourself. 

An APC cannot control a super aggressive vendor who indiscreetly goes behind the committee’s back to influence the AHJ whether it’s by a phone call to a politician or a preplanned “chance encounter” with a fire commissioner. It can occur both before and after a bid opening. Circumventing the purchasing committee to make a sales pitch to higher-ups is classless. It’s not right. Other vendors call it going in the back door. Committees call it being blindsided. I call it being border-line disreputable. But, it happens all the time, and there’s not much an APC can do to prevent it except to forewarn the AHJ what might happen and why. Tell the AHJ to be aware of unscrupulous dealers (don’t name them!) who might disregard the AHJ’s specifications and ignore the AHJ’s Instructions to Bidders. Look at it as a firematic preplan. Plan for the worst; expect the unexpected. Before the bid opening, plant the seed that there may be unprincipled bidders out there.

Instructions to Bidders
Most purchasing specifications include a section commonly called “Instructions to Bidders.” It’s sometimes called the boiler plate and it establishes the ground rules and regulations for both the bidding process and the decision-making process. Public bids must comply with applicable governmental laws. However, there’s no reason a purchaser’s requirements cannot be stricter. Double check with your legal beagles. The last thing the fire department wants is a vendor sweet talking or unduly influencing the AHJ into purchasing a rig that doesn’t meet the fire department’s specs. It is particularly infuriating after a bid opening—especially when the whiner is a disgruntled vendor whose product was not favored.

Unsolicited Pricing
Alternate and optional pricing are excellent tools if used properly. They should be specifically requested by the AHJ in the bid document. The Instructions to Bidders should dictate exactly how they will be evaluated. To be fair and equitable, all bidders should have an equal opportunity to provide pricing. Be aware that some unprincipled vendors may submit unsolicited pricing to make it appear they are the low bidder. That’s uncalled for. It’s almost dishonest. Uncalled for pricing undermines the competitive bidding process. It can place the fire department in the unenvious and precarious position of explaining “why not” to the AHJ for each unsolicited price received. If you don’t want unsolicited optional bids, put it in writing. If you don’t want unsolicited alternate bids, put it in writing. Stay in the driver’s seat. If an overly zealous vendor is allowed to offer a lesser, inferior, or unwanted product, be prepared to defend each and every item in your purchasing specifications. 

When writing purchasing specifications and the Instruction to Bidders, APCs should interact closely with the AHJ. Explain that unsolicited pricing is a slap in the face. It is insulting not only to the fire department but to the APC and the AHJ as well. Both will not appreciate a bidder questioning their expertise in determining what to purchase and likewise disregarding their instructions. Don’t be put in a precarious position by inattention to detail in your specifications. An APC can indirectly control the decision-making process. Just do it in writing. 

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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