When the typical person goes looking for a car or truck, he considers a few things, such as price range, reliability and style. He may consider his past experience with a company and its reputation. Because of changes in technology he is probably purchasing a vehicle that is different than the one he has. He rarely considers the individual components, except maybe the engine size.
Most people don’t buy a car based upon the battery or whether or not it has Bridgestone, Michelin or Goodyear tires. Today it is rare that someone would even consider the ability to make repairs by himself or even worry much about maintenance. Most vehicles are reliable and will transport people wherever they wish to go.
One might look at purchasing a fire truck the same way. Does it really matter what the components are in your vehicle specifications? If so, what criteria are used to make the selection? Does limiting your selection affect the final product, competitive bids and the ultimate price? If so, what is the value and how do you make the choices? These are just some of the questions that should be asked when you or your truck committee begins the process of developing specifications for your next vehicle purchase.
There are many quality components that go into each vehicle. They all have advantages and disadvantages, most of which won’t matter to the end user in most cases. The fire apparatus operator wants to get into the truck, start it, arrive quickly and safely and deliver water as directed by the officer in charge. If the vehicle is reliable, the operator generally won’t know the difference. Because of technology and computers, many vehicles are quite simple to operate. Take, for example, the transmission. Are there many drivers that really know what the transmission is? Most know they start the vehicle, push D, release the brake and go. There is no clutch and really not much else to know.
So if the operators don’t know and the truck drives, you might ask if there is a need to specify a particular transmission. Doing so may restrict your options and limit the competition during the bid process. This line of thought can apply to every component within the vehicle. The challenge to departments is to determine when it is important to be specific and when a more generic approach will meet their needs. Sometimes people go with their past history as their sole reason to be specific – that is what has always been done. But there are many reliable components that have a long track record of performance and reliability and may be similar in performance to what you use.
One of the primary reasons to be specific is based upon who will maintain and repair the components. Departments may have a mechanic within the organization, may rely on one within the municipality or may contract with a private repair company or individual. The preference of the repair shop can be a valid reason to specify a particular engine or other component. If the fire department mechanic also is responsible for other fleet vehicles, there is an advantage to utilizing similar engines. This helps with training, parts, and possibly even the tools needed. Asking a mechanic to learn the nuances of different vehicles may not be efficient and effective. There may be a reason to specify a Cummins, Detroit Diesel or Caterpillar because of attempts to standardize. You and your mechanic need to have this discussion to determine if a particular engine is beneficial.
The manufacturers of every component that goes into a vehicle believe they have the best overall products. Their features, in their minds, are the ones that are important in delivering products that are reliable and worth the price. Oftentimes component selection comes down to personal preference and past experience.
Most components have been found to be reliable, and you can find many references within the fire service that attest to their qualities. The major pump manufactures like Hale, Darley and Waterous have withstood the test of time. If they didn’t deliver, the fire service would know in a very short time. But, in fact, their pumps have proven themselves. So you have to answer the question as to whether or not their unique qualities are such that they will affect your operation.
If you have no reason to be specific, you may open up your options and create more competition that could lead to a better price. But, there are reasons to be specific. If you have a large fleet, then selecting a particular component will lead to consistency and similarity. This will help with repairs and training. Personnel will be familiar regardless of their daily assignment. Training officers can develop one training program. Any peculiarities can be addressed and simplified.
For a variety of reasons, today’s fire apparatus operators probably do not understand how everything works on the vehicle. The complex nature of almost everything makes if very difficult to grasp how something really works even while vehicles and their components have become simpler to operate.
To better relate to this, think of today’s cars. Not many backyard mechanics can work on the newest vehicles because of their complex nature and the specialized tools that are needed. Few people could tell you which vehicles are better within a particular class of vehicles. It comes down to personal preference. Most of today’s vehicles are reliable and require minimum maintenance. Someone can pick up the vehicle, put in the key and drive away with little instruction. Fire apparatus are getting that way, so it becomes harder to distinguish if certain components make much difference.
Often, the choice of a vehicle manufacturer is based upon price range and reputation. If you have had a good experience with a particular manufacturer, then you are more likely to return for repeat business. If others in your circle of professional friends have opinions, it will also affect your preferences. The local vendor or sales representative may also exert influence. Did you get treated fairly and did he stand by your product after the sale? Customer follow-up may be the most important thing to consider when selecting a vehicle.
In the end, only you or your organization can decide if particular components make a difference. Decide what matters and what doesn’t based upon reliability, ability to repair, service, ease of use and training. If there are other issues important to you, add them to the list. Have a reason to be specific that can be easily justified. Otherwise, you may be wasting money.
Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Northville Township (Mich.) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999 he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.