Justifying Proprietary Purchasing Specifications

By Bill Adams

Industry experts and fire service commentators weighing in on purchasing fire apparatus advocate writing open or performance specifications (specs). At the same time, they usually demonize proprietary specs as being unethical, morally incorrect, political hot potatoes, perhaps illegal, never in a purchaser’s best interests, and giving preferred vendors blank checks.

You name it, and it’s been said. It’s politically correct to do so and is probably the narration most trade journals expect. And, I’m as guilty as the next person of saying it. However, there are two sides to every story. There are instances when proprietary purchasing specifications may be justified.

Apparatus Manufacturers

Many fire apparatus manufacturers (OEMs) will not broach the subject in a public forum. Some find it difficult and even embarrassing to discuss the advantages of a proprietary spec without appearing to promote their own product. That’s understandable, and I respect their wishes. However, it’s undeniable that OEMs want prospective buyers to write purchasing specifications favoring their apparatus. They just won’t admit it or they can’t. As a former dealer, I used to write “tight” specifications-“tight” being a polite term for proprietary. Is that being disingenuous, hypocritical, or illegal? Not really. A proprietary purchasing spec is a complicated mixture of capitalism and political correctness used to define a fire truck while staying within legal parameters. That’s life-welcome to the real world.


Standardization is an easy sell for an apparatus purchasing committee (APC) to justify a proprietary spec to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). The more rigs a department owns, the easier the sell is. Drivers only have to train on one manufacturer’s apparatus. Equally beneficial is having identical pump and aerial controls. Personnel and apparatus can move from station to station or company to company without requiring refresher or additional training. Standardization has added value in volunteer entities where there is limited exposure to operating apparatus. It can increase efficiency, productivity, and safety on the fireground. It’s a justifiable use of resources and could be financially beneficial in the long term. Politicians embrace terms such as efficiency, productivity, and financially beneficial.

Fire departments with in-house shops should see lower maintenance and repair costs with standardized apparatus. They can keep parts inventories to a minimum. Mechanics will require less training when a single manufacturer supplies specialized components. Productivity and proficiency should increase with exposure to and familiarization with identical products. Politicos like lower costs and proficiency too.

Some OEMs contend that specifying a particular body material is a restrictive requirement. Specifying types of construction such as using bent and formed metal or the use of extrusions or bolted or welded bodies may also elicit questionable claims of being too proprietary. OEMs usually generate such assertions when specs do not specify their material of choice and method of construction. Nobody likes a whiner.

Astute purchasers can justify material choices and construction methods. Some fire department shops are capable of repairing body damage, replacing major component parts, and carrying out complete rebuilds. Specifying a material and method of construction familiar to shop personnel may be advantageous and cost-efficient. Shops and personnel may have the specific equipment, training, experience, and expertise to work with one type of material. Why purchase a material they are not familiar with, are not trained to use, or don’t have the tools to work with?

Another case for specifying a particular body material is the unsatisfactory performance of another. If there is documented substantiation of apparatus in your geographical area experiencing problems such as undue body corrosion, material fatigue, or paint adherence issues, then there is justification for specifying an alternative body material or construction method. Whether that is unfavorable to some OEMs may be irrelevant. Politicos should see value in lower maintenance costs, fewer repairs, and extended apparatus service lives.

Esprit de Corps

Every volunteer and career fire department has esprit de corps. Few if any will admit using esprit de corps (as well as history and tradition) as leverage in the purchasing process. However, it does happen, and volunteer entities are most likely to do it when justifying writing a proprietary spec. One statement could be, “If 25 people regularly get out of bed at three in the morning for fire calls and they want to ride on a Brand X fire truck, guess what we’re going to spec?” Another could be, “If we have a bunch of volunteers who are willing to leave their places of employment to staff our apparatus and they want Brand Y fire trucks, then that’s what we’re buying.” Those statements may not be fiscally prudent or politically judicious, but they’re heard. Independent entities not subject to political or taxpayer oversight are more apt to purchase what the troops want-sometimes irrespective of cost. Caution: Some can use proprietary specs to satisfy personal agendas and the specs may not necessarily reflect what a fire department as a whole may really want or actually need. And, pricing may not always be competitive. However, those are topics for later discussion.

Level of Acceptability

Purchasing specifications establish benchmarks to be used as a basis to compare competitive proposals. Specific items such as pump capacities and water tank sizes usually pose no problem, nor do measureable features such as height, length, and wheelbase. But, how can purchasers specify desired levels of apparatus design, engineering, workmanship, and quality? Can they do it without writing a proprietary specification? Can they ascribe a monetary value for undefined, ambiguous requirements?

Look at vague definitions for design, engineering, workmanship, and quality. Design can be the experience in formulating concepts and ideas into workable solutions. Engineering is the capability of putting a design into a workable and substantiated resolution. Workmanship is the level of skill workers use in producing the finished product. Quality is the value received for the monies expended. Those are four features most APCs want, demand, and are willing to pay for. How can a fire truck specification define, measure, and compare those features? I don’t think they can unless the purchasing document stipulates very specific and measurable examples. APCs can fairly evaluate competitive proposals responding to definitive and technical descriptions. They can easily and legally calculate compliance. Writing a proprietary specification just may be the answer. Good luck.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment 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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