By Chris Mc Loone
In the fire service, there is often discussion about “tools in the toolbox.” These tools vary.
Sometimes the tools are tactics. On the topic of fire suppression, there has been much recent talk about whether or not to hit a fire from the outside before an aggressive interior attack. Most are quick to note that there are no absolutes in firefighting and that hitting a fire from the outside first is a tactic, a tool in the toolbox-not the way a fire should be fought every time.
In the realm of apparatus purchasing, there are also various tools in the toolbox. One is buying a new truck from a manufacturer that has bid on a set of specifications. Another is leasing fire apparatus from a manufacturer. Purchasing “program” vehicles is also an option. And, buying used apparatus is yet another course of action. But, there are various ways departments can buy used apparatus-by purchasing directly from another fire department, using a broker, or purchasing from a dealer.
When you decide to purchase a used apparatus from a dealer, be sure to
Dealer vs. Broker
When Fire Department A purchases an apparatus from Fire Department B, Fire Department B acts as the broker in the deal. There are also brokers who bring Fire Department A and Fire Department B together to make the deal. “I compare it to a real estate agent working from a house or office,” says Jim Keltner, president of Jon’s Mid America Fire Apparatus, Inc. “They don’t have the investment of a shop and facility, and they don’t have ownership of the truck at any point. The only investment they have is possibly to advertise a little bit. When Department ABC sells its truck to Department PDQ, they pay the broker a commission.”
A major difference between purchasing from a dealer and purchasing from a broker is ownership of the vehicle in question. A broker does not own the vehicle he is selling in most cases. In the case of a dealer, the apparatus is titled to the dealer. “We look for and buy good used trucks from all over the country,” says Keltner. “We go through them from head to toe. It is our goal that when a truck goes out of here, it’s going to be a good truck for the department it goes to for the next 10 or more years.”
Quincy Jones, co-owner of Company Two Fire Apparatus, adds that unlike a dealer, which owns the vehicle, has gone through the vehicle, and has prepared it to go back into service, brokers often have no knowledge of the vehicle other than what its owner has told them. “They are relying on second- and third-party information, meaning they can only relay what the fire department selling the truck has told them it has. They have no knowledge of the truck.”
Keltner explains, “It’s sold with a warranty. We stand behind it. The truck is bought and paid for by us. It’s titled in our name. And then it’s titled to the department.” Jon’s Mid America has a broad network from which it secures the trucks it sells. “A lot of ours are dealer trade-ins,” he says. “We buy them from the dealer that traded for them. Some of them we buy directly from departments. There are a lot of departments that don’t want to deal with a broker because they want the truck to go away. They don’t want the other department to come back to them and say, ‘This widget wasn’t fixed,’ or ‘The brakes are weak. You should have had the brakes fixed.’ Our deal is that as a dealer, we will come in; we will pay you immediately for your truck or pay you in funds for it. You give us the title and it will be retitled in our name. And we will never send the end user back to you to say ‘What about this truck?’ “
Reputable dealers will allow department representatives to visit their
Fire Department vs. Dealer
Some apparatus purchasing committees will decide not to go through a broker to find their next trucks or take the dealer route, instead choosing to go directly to another fire department. There are differences there as well. “One of the main things is you’ll get no warranties,” says Greg Still, owner of Missouri Fire Apparatus. “You buy as is and you take the risk of that. The other thing will be whatever damage or abuse the vehicle has taken during its life at that department-that’s what you’re inheriting.” Still explains that a dealer will usually go through and repair any prior damage down to the trim. “We give a one-year warranty,” he adds. “If there are any issues, you’re going to find them within that one year.”
Jones adds, “Dealers like Company Two will offer a warranty. If purchased from another department, the unit hasn’t been recertified. Any problems will have to be paid for out of additional fire department funds.”
“Buying from a department, there will be a lot of things you’re not going to be able to see if you’re not in the fire truck business,” says Keltner. “As a dealer, we’ll bring in a low-milelage late-model truck, and we will still end up with more than 100 hours making it ready to go to the customer. I can’t find a truck we haven’t had 100 hours in. That’s a little different than if you buy it directly off the shelf.”
Leading up to the decision to purchase from a used apparatus dealer isn’t markedly different than the process leading up to purchasing a new custom apparatus. Departments still must do their due diligence, have a specification for what they want in the new apparatus, adhere to whatever purchasing rules the authority having jurisdiction follows, and then make their decision. Once the decision is made, the process becomes slightly different.
“It is different because with a new truck, someone else can order a new truck just like yours and you can still order yours,” says Keltner. “With a used fire truck in most cases, the one you’ve decided on and made the decision to try to purchase is the only one just like that in the country.” He explains that many municipalities or volunteer fire departments are not in a position where their representative looking at a truck can say, “OK. I’ll take it,” and then write a check. “As a dealer, we have to have a process to deal with them that always protects them in buying the truck but also protects [the dealer] from putting a truck on hold for them and two months later you miss selling it three times because they never get around to it,” he says. “So, you have to come up with a balance that’s fair for the dealer and fair for the customer so they can get their due process done to legally buy the truck.”
There are several different scenarios, according to Keltner. Sometimes a dealer will ask the department’s representative to get approval to put a small deposit down to hold the truck in its name. He says that most departments can get enough money approved quickly to put the deposit down. But, he admits that it’s different for every department. “Every department has different purchasing methods, and even different for a used truck or a new truck,” he explains. “Because sometimes it’s not as easy to get comparable pricing on trucks when there are no two trucks out there alike most of the time, it is a lot different from a new truck from that standpoint.”
Departments should ensure that the fire apparatus they purchase from
Still says, “Different departments have different ways that they acquire the apparatus. Some have to go through a bid process, and generally they’ll come and look at our apparatus and see if it’s what they are looking for. Then they basically put out their bid and we go through the bid process just like anyone else does.” That’s one method, but he adds that some departments have the ability to purchase immediately. “And by doing that, they can come into our facility, and they will look at the apparatus underneath and around. We can put it inside so they can look at all the finish work and the trim. And, then we can take it out and drive it, pump it-whatever they need to do to make them feel good about the apparatus they are buying.”
Know the Seller
“One bad apple ruins the bunch” is a fitting expression for the used apparatus market because over time, a few bad apples have created certain misconceptions about buying a used fire apparatus. Doing your homework prior to making the purchase-no matter what product you’re looking to buy-will help dispel various misconceptions. Whether a department buys a new custom fire apparatus or a used one from a dealer, it is a major purchase measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Knowing as much about the dealer as possible before making the purchase is critical, and Keltner, Still, and Jones emphasize checking references.
“I can’t stress it enough-do your homework on the dealer,” asserts Jones. “If I were buying apparatus, knowing the industry as I do, I would request past customers from each dealer that have actually used the warranties stated in your contract.”
Still adds, “Anyone can claim to do anything. But past sales to different departments-touching base with them will actually give you a true report on what the buyer is looking for. So, that would be one thing I would ask for if I was purchasing a vehicle from someone-a reference list. If they have a hard time coming up with that, that would probably raise a red flag for me.”
“Check the references on the dealership,” says Keltner. “Find out if they’ve been doing it a long time; if they own the trucks; if they can promise you that there is a clear, clean title and if they have it. Most of the good dealers can give you a long list of references that they’ve done business with, and you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Keltner also encourages prospective buyers to look at the truck and the facility. “Make sure this is somebody that actually owns the truck, will pump the truck for you, and will let you go over it. Make sure fire trucks is what they do and that they know what they’re doing. Make sure they’re also going to be able to stand behind it with a warranty. Make sure it’s a company you know has the wherewithal and expertise to stand behind its warranty.”
According to Jones, the biggest mistake a department makes when buying used apparatus from a dealer is not doing its homework before the purchase. Still cites examples that are not necessarily unique to the used market. “I think probably one of the major mistakes is that they think they have to buy a cheap piece of equipment that they can afford,” he says. “I think a lot of departments cut themselves short on what they are actually able to purchase.” He adds that another mistake is purchasing apparatus not suited for the duties they are going to put it through. “In other words, most of our departments in the United States are rural departments, but we buy with the mentality of a city department-small tanks, for example-because that’s what we have bought in the past.” To that end, Still’s company finds it does some major reconstruction of vehicles to ensure they meet a department’s actual needs instead of a rural department buying an engine with a 500-gallon tank that is suitable for a city. “A lot of times, we’ll get that type of vehicle here, and a department will say, ‘We need a 1,000-gallon tank minimum.’ So, we will take that vehicle, put a larger tank in it, and modify it where it is kind of custom-built for the department’s needs.”
Similar situations repeat themselves at Jon’s Mid America. “I would encourage them to look at the truck and look at the facility and make sure this is somebody that will pump the truck for you and let you go over it,” says Keltner. “Then at that time, a lot of times it turns into a like-new truck situation. I’ve had used trucks in here that people have added more than $100,000 worth of add-ons to.”
Additionally, Keltner sees departments worrying only about the year and model of the truck. “A lot of departments will go out and say, ‘We have to buy a 2000 model year or newer, and it has to have 750 gallons of water and a 1,250-gallon-per-minute pump.” He cites an example where a department might find a 2000 model truck that has 85,000 miles on it but isn’t built well. But, Keltner compares that with a 1998 model truck that has 90,000 miles, was well built, and has never been in a corrosive atmosphere that simply doesn’t meet the model year criteria. “I would suggest people always keep in mind that part of it because there are a lot more things important on the truck than the date on the title.”
Same for New or Used
Still asserts that new apparatus have warranty issues just like used apparatus. “A truck is a large-purchase item, and after you purchase it, you either get a good piece of apparatus or you get a bad piece of apparatus,” he says. “Buy the piece of apparatus that’s actually going to meet your needs and something that’s going to meet those needs for possibly 10 years or so.”
Keltner adds, “There are a lot of good used trucks out there. There are also a lot of good new trucks being built. But to quote from Jon Smith, founder of our company, he’s always said, ‘Your truck is only as good as the dealer that stands behind it.’ That’s true for new and used. I would advise people to go out and visit the dealership, be familiar with it, call its references, know that it is in the fire truck business, and know that it’s a company that is financially stable and can stand behind you.”
CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He is a member of apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and editor for more than 19 years.