For someone who has been in the fire service a long time, I am amazed that there are vehicles that cost more than $1 million.
Yet, trucks, aerials, platforms, sticks, or whatever you call them have a purpose, and departments need to understand their necessity, versatility, and functionality. With a price tag so high, departments need to get their money’s worth and maximize usage. Of course, added usage comes with a price, as it reduces the vehicle’s life expectancy. Good strategy and planning will make this vital piece more useful.
There are many reasons vehicles cost so much. I understand some of them and still can’t figure out others. Regardless, I do know that vehicles are more complex, have more governmental regulations, and are doing more functions. It is these factors and more that make it difficult for many departments to have the expertise to go through a comprehensive purchasing process including specifications, accepting formal bid proposals (or RFPs – requests for proposals), and ultimately accepting the apparatus.
In most cases, departments do not regularly and routinely order fleets of vehicles. They purchase one or two over a period of years with the expectation that they are likely to do this once or twice in a career. With personnel turnover, it is also unlikely that the same people, apparatus committee, vehicle technician, and purchasing agent will be involved in the process. Even if they are, the apparatus and the standards will have changed, meaning there is still much to be learned. Few organizations have significant experience in this arena. This could lead to mistakes – mistakes that can be very costly.
Departments should seriously consider hiring an apparatus consultant if they do not have a well-established fleet management system with knowledgeable and experienced personnel who regularly and routinely purchase apparatus and who continually study and learn within their areas of responsibilities. Those that do not have the appropriate experience should look to someone who regularly does this work. The cost is not generally exorbitant, and the quality consultants will easily save you more than the fee that they charge by keeping you from making those costly mistakes. If you were to build a $1 million addition onto one of your fire stations, you would certainly hire an architect and possibly a project manager. You would need the advice of someone who has the necessary knowledge. The purchase price for apparatus should get you to at least do the same – get expert help.
If you go this route, you still have to do your homework. You need to investigate your options and ask for proposals from qualified individuals or firms. There are good folks out there, so you have choices. You can look at references and get advice from others in the industry. Outline your needs and expectations. Most consultants will customize their approach to meet your needs. But, remember, they are the experts, so you may need to compromise. Be sure to check on your organization’s policies regarding professional services in advance.
If you decide to go the consultant route, you are not absolved of doing some work. If you have used an apparatus committee in the past, there is no reason to stop. The committee still must establish the organization’s needs and essential requirements. Quality consultants will need a starting point and want to get you the piece of equipment that meets your wants and needs. They will ask questions and do their best to get you the “best bang for the buck.” They are not inclined to impose their personal preferences unless doing so has merit in your situation. They will let you know the pros and cons compared to the cost. The point is, by having a consultant, you don’t give up anything. You only gain expertise and experience in an area where you may not be as knowledgeable as you need to be.
Your emergency vehicle technicians, mechanics, and fleet managers also play an important role. The folks that keep the wheels moving know what they like to work on, what has been reliable, and the capabilities of their shop. They are experts, and their opinions are essential in the process. The fleet managers also contribute greatly across the board so that the vehicles are what you need, reliable, and durable. One of the goals of new apparatus is to keep them on the road and in service. Downtime needs to be minimized so your frontline pieces are doing what they were purchased to do.
Realizing that not everyone is prepared to go the consultant route, there are other options. Become closer friends with your neighboring departments, which may have more resources and experience in this field. Those that purchase more apparatus may have more knowledge, though this is not necessarily a guarantee. If you have done a good job maintaining relationships, you will know those that have a leg up in the apparatus arena. You should also consider group purchases if there are others in your region looking to acquire an aerial device. If you do this, there will need to be compromise on both sides, as you may not get to choose everything. In the end, you will want to purchase identical trucks if you want to maximize your buying power.
The manufacturers have great insight and knowledge. You can tap their expertise as long as you look to multiple suppliers for information. A sole provider will most likely slant its perspective toward its strengths and products. Not only will this push you toward a sole source, it may eliminate competition that is necessary to get the best bids. There is nothing wrong with learning from those who have inside information, experience, and insight. Just make sure to balance the information with other sources.
Many chiefs purchase only one aerial device in their tenure as chief. Many organizations don’t have detailed expertise, as they don’t have many opportunities to make purchases of this magnitude. Spending a million dollars is a big deal; approach it as such. Look to others who can help so that you not only get the truck you need (and want) but also spend your hard-earned dollars as wisely as possible.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, 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 has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.