FAMA Forum | Kaoma Massa and Bert McCutcheon
The COVID-19 pandemic has transitioned the multistep process of purchasing and building a fire truck and an ambulance—from preconstruction and factory visits to final inspection and training—from a predominantly “live” and party-to-party experience to one that is almost completely virtual.
This has been a challenge, since most customers feel a need to personally touch, drive, and examine their new vehicles. In the past, trade shows and factory visits established relationships with dealers and component suppliers and enabled us to gather ideas for how fire departments want to build their fire trucks and ambulances.
FAMA member companies have found that although adapting to the pandemic-related restrictions has not affected the overall success of the apparatus industry, there are some pros and cons of the revisions for all the parties involved that should be acknowledged. Some of these points are presented here, as is a glimpse of what the purchasing process might look like after COVID and how FAMA member companies are planning to ensure that it benefits all parties involved.
What We Learned
FAMA members have learned much in the past 12 months: We have been forced to learn new skills, predominantly those related to technology. Our primary focus has been how to use this new knowledge and skills for the collective benefit of our industry.
The pandemic has necessitated that we gravitate to technology, especially video, in all areas of our lives. Now that it has become apparent that this pandemic is not a short-term issue, our industry has been focusing on incorporating technology more extensively to accomplish our job. Using video apps and programs to stream real-time video is now commonplace in most businesses, just as it is in our personal lives. Photos represent a static moment in time and do not enable the viewer to comprehend angles or a particular area in relation to the components around it. However, photos and video (both recorded and real-time) give customers the confidence to perform a virtual inspection of their vehicle so that it can be shipped.
Pros of the Revised Process
- In-person inspection of fire apparatus has been a long-standing tradition for most of the fire industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly decreased travel for fire departments and their dealers.
- Eliminating travel lowers cost. Departments that signed a contract prior to the institution of the COVID-related travel restrictions reallocated those funds to purchasing additional products for their apparatus or to cover the cost of a change order. Some departments simply removed the amount specified for travel from their contract.
- More department members can participate in the spec and build processes. There are no limits on the number of individuals who can take part in a video call-in, as opposed to the number of members who would typically travel to the factory.
- The Chattanooga (TN) Fire Department has had five fire trucks built and delivered during the pandemic. The few minor issues detected when the trucks arrived were handled easily by its FAMA dealer member, which attributes the success of the “fairly seamless process” to a contract manager at the factory who inspected the truck.
- The virtual process keeps things moving at the factory: There are fewer customer write-ups, and trucks can be delivered more quickly with less rework. One FAMA manufacturer member, for example, has continued to provide a one-of-a-kind experience through a virtual format and has been able to increase its personnel, technology, and information throughout the specing, inspecting, and training process.
Cons of the Revised Process
- Some fire departments have expressed concern about not being able to have the preconstruction meeting at the manufacturer’s facility—a crucial step in giving them ideas about which options to include on their trucks. Seeing apparatus in production might introduce them to an option or a feature that they did not know was available. For this reason, fire departments are leaning more than ever on their dealers and manufacturers for recommendations.
- Some fire departments have requested more resources from the factory, including high-quality walk-around videos that include trucks currently in production and highly detailed spec information that they can review online.
- Since there is no in-person final inspection, fire departments and dealers cannot inspect their trucks for imperfections or omissions that should be corrected before the truck leaves the factory. They must rely on the manufacturing teams to detect such items. Any item missed by the manufacturer’s inspection team becomes the responsibility of the dealer, who must have trained personnel and the equipment to effect the changes.
- Some dealers miss giving their customers that “wow” experience of seeing their trucks in person for the first time.
Communication Even More Essential Now
There is no denying that the fire service is a “relationship” industry and that fire departments, dealers, and manufacturers miss the in-person interaction. One FAMA member company is allowing visits to its facilities. This has necessitated creativity in designing safety protocols to make those visits safe for all. All FAMA member companies have faced the challenge of keeping their employees safe and healthy so they can continue to supply essential pieces of equipment for the departments serving on the front lines.
Although manufacturers can give customers an experience as close to the real experience as possible by using technology, there is no substitute for the most important component of the process—communication. Consistent and clear communication is the best way to achieve our goals and an outcome that pleases all parties.
As the pandemic resolves and the vaccines are made available to first responders and the other parties involved, we may be able to relax some of the strict policies surrounding the purchasing process. For example, a component of the process with which many companies grappled was how to effectively train departments on their new apparatus while minimizing in-person interaction. Many are still exploring how to do this effectively and some departments are reluctant to accomplishing this stage of the process virtually. Some FAMA member companies are addressing this issue by having the fire department view in a video conference call a highly detailed slide presentation that explains the truck’s features and functions. Departments are given a recording of the video call and a copy of the slide presentation to use as a reference and as a resource for training new members; some departments have found them beneficial.
Another area of concern for fire departments has been gathering sufficient resources from the dealer or manufacturer relative to the options available at the time they begin to spec their apparatus. This is now achieved by providing high-quality, in-depth, walk-around videos of recently completed apparatus and by photos posted online.
An obvious goal for all parties is to minimize changes that need to be made after the truck is in production. FAMA member companies have achieved this goal by doing adequate work at the inception. One example of this proactive approach is to develop a mission statement that accurately captures what the department needs from the truck or ambulance and then, with the guidance of the dealer, explore the options, functions, and features that will help achieve that mission.
Tips for Making the New Protocol Work
To ensure that the customers are informed and to keep the process flowing smoothly, FAMA member companies have been presenting a slide program that documents and describes each area of the new apparatus in a live video conference, where customers can ask questions.
FAMA member companies are encouraging fire departments to work closely with a dealer and a manufacturer they trust, providing as many details as possible, asking many questions, requesting clarification when needed, and embracing the tools created to aid in the process.
Manufacturing teams must hold themselves to a high standard and ship a truck only when they are completely confident that it is exactly what the customer is expecting.
Dealers should place their trust in their manufacturers and continue to closely vet the trucks both virtually and once they are in their possession. Ideally, they should have in their facilities the people and equipment necessary to fix any issues prior to delivery.
Industry as Viable as Ever
FAMA member companies are as busy as ever. Fire departments and paramedics have had an increase in calls since the pandemic began. In turn, vehicles are wearing out much faster, particularly in hotbed areas such as New York City. Apparatus manufacturers and component suppliers have been forced to step up and meet this increased demand—all the while battling delays in receiving raw components and keeping their employees safe and healthy!
FAMA member companies have invented and acquired the tools and the knowledge that form a process that is a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings and inspections. There are many programs and apps to assist with virtual inspections. The advancement of these tools, Internet speeds, and even cellular technology have made it easier to host and attend these virtual events. As they become more commonplace and budgets continue to be strained during a recovering economy, the option of virtual visits and reduced costs will be a viable alternative.
Just as the new “normal” has become part of many other areas of our lives, virtual inspections and preconstruction conferences will be viable alternatives to in-person inspections and meetings. They will also be the alternative for fire departments that do not have the budget or time to travel to save money and time.
FAMA is committed to the manufacture and sale of safe, efficient emergency response vehicles and equipment. FAMA urges fire departments to evaluate the full range of safety features offered by its member companies.
Kaoma Massa is the director of culture and customer service at HiViz Lighting, Inc., a lighting manufacturer and FAMA member company.
Bert McCutcheon is vice president/general manager of Ferrara Fire Apparatus. He began his fire service career in 1985 as a junior firefighter with the Central Fire Department outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he is the district chief and has served as a paid and a volunteer firefighter throughout his career. At the age of 17, he began his fire industry career working on the production floor for Ferrara Fire Apparatus.