We’ve Done This to Ourselves

By Chris Mc Loone

Truer words may have never been spoken than the ones in the title of this month’s Editor’s Opinion. They come from a session at the recent Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA)/Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Services Association (FEMSA) annual meeting titled, “Vision 2020, What the Fire Service Will Look Like.” It featured a panel that had a captive audience-a joint session of two association memberships that supply the fire service with the equipment and apparatus it needs to do its job. Both sides took advantage of the rare opportunity to speak directly with each other.

So, what have we done to ourselves? According to one panelist, we’ve asked for apparatus in the past that won’t work in the future. The future of the fire service, according to this group and most fire service pundits, is a service that provides more emergency medical service (EMS) than fire suppression. Our current setup in many municipalities has full size engines and ladders responding to fall victims in what one panelist categorized as sending a cement truck to deliver a pizza. This is the reality of the fire service. Although I don’t subscribe to the proverbial “We are an EMS service that goes to the occasional fire” mindset, I recognize that more of the calls for help in many municipalities involve some sort of emergency care vs. fire suppression.

We have responded by building apparatus that just isn’t practical in many cases. We do need to build multipurpose apparatus. It’s a reality. We do not need to load it up with so much that it can’t navigate our first due. It’s our fault though, and it was refreshing to hear another panelist say, “We’ll take the blame. Manufacturers deliver what we ask for.”

Remembering Customers and Users

What is the answer then? Focus on the customer and end user. The common thread throughout the session was that the panelists assembled make their apparatus and equipment purchases based on how they affect their customers. As an example, all the panelists were for “green” apparatus, but only if it didn’t decrease efficiency. One panelist challenged manufacturers to deliver a product that has the horsepower and the green technology so that departments don’t have to sacrifice efficiency to employ the technology. “If it can deliver what we need to our customers, I don’t care,” he said.

This returns us to the wants vs. needs discussion. Are we buying what we need or what we want? One panelist asserted, “Don’t give us what we want. Educate us on what we need.” I think sales representatives already do try to educate us on what we need. But, do we listen?

Also, who is making the decisions? Another point presented by the group was how important it is for end users to have a look at what purchases departments are considering. True, the chiefs sign off on the purchase, but the end users are specifying what goes on the purchase order. We need to listen to not only the manufacturers but our troops as well. They are the ones who can tell us best about what their needs are, which, in turn, we can communicate to suppliers as “our needs.” And don’t forget, providing them with the right tools to do their jobs in the safest, yet most efficient, manner possible is our responsibility.

I wanted a bell on our most recent apparatus purchase. It was a tradition I wanted to see continued. It didn’t help our customers in any way, apparatus today do not need bells as a means to alert other drivers that we are responding, and it was an unnecessary cost for the truck. The apparatus purchasing committee wisely took it off the spec. And although I still give them a hard time occasionally-jovially-it was the right call. That’s a miniscule example of a want vs. need scenario, but I’m sure similar scenarios play out all over the country, only with bigger and more costly items than a bell.

When a purchasing committee stays focused on firefighter safety and the customer, the right decisions regarding apparatus and equipment seem to fall right into place. The session was about predicting what the fire service will look like in 2020. Let’s hope we don’t look back in 2020 and say, “We’ve done this to ourselves.”

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