When Purchasing, Play By The Rules

Many fire department personnel are frustrated when trying to acquire apparatus and equipment.

This can occur because they have not followed proper purchasing protocol within their governmental agency or have not worked with the purchasing department.

Fire chiefs often know what they want and have their own idea as to how they should proceed with the acquisition. The frustration sets in when perceived “red tape” slows down the process or makes it difficult to get the actual apparatus or equipment desired.

For whatever reason, it can be difficult to work with others and play by pre-established rules. As chief, I know what is best for my organization, what product will work best, what is the best use of the fire department budget, and I don’t need someone without fire experience “telling” me what I should buy.

If only it were so easy.

Throughout the years, I have made some mistakes. But, I have learned how to get what I think is best for the department. I have also learned that if I do not play be the rules, it will be much more difficult to get the things that are important and it will take more time to make the acquisition.

Even though I may think I am the final decision maker and I have rank, there are others that have a role in the purchasing process. I have found that working nicely with others and following established policies is the best way, although maybe not the fastest, to make purchases.

Complying With The Rules

Complying with the rules might not be as fast as if I were to just buy things, but it is much faster than back-tracking. It also reduces the risk of making a mistake that can create an ethical or legal issue.

When making purchases, know your procedures. There are often dollar limits that establish purchasing policies.

For example, as chief, you may be authorized to spend up to $500 without asking permission or getting quotes or bids. Others in your department may also have a spending limit under which they may make purchases. Whatever the limit, know what it is and stay under it.

Next, there may be a limit where you can get quotes via phone, email, etc. You may need to get a specific number, usually a minimum of three quotes, to proceed.

Higher dollar purchases may require quotes or informal bids and the approval of someone higher up the chain, such as a city manager or finance director.

Finally, there will be a dollar amount that requires a formal bid process. While you may have a policy specific for your department, it is usually your city, county, or township that has a policy developed as required by the charter, by-laws, or constitution.

Let’s look at some purchases and real-life scenarios to see how this all plays out.

For example, if you need a replacement axe for one that was lost or broken, you may be able to call your favorite vendor and ask him to send one, assuming it is under your spending limit.

Beware, however, of any particular nuances that may be exceptions. For example, you may need to get authorization to travel to a conference even though its cost is under your limit.

If you want to purchase a replacement generator, its cost may require you to obtain three quotes and select the lowest that meets your requirements. From this point, it may be a simple procedure to submit a purchase order request with the three quotes and you are done.

Requesting Authorization

Now suppose you wish to buy replacement carpeting for the fire station, the amount may exceed your authorization and you may need another person to approve. You will still need your quotes and purchase order request but may also need a more formal report that requests authorization.

You may be asked to explain the need for the carpet and the process used to solicit quotes. In this case, if you have a good working relationship with your purchasing department, they can become a big help.

First, they are more likely to have more experience in this work than you. Second, they may have more dealings with the next level of approval and are more adept at providing the information needed to gain authorization.

Getting What You Want

I can speak from personal experience that if you neglect this part of the process, your purchase will be delayed or you may not get what you really want.

Lastly, you want a new fire truck – it will cost a lot. You will definitely need to follow established protocol. There will likely be a requirement for obtaining formal bids, usually sealed bids, with a public opening, or reading of those bids.

The bids are evaluated, a report written, and approval most likely will be required from your governing body. It sounds so simple.

Initially you will need to develop specifications. Most places now believe that if you are to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment, there should be more than one company willing to sell it to you.

Your specifications must be generic enough to generate interest. Some fire chiefs want a specific company to manufacture their fire truck. The specifications may be drafted so “tight” that everyone in the business knows what is being sought. It may limit the number of bids received and cause an issue with those who have final approval.

If you are in a situation that allows you to specify your manufacturer, good for you. If not, make sure your specifications are such that you will have choices.

Writing specifications for apparatus is an involved process that cannot be covered thoroughly here in this article. Perhaps in a future issue we can talk more specifically about preparing bids for vehicles.

You would be well served to include your purchasing personnel, and other interested parties, early in the process if you want to buy the apparatus that will best meet your needs.

Here are a few suggestions that might help you get what you want.

Don’t Get Frustrated

First, and perhaps foremost, don’t get frustrated with the process. Accept the fact that there are procedures and do your best to follow them. You may also want to educate fire department members so they know the process and do not get frustrated themselves. I have often heard questions as to why it takes so long, why do we have to purchase from that company, and so on. Inform your members about the procedures. They may not like them, but they’ll have a better understanding about how things work.

Next, know your procedures. If you don’t, not only will you not always get what you want, you may find yourself in trouble. Ignorance doesn’t always get you off the hook.

Building relationships with your purchasing department is always a good idea. I will not always be perfect in my purchasing practices, but a good relationship with the purchasing department allows for mistakes to be made from time to time while not affecting the purchasing process.

Ask The Experts

Furthermore, the purchasing department does this stuff all the time. They are the experts. They can help you follow proper protocol and help you get what you want at the best possible price. They can also make your job easier as more formal purchasing procedures are required because of spending limits.

The more experience you have in purchasing, the better you get at it. You also probably have instances where you have become frustrated, didn’t get what you wanted, or had unnecessary delays because someone else wanted you to play by the rules.

I have learned that some simple steps will make things run more smoothly. Even though I may think I am king, I still have to answer to others.

Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department, a position he’s held since 1984. He is 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 Senior Advisor to Director James Lee Witt of FEMA and Acting Chief Operating Officer of the United States Fire Administration for seven months as part of a loan program between the City of Farmington Hills and FEMA. He holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration, belongs to several fire service organizations, has taught extensively and been involved with the development of many courses.

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