Many departments establish apparatus committees to draft specifications for new vehicles, determine replacement schedules, and recommend ongoing maintenance.
This is a good approach that gets buy-in from the organization and mostly delivers better end products. But, and there is always a “but,” establishing and managing the committee can be counterproductive if it does not follow proper diligence. A committee working as intended will produce the best possible results. On the other hand, remember the old adage that a “camel is a horse designed by committee.”
How big a committee is necessary? That depends. What is the size of the organization, and are there any political considerations? A committee with three to seven members is probably best, provided that members represent those with a vested interest. While an odd number is recommended to break any ties, a better approach is to reach consensus so everyone is satisfied and you don’t develop bad feelings. There should be representation from firefighters, company officers, drivers and operators, command staff, and someone who works on the vehicles. Each of these people brings a different perspective based on their job responsibilities. This number is not set in stone and can vary. The important concept is to get input and feedback from various stakeholders. Conversely, inviting everyone who is interested is probably not the best approach. Organizations with good labor management will want to include a union representative. This could be one of the members mentioned above or an additional person.
There needs to be a committee chair. This doesn’t necessarily need to be the most senior-ranking person. It needs to be someone with a passion and an ability to manage the committee. He needs facilitation skills to elicit the necessary information and to make sure there is participation from all committee members. Detailed knowledge of apparatus nuts and bolts is not necessary, but there must be a general understanding so that the big picture remains in focus throughout the process. The chair needs support from the fire chief, department leadership, and even the administration above the fire chief. This could be the mayor’s office, the city manager, or the fire board.
The committee needs a balanced perspective, and it must establish a set of rules regarding its operation. There needs to be some general direction given to the committee to create the parameters, including budget constraints and any political issues that could affect final decisions. For example, there could be a local policy regarding where the vehicle is manufactured, giving preference to companies within the same state. As much predetermined information as possible must be provided so that the committee knows its boundaries and doesn’t develop concepts it cannot support. The committee needs a target; changing the target or moving it after the committee has done a bulk of its work will demoralize the group and will hinder future production.
Clearly define the committee’s role. Is it expected to provide general specifications for new apparatus or will it have an expanded role? Committees can be used for a “cradle-to-grave” approach. This includes not only acquiring apparatus but maintaining it and establishing a replacement schedule. Again, establishing parameters for the committee in all areas is very important. Some people accept appointments only to find out later that they don’t get their way on every issue. This leads to frustration and worse. Clearly identify what can and cannot be done and the expected recommendations. Also explain to all committee members the desire to reach consensus and that not everyone will get their way on every issue. When looking for members who are interested, it is important to let them know what they will be asked to do and their overall responsibilities.
Once the organization provides general guidelines, the committee needs to establish its own rules for operation. These should include some basic good practices for any committee such as allowing all members to participate and contribute equally, respecting differing opinions, and methods to resolve differences. Everyone will bring their own biases. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but everyone must understand that it will occur. The chair and committee should address this openly and honestly. Participants need to have some thick skin and not let their feelings get hurt too easily. This is important not only during the committee work but when a vehicle is placed in operation. There can be some “Monday morning quarterbacking” from the peanut gallery once a vehicle is delivered!
The department’s administration needs to provide the committee support through resource allocation and other services. Items such as the applicable National Fire Protection Association standards and access to other research materials are to be provided, and they must be used. The administration must provide financial support. This is probably minimal but could include overtime and office supplies. The committee may also benefit from a scribe or secretary. This allows for taking notes and minutes that can be shared with others not participating or in cases where a committee member is unable to attend a session. This also allows the participants to focus on the content of the meeting without worrying about taking notes.
Another consideration for committee members is attending vendor shows, like FDIC International, to get as much information as possible. These shows offer opportunities for attendees to gain insight from various manufacturers and vendors at one location. There are also other events to consider. The Fire Department Safety Officers Association has conducted an Apparatus Symposium for 27 years. This is a great opportunity to get more specific information from vendors and manufacturers as well as network with others responsible for purchasing and maintaining apparatus. There are other national shows as well as state and local opportunities.
Even with an established apparatus committee, many organizations can benefit from retaining a consultant to help provide guidance. Departments often have their favorite vehicle manufacturer and start to develop specifications from there. While this is not always a bad thing and some internal or external politics could come into play, a truly unbiased approach is to start with a clean slate. Unfortunately, many departments do not purchase many vehicles, so their actual experience is limited. While some may be able to do extensive research on their own, it may be helpful to consult with someone who more frequently is involved in purchasing apparatus. As someone once explained it to me, you probably wouldn’t build a house without an architect. Why would you buy a piece of equipment that can cost in excess of half a million dollars without asking for professional help? But, do not rely solely on the consultant to do your work. The committee still has the final responsibility and say on the recommendations.
The committee may also need access to other experts. If a department acquires equipment along with the vehicle, it may call in other department members with specific knowledge. There may be members of the organization who do not wish to be part of an apparatus committee but have special interest in equipment such as for extrication, lighting, and others who can help make a significant contribution to the overall project. Those who do participate in this manner should know their roles and understand the established parameters. Remember: The objective is to get the best product in total that will be embraced by the department.
Apparatus committees offer a viable means to establish criteria for acquiring and maintaining fire department fleets. Initially there is great excitement and many offers to help. Often in the end, you are left with those who are truly passionate about the process. This is because there is a lot of work involved in the committee process. As we all know, not everyone is willing to commit the time to be successful in whatever they choose. Only those who understand the means to the end will ultimately be part of a committee until the project is complete. If managed properly, the apparatus committee can produce a better product and process that will benefit the entire organization and the citizens you serve.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. 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 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.