Apparatus Purchasing: The Buck Stops with the Chief

Think of all the services provided by the modern fire service. Think of the fire chief’s job responsibilities. He has to find the time to understand what’s required to make sure the right things are being done in the department. The buck stops with the chief. A major responsibility of the fire chief is overseeing apparatus and equipment acquisition needed to deliver service. Fire, EMS, haz mat, and special rescue are all important functions of most fire departments, and all require specialized vehicles and equipment. Depending upon various factors such as organization size, budget and local politics, the fire chief has varying degrees of involvement in the budgeting, selection and purchase of apparatus and equipment.

Is it reasonable to expect the fire chief to be an expert and find the time to develop specifications for a pumper, ladder, quint, rescue, ambulance, tanker, tender or squad? This may be a rhetorical question, but there’s no doubt the chief will be judged on performance, functionality and appearance of apparatus by members of the department, community, policy makers and the general public.

Department members expect a reliable vehicle that provides a high level of operability in emergency environments and everyday use, requires minimal service and is safe. They want a good-looking truck that they can be proud of and motivated to maintain. They don’t want to think they are getting the bare minimum or “cheap” vehicle.

Policy makers and the community want vehicle functionality and performance. They desire a good-looking vehicle that instills pride not only in the fire department, but also in the community. They want to make sure that tax dollars are spent wisely, avoiding frivolous features in an apparatus that can cost as much as $1 million.

National Fire Protection Association standards and manufacturer requirements and limitations figure prominently when purchasing apparatus. Manufacturers will not build vehicles in such a way as to expose them to liability, regardless of requests.

It’s obvious the chief has a lot on his or her plate when it comes to purchasing apparatus. It has got to be a win-win situation: A win for the firefighters, a win for the community, a win for the chief and a win for the manufacturer.

The “External” Process

The fire chief has a duty to be responsive and accountable to the public and public officials. When it comes to apparatus, the boss and the public are interested in three things: outward appearance, functionality and cost. Most citizens and policy makers do not know the inner workings of a fire truck (nor should they), but they do recognize flash. I have built fire stations and people have asked if we were building a “Taj Mahal.”

Citizens and bosses all have opinions based on their perceptions. If it appears to them that the apparatus is excessive, expect hard questions to arise. If one purchases an apparatus that appears to the public as unnecessary, use of public funds will be scrutinized and, possibly, public credibility undermined.

Citizens and officials know their community, even if they do not understand the fire service. My community has a five-story limit on buildings. The public and policy makers wanted to know why the fire department bought a 110-foot aerial device. It was my job is to educate them as to why we needed it (setbacks, parking lots, green spaces, etc.) before we bought it.

The same goes for safety standards. It’s not obvious to the public why certain features are needed on an apparatus. It’s the chief’s job to educate them. For example, if one doesn’t comply with applicable laws and standards and manufacturer’s recommendations, the city will face serious legal consequences if something goes wrong in the field. The chief must anticipate concerns that will be expressed by public officials and citizens  and be ready with answers.

The fire chief is expected to purchase a vehicle that meets the needs of the department while staying within the budgeted amount. Managing the process within the fiscal cycle is critical. If the process drags, it’s the chief’s responsibility. If the purchase takes too long, one runs the risk of budget changes. Just because the money is budgeted for apparatus in one fiscal year doesn’t mean it will be next year. I learned this the hard way. A finance director once said to us, “Spend it while you have it!” He wasn’t kidding.

It’s the chief’s responsibility to stay on top of the apparatus purchasing process. Committees don’t remove the responsibility from the chief for safety, operability and fiduciary matters. If there is a mistake, my boss doesn’t go to my committee or my apparatus coordinator. The buck stops with me, the fire chief.

The “Internal” Process

The fire chief can’t do it alone. Help is needed and various resources are required to make the right purchase. Many departments have created apparatus committees to develop specifications. Others have apparatus coordinators assigned to handle this important task. This is necessary in most departments because purchasing apparatus is complicated and detailed. One should rely on the combined talents of department members, in the form of a committee or a similar formal system.

The apparatus purchasing team must be capable, organized, detailed-oriented and trusted to complete the task. The chief must give them clear direction as to the budget, expected functionality, limitations and timetables.

They must also understand that the chief has the right to ask questions and review the specifications. The chief needs to make this clear from the beginning. Questions regarding the specifications or other details of the purchase are not to be viewed as micromanaging, but rather as maintaining the chief’s involvement in the process. One can delegate the assignment but not the responsibility.

Great Resources

Department mechanics, apparatus coordinators and equipment operators usually are much more knowledgeable on apparatus specifics and details than the fire chief. They’re a great resource. Besides using or repairing the apparatus on a regular basis, they will have more time to do the research on performance issues.

I have also found that members do a better job when it’s “their” idea or concept. If they don’t agree with a particular aspect of the specification, future repairs could present a new challenge!

Fire department personnel want a nice-looking truck, but bells and whistles are just that. Function, ease of use, reliability and performance are critical.

One should underscore how important apparatus safety features are at the beginning of the process. The appropriate level of engineered safety design should be specified in the apparatus. Think of seat belts, for example. Everyone knows they need to be used. If they’re not easy to use, it will be difficult to get consistent use no matter how much discipline is administered.

Whatever the purchasing system, the fire chief is the last step and is expected to view the big picture. Everyone in the organization looks at things as to how they will affect their job, but everything is the fire chief’s job. The chief needs to manage the budget, influence the policy makers, and listen to the people’s needs.

Be wary of using a committee to design a horse and end up with a camel that costs too much! Even though chiefs may not have the technical knowledge that others in the organization have, they need to exhibit leadership in making sure the correct purchase is made.

These are some common issues for a fire chief to consider:

Be aware of special wheels, excessive gold leaf or other features that give the appearance of spending money on frivolous features.

What is the color? Does it matter to personnel or the policy makers?

Will it fit into the existing fire stations (or are there plans to build a big enough station)? Some fire chiefs have been embarrassed when the truck arrived and it didn’t fit through the door.

Policy makers and the boss may question the arrival of a large aerial device in a community with height limitations. Clear this up beforehand. Explain the need before it shows up or don’t buy something not needed because of “tradition.”

Wishes Not Met

Even though all wishes cannot be granted to personnel, don’t buy something that arrives to a negative work force. Use leadership skills to gain acceptance with whatever is purchased. If a new apparatus isn’t supported by the firefighters, use and longevity won’t be maximized and there will be internal issues.

In order to maintain oversight, the chief needs to have a base knowledge of apparatus. There are a few basic things that the chief must do:

Review NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus on a regular basis and when ready to specify a vehicle.

Read the professional journals.

Attend trade shows exhibiting the latest in apparatus design.

Take the committee, apparatus coordinator or whoever the department can afford to send to trade events to be educated and to get on the same page.

Network with other chiefs and chief officers, especially those with special knowledge of apparatus or those making similar purchases.

Build relationships with those that sell fire trucks. Know who to trust to give straight answers.

The Bottom Line

These are a few things to consider. Bottom line, purchasing safe and useful apparatus is about assigning the work to those who are capable and trustworthy. It’s about learning enough about apparatus to ask the right questions and it’s about understanding the politics and needs of the community.

Even with a busy schedule and a full in-box, a fire chief can be prepared to acquire the proper apparatus that is right for everyone.

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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