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Apparatus Purchasing: Consultants and Spec Writers

Bill Adams

When writing apparatus purchasing specifications, many fire departments procure the services of individuals or entities not affiliated with the fire department-outsiders. Except for those purchasing apparatus regularly, most departments don’t have personnel with the time or expertise to spec out today’s complex, expensive, and multiagency-regulated fire apparatus. Even in larger municipalities with career purchasing departments, the fire department is expected to, at a minimum, provide the technical verbiage for the “nuts and bolts”-all the parts, pieces, and accoutrements comprising a new rig. Seeking assistance is admirable; not doing so is questionable; and doing a poor job may be inexcusable. Good luck.

Historically, a preferred vendor always “helped” a purchaser write the specifications. Being the chosen one makes that vendor extremely happy for obvious reasons needing no further elaboration. Although the practice of vendors writing purchasing specifications is commonplace, most on the fire side do not or will not address the issue. Those who believe the subject, if not broached, will quietly go away are sadly mistaken. Documented indiscretions, irregularities, and conflicts of interest in the public bidding arena abound. Whether having a potential bidder write purchasing specifications for a political subdivision is legally, ethically, or politically correct is a matter left to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). It is not addressed herein.

A word of caution for fire departments: It may be immaterial whether a claim of wrongdoing is true or not. The mere seriousness of a charge made in the public arena may do irreparable damage to a fire department’s reputation. Tread lightly and carefully in the legal purchasing arena. Municipal fiscal uncertainty, political correctness in the media, and aggressive marketing because of declining apparatus sales have changed the marketplace.

Definitions

There are professional and degreed consultants who evaluate and prepare formal reports evaluating a community’s fire protection resources that may include recommending purchases, fire station location, staffing, training, and so on. We are not talking about them. My definition of a fire apparatus consultant is one who advises on, writes specifications for, and recommends component parts for a fire truck purchase. In this article, a consultant and a specification writer (spec writer) are synonymous. Both are outsiders.

My interpretation of a spec writer is someone knowledgeable enough on a subject to put it to pen and paper in a manner understandable to all potential bidders. Spec writers are not necessarily consultants; they can be just scribes. Proficiency in the mechanics of proper grammar and not brutalizing the King’s English notwithstanding, just who are these outsiders who write fire truck specifications? They’ve been called experts and consultants. A consultant can be an adviser, a mentor, and a counselor. An expert is considered someone who is proficient and knowledgeable. There are also pundits and commentators. A pundit can be a specialist or a guru. A commentator is a critic, an observer, and an analyst-it’s a reporter-someone who is not generally held accountable. Who do you want to write your specifications-an expert, a pundit, a consultant, or a maharishi?

The point is that there is no single definition of who is a competent and capable fire apparatus spec writer. There are no written qualifications. There is no formal test to pass to become one. Acceptable qualifications are in the eyes of the beholder. Purchasers must determine the expertise they desire in a spec writer. If you are going to pick someone to help you spend a half a million to a million bucks on a fire truck, choose wisely. Hopefully, this article will help.

Reality

In addition to qualifications, purchasers should be explicit in the level of expected spec writer participation. Are they to recommend component parts or just write a preliminary spec? Or, do they write both preliminary and purchasing specifications? How many revisions of each are included? How many meetings do you expect them to attend? Are postage, telephone calls, and travel expenses inclusive? Do they evaluate the bids? Do they recommend the purchase? What about preconstruction and inspection trips? Be precise in specifying the expectations you are willing to pay for. Be fair to the spec writers. You hire them for a specific task-you don’t own them for life.

I do not take sides, show preference, or make recommendations for using outsiders in writing fire apparatus specifications. The intent is to make purchasers aware of the “world of spec writers” and how they are perceived by themselves, fire apparatus manufacturers, and vendors. Purchasers, note: In the real world, manufacturers expect their dealers to “write the specs” for their product for the customer. That’s life-live with it.

Purchasers who seek an outsider to write specifications are putting another layer between buyer and seller. That layer may isolate or insulate the end user from the manufacturer. Whether that is in the fire departments’ best interest is the department’s decision.

Input was solicited from dozens of apparatus manufacturers, dealers, and independent spec writers and consultants. Those responding on the record are quoted herein. Rather than interpreting respondents’ answers and rearticulating them into a story format, their verbatim answers to specific questions follow. In reality, it’s their story.

Is there a value in using an independent spec writer?

Ken Wegner and Greg Stone of East West Fire Apparatus Consultants: “A (qualified) consultant can bring his experience to the table and advise the department throughout the purchasing process. The traditional method of asking a sales representative to prepare specifications will not allow for a truly open bidding process.”

Bill Woods, eastern region manager for SVI Trucks: “If a consultant is truly independent and knowledgeable in many manufacturers’ features, functions, and value, then yes, he could provide a benefit. Few departments or communities have the expertise or resources to do the research when purchasing a new apparatus. They must then rely on salesmen to provide honest, unbiased, reliable information or an independent consultant.”

Alan Saulsbury, president of Fire Apparatus and Equipment Consultants: “Yes-for sure. A neutral party can write an open spec for most all potential bidders.”

Jim Kirvida, president of CustomFIRE Apparatus: “Perhaps.”

Phil Gerace, director of sales and marketing for KME Fire Apparatus: “When the resources are currently not on staff at the fire department, this may be one of several good options.”

Don Rhodes, sales manager for Sun Belt Fire Apparatus, an E-ONE dealer: “Use of an independent spec writer is something that can be beneficial to a customer in a request for proposal (RFP) situation. I see little reason in a competitive bid situation to have an independent consultant involved.”

Bob Milnes, president of Fire-Fighting Innovations, a Rosenbauer dealer: “Yes, there is value in a purchaser securing the services of an independent consultant, especially when an open specification is desired and multiple proposals are expected.”

Bill Peters, recently retired from WC Peters Fire Apparatus Consulting Service: “I doubt many ‘truck committee guys’ have the skills necessary to turn their ideas or a manufacturer’s sample specification into a competitive bidding document.”

Jeff Wegner, regional sales manager for Smeal Fire Apparatus: “It’s not the fault of the fire departments that they may not be apparatus purchasing experts; they are supposed to be firefighting experts.”

Are there negative consequences to using outside spec writers?

Kirvida: “Only if the spec writer is not qualified or has a ‘beef’ with a prospective but qualified bidder.”

Allan Smith, apparatus sales manager for Colden Enterprises, a Spartan ERV dealer: “Only if the consultant has a hidden agenda.”

Wood: “I have seen many who have limited knowledge of apparatus manufacturers, so only focus on what’s available from those they know.”

Stone: “Occasionally, we are perceived by the troops as enemies because we have been retained by the AHJ to assist with the purchase of the vehicle.”

Tom Shand and Mike Wilbur of Emergency Vehicle Response, a specification and consulting firm: “Depending on the fire department’s administrative makeup and the technical experience of the personnel on the apparatus committee, there can be negative feelings toward anyone from outside the organization, particularly if the department’s past purchasing practices have been to work with a single apparatus manufacturer to develop the bid specifications using solely that vendor’s design and written materials.”

Gerace: “Different independent spec writers have varying degrees of experience with apparatus brands. Fire departments must choose carefully because, like all businesses, there is a wide range of skill and knowledge available to the market.”

Are spec writers biased toward a manufacturer or style of apparatus?

Wegner: “We have worked with many that are real good at what they do and are unbiased. If the consultant is tied to or has a specific relationship with a certain manufacturer, there can be negative consequences. You need to check with references to see if the consultants are only working with one particular brand.”

Peters: “A good consultant should be asking the truck committee what they want to accomplish-not proposing a certain brand to make it happen.”

Gerace: “Sometimes, although often it’s not necessarily a bias but more of a limited experience to a single or few manufacturers.”

Kirvida: “Not necessarily to a manufacturer but more so to a particular type of apparatus.”

Saulsbury: “Yes, normally everyone likes ‘their fire truck’ the best. It’s hard to break this habit. Finding the truly neutral spec writer is difficult.”

Woods: “Aren’t we all? Everyone has their favorites for whatever reason. If an unbiased specification is desired, a consultant that brings the broadest manufacturing knowledge to the table is best. All emergency apparatus are not created equal. Are they going to listen to your needs and desires or provide a specification and advice toward what they like?”

Stone: “It would not be advisable to hire a spec writer that is biased toward a manufacturer. A spec writer should not enter into the process of dictating what he thinks a department needs.”

Should spec writers be used only when an open spec is desired?

Smith: “Not necessarily. If the project exceeds the purchaser’s knowledge base such as a heavy rescue or command vehicle with state-of-the-art electronics, an experienced consultant could provide valuable guidance for the project.”

Shand: “Not necessarily. Many departments falsely believe that if they use a manufacturer’s specification they will receive everything exactly the way that they wish. Every builder of fire apparatus uses a software-driven specification that may or may not fully encompass all of the important aspects of the apparatus in the eyes of the customer. In addition, the front sheets or ‘boilerplate’ verbiage as presented in the manufacturer’s version of the specification is written to be strictly in favor of the manufacturer, as one might expect.”

Kirvida: “When a purchaser has the intent to single out a particular manufacturer, it is a waste of tax money to pass the free manufacturer’s recommended detailed specifications through a spec writer, only to add a fee.”

Wegner: “Not particularly, but without it being an open spec, how can you expect the third-party consultant to have an unbiased opinion?”

Stone: “No, even if a department wants to purchase using a specification that is written toward or by a particular manufacturer, the consultant can still advise on component selection and layout as well as assist with the numerous questions that arise during the manufacturing process.”

Saulsbury: “They should be used for every apparatus purchase.”

Should spec writers be insured?

Shand: “Any consultant should have minimum liability as well as errors and omissions coverage.”

Peters: “Carrying liability insurance is very important. It separates a ‘wannabe’ from the real consultant.”

Gerace: “Such requirements may be useful, but it’s unclear what percentage of consultants have such capabilities.”

Kirvida: “Yes they should be. Why? The apparatus manufacturer is required to be so and is expected to provide similar services at no charge. I believe such qualifications would add tangible credibility to the spec writer’s organization.”

Stone: “We do have liability insurance, as anybody in any business would have.”

Milnes: “In this day and age, I think they should be insured. Once they put together an apparatus specification, they will own some of the liability.”

Saulsbury: “It’s not necessary. Spec writing is strictly a service. It is not a product.”

Rhodes: “I do not see any value in this.”

Smith: “Don’t see the need. The AHJ is responsible for contents and results.”

My take on insurance is that an outside spec writer is wedged in between the manufacturer and the purchaser. If the new rig does not fit in the barn; it’s too heavy to go over the bridge at the end of town; it doesn’t meet some regulatory standard; or is involved in litigation because of something that was, or was not, in the specifications, everyone may be sued. It may not matter if the spec writer consulted, recommended, wrote, evaluated, or failed to opine. Ask the AHJ if requiring a spec writer to be insured will protect the fire department.

What should the qualifications for a spec writer be, and how do you determine them?

Gerace: “Direct experience in the specification, acquisition, and/or maintenance of apparatus. A background that includes interaction with several different suppliers rather than a sole source account is also helpful. Also, an understanding of federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS), Department of Transportation (DOT), and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards is important. Obtain references from both end users and apparatus suppliers.”

Kirvida: “I would hope for a ‘recent’ strong background in heavy vehicle manufacturing, not necessarily fire trucks. Also, a past fire apparatus fleet manager would most likely be a good candidate, especially if his fleet consisted of more than one brand of manufacturer.”

Saulsbury: “Years of experience in spec writing, references from good fire departments as an on-staff spec writer, and a college degree in fire protection. Most of this work is by experts in the field, not local fire chiefs from another fire department.”

Stone: “I think the department needs to do its homework here. If I was looking for a consultant, I would ask the prospective consultant to provide a resumé that describes his experience, along with references from previous clients. I would also ask him to include in that resumé any reference to seminars or conferences that he attends to keep himself current on the most recent innovations and improvements that are brought to the industry.

Wood: “Purchasers should be as particular about choosing a consultant as they are the apparatus. The consultant is actually the first item purchased toward a new vehicle. What is his background-multiple references (not just a couple handpicked ones)? How broad is his knowledge of manufacturers? How many apparatus factories has he visited? Have vehicles purchased by previous clients been predominantly one or two manufacturers? Does he have technical writing training?”

Shand: “A fire department or municipality should request the resumés of the personnel who will be working with the apparatus committee as well as references from communities where the consultants have performed a similar scope of work. Additionally, fire service experience and varied experience levels may be attributes that allow consultants to provide a wide scope of services to the fire department-not simply act as ‘secretaries’ to write a specification.”

Peters: “The first things I would look at are the references of all consulting jobs. Invite the potential clients to call as many people as they want-randomly. The consultant shouldn’t be afraid to let the clients pick who to call.”

Wegner: “Ask for a reference from all departments they have worked with, not just a short list of their preferred customers. Do your homework, and call a dozen or so references on the list.”

Milnes: “They should have a solid background in apparatus and have spent time in operations so they have a feel for how apparatus should be used.”

Rhodes: “The main qualification for a spec writer would be a thorough knowledge of all manufacturers’ products and features available. And, they would need to know why the features are provided.”

Smith: “There are no recognized standards or requirements for someone to be a consultant. Experience in the apparatus field is foremost. Secondary would be experience with purchasing apparatus they are consulting on. [Also] the ability to show competency in the field, including proof of educational opportunities such as conferences and seminars to keep up with technology in the field.”

Relatively New Concept

Shand comments that formal apparatus specification writing by outsiders is relatively new. Fire Apparatus and Equipment Consultants started in 2003, as did East West Fire Apparatus Consultants. Emergency Response Vehicles started in 1995. WC Peters was formed in 1992. “Bill Peters brought specification writing and consulting to a new level with his book Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook,” says Shand. The title is self-explanatory, and it’s worth reading if you are going to buy a fire truck.

Two comments about outsiders writing specifications are worth pointing out. Shand notes, “A spec writer should not be a referee for the purchasing committee.” And Gerace says, “There’s always room in the fire service for knowledgeable individuals who want to contribute to the safety and reliability of the apparatus we use.”

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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