By Bill Adams
Most fire apparatus purchasing articles recommend writing precise and understandable specifications that are both measurable and comparable. They advocate firefighter safety, emphasize meeting regulatory standards, and encourage competitive bidding. Technical specifications describing apparatus design and component parts are extremely important.
Concurrently, there are seldom considered subjective factors that should receive equal attention. They are intertwined together, difficult to describe, awkward to address, and challenging to resolve for both career and volunteer organizations. Included are the status quo, tactics and strategy, and the next generation. Addressing them can cause confrontation, rile personal emotions, bruise egos, and be mistakenly construed as a challenge to authority. Not broaching them may result in the long-term failure of an apparatus purchasing committee (APC). An APC should address them before putting pen to paper.
There is more to buying a fire truck than purchasing the brightest light bar in the universe, having the biggest motor known to the industrial world, owning the most expensive foam system in the western hemisphere, and displaying the ultimate lettering and graphics package. An apparatus purchase is an investment in the future.
Many APCs tend to specify a rig that comfortably fits into a fire department’s existing standard operating procedures (SOPs). It’s natural to do so. Some measure the success of a purchase as to how little additional training is required to operate the new rig. That may have merit. However, most SOPs are—or should be—continuingly updated to reflect changes within a department and its response area. If a new rig does not operationally fit into the SOP in five or 10 years down the road, the committee may have made a poor purchase.
One example could be that a department always purchased ten-person cabs for the casts of thousands that used to show up for every alarm. The committee may have not done an in-depth staffing study showing steadily declining staffing and cabs are never filled. What if five years after another large-capacity cab apparatus is purchased the department is lucky if it can get all its rigs on the road, let alone fill the cabs? Was it a smart purchase?
Tactics and Strategy
Traditionalists, old timers, and the naïve are likely to say, “Just buy something simple to put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” or, “What’s worked well in the past will work well in the future,” or, “Don’t try to fix something that’s not broke.” Progressives (forward thinkers—not the political type) look to the future. They’ll seek better ways to accomplish the job. They’ll ask what the physical dynamics of their response area could be in five, 10, or 15 years. They’ll anticipate future staffing, possible mutual assistance, and available mutual aid. The makeup of an APC should include both traditionalists and progressives. The new rig may be around for decades—the people might not.
Tomorrow’s firefighters may have to make ill-conceived apparatus purchases work. APCs should contemplate changes that future leadership may be considering—especially so in volunteer entities. As an example, if the current hierarchy is content with single three-inch supply lines, and the next five officers in line are clamoring for, and will switch to, large-diameter hose, then the purchasing committee should make provisions for the same. Anticipate change. Look at flexibility. Is it possible to specify adjustable crosslays to accommodate a two-tier wide hose load now and a single-stacked load the junior line officers want to use in the future?
The Next Generation
History has produced the greatest generation, generation X, and the millennials—all of whom contribute to making a well-rounded society. Unfortunately, many APCs consist mainly of fire departments’ oldest and most senior members. Some APCs can have the appearance of the early evening bingo at the local retirement home. I have respect and admiration for those “who’ve been there, done it, and have multiple T shirts to prove it.” Experience can’t be taken away. Wisdom is a valuable resource. But, remember that the APC is purchasing the new rig for tomorrow. It can’t be used on yesterday’s fires. An effective APC must anticipate the future.
Some committee members may cringe at the thought of changing a department’s running order or purchasing a different type of apparatus. Most active members can see the handwriting on the wall. The former chief who bought the only portable radio the fire department had for 10 years may reject having a portable and charger at every seating position. The oldest committee member may not understand why the APC will not just buy what it’s been buying for years—and from the same manufacturer. When discussing onboard foam systems, how valuable is the committee member’s input who says he thought foam was only found on an adult beverage? Newer APC members should strive to prevent a soon-to-be past chief or APC member from fulfilling a personal agenda with the new rig or making the purchase into his parting legacy. Good luck on that one.
Business texts define short-, medium-, and long-term planning and strategic planning. Read them. The fire service is a profession; it’s a business. Apparatus purchasers today should anticipate performing that business in the future. An apparatus replacement program is a necessity in projecting financial requirements. Common sense should prevail.
BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.