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Politics and Purchasing Fire Trucks

By Bill Adams

When making presentations on the subject of competitive bidding for fire apparatus, pundits and commentators predominantly expound upon the specification writing process itself. Diplomatically correct presenters emphasize adherence to, and dutifully list, applicable governmental rules and regulations regarding public bidding. Technocrats heap praise on required, suggested, and recommended compliance standards. Safety gurus will quote verbatim every section dealing with firefighter welfare that their editors allow. Don’t be harsh on presenters who interject personal agendas into commentaries. Favoritism is a small price to pay for education. 

In apparatus purchasing, politics is seldom, if ever, addressed. Everyone knows it exists, but no one wants to admit it or talk about it. Similar to race and religion, politics is a topic most fire officials would rather not see openly discussed in the fire station. However, ignoring the topic may detrimentally affect an apparatus purchase. Apparatus purchasing committees (APCs) can generate a well-written set of technical specifications for the perfect fire truck and ultimately see the entire process go south because of ignoring the political winds. I use politics in a generic sense—not necessarily reflective of established political parties. Fire districts with elected commissioners and volunteer fire companies with elected officers can be as political as any town, village, or city government. In this piece, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) is synonymous with elected officials and politicians (politicos)—whoever makes the final purchasing decision.

An APC is sorely mistaken if it believes the AHJ always has its back—especially when the AHJ is a governmental entity. When fire departments compete with police and highway departments, the library, senior citizens, and welfare recipients for tax monies, it is advisable to begin working with the politicos long before a bid opening. Inadvertently or unintentionally ignoring elected officials can result in apparatus being purchased that does not meet a fire department’s needs and requirements or in no apparatus being purchased at all. Remember who signs the check. Dealing with politicians is challenging but doable. Not doing so is tantamount to providing the ammunition so the APC can shoot itself in the foot. Tread lightly.

When it is time to purchase apparatus, invite AHJ members to functions or coffee at the firehouse. Don’t talk in firehouse speak; speak their language. Most people who aspire to be elected or reelected to a position choose their words very carefully. APCs should do the same. Get them on your side. Never say the fire department wants a new rig. Refrain from saying it needs one. Some politicos don’t really care what you want or need despite them wanting your vote. Consider saying a piece of equipment is necessary or it is required or it is crucial to accomplish specific tasks. Don’t emphasize making the firefighters’ jobs easier. Promote saving citizens’ lives; preventing taxpayers’ property losses, and protecting our community. They’ll eat that stuff right up. When replacing an obsolete rig, say a replacement rig is essential. Explaining an older rig is no longer reliable or safe will garner more support than just saying you want a new one.

Don’t inadvertently embarrass politicos (or the media for that matter) when demonstrating how the fire department operates or why a new rig is required. Stories abound where departments had some diminutive or wimpy city council member pack-up and go through a hot training scenario. It may not be a good idea to scare them in public, make them sweat profusely in front of TV cameras, or smell like a goat herder when they return to city hall. Consider walking them through a burned out building; display pictures of burn victims or exhausted firefighters after a worker. Have them access and egress a chassis cab or climb to the top of an older rig with non-compliant steps. Showing them photos of accidents that occurred throughout the country involving older, unreliable fire apparatus might resonate more than giving them a premature case of claustrophobia or acrophobia. Be careful not to overload them with too many statistics and overly technical reports they may not understand or have the time to read. 

Working closely with the politicos may soften requests for hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending. Make them aware that up-to-date, safe, and reliable apparatus not only protects the community but could also help alleviate possible accountability and liability for not providing the same. But be careful using terms such as responsibility, accountability, negligence and liability. They can cause angst among politicos. Be helpful—not threatening. They should appreciate your concern for their wellbeing and the fire department’s.

Describing the fire department’s intent and objectives before writing purchasing specifications may curry favor with politicos. Explain that you want all bidders to have an equal opportunity to provide pricing. They’ll appreciate the fire department wanting to be fair and equitable. They’ll like to hear that you want the best value for the taxpayers’ monies expended. Knowing the fire department is putting the best interests of the AHJ first when writing specifications may influence their acceptance of the technical portions of your document. It isn’t illegal to play on emotions—just be honest.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board, 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.

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