By Bill Adams
Imagine being a new fire truck vendor. If you called on a fire chief in the market for a new rig and he said, “Stay home; I don’t want your fire truck,” how would you react? When leaving an apparatus purchasing committee meeting, if the chairman said, “We are going to write your company right out of our specifications,” what would you say? Imagine picking up a set of purchasing specifications at city hall and reading, “The City will only consider a bid from the ABC Fire Truck Company for one ABC fire truck.”
In a regulated (legal) bidding environment, if the media caught wind of such bidding irregularities, all hell would break loose. Taxpayer advocacy groups and concerned citizens who gripe about anything and everything would be up in arms. The politically correct, who have nothing better to do with their lives, would march on city hall. Television cameras and news reporters would camp on the fire chief’s and mayor’s doorsteps.
Why would people get upset over business as usual? Probably because they never realized it happened in the past and is happening now. It no doubt will occur again in the future. The three aforementioned statements are never directly verbalized or written. However, they can be subtly inferred to and legally—although questionably—justified every time when the words “No Exceptions” are written into a set of purchasing specifications. Proving those inferred statements is a difficult matter. Most purchasers will claim to be oblivious to the inferences. Nonpreferred vendors will grumble, and preferred vendors will claim ignorance.
A local fire apparatus salesman was once quoted, “If your spec has more than three or four ‘No Exceptions,’ it’s probably not going to be very open. When I get bid specs, that is the first thing I look for. If there is an excessive amount of ‘No Exceptions,’ I’m not going to waste my time or money bidding.”
Justifying No Exceptions
It is undeniable that purchasers may be completely justified in disallowing exceptions to certain technical requirements in their purchasing specifications. As an example, if a fire department has documented unfavorable experiences with certain components or accoutrements, they are justified in writing them out of their purchasing specifications. They could include, but are not limited to, paint falling off a certain metal, premature body deterioration, poor performance, a lack of warranty support, and unavailability of repair parts.
Mandating no exceptions may also be justified for certain requirements in a specification’s boiler plate. Justifying doing so may be a difficult task. Many purchasers believe that because they’re “signing the check” they have an undeniable right to specify “whatever they want”—regardless of regulated bidding protocol. There is an imaginary and almost undefinable line between eliminating poor performing product and eliminating nonpreferred manufacturers.
Standardization is probably the easiest “sell” for fire departments to justify “no exceptions” in purchasing specifications. Maintaining smaller parts inventories, simplified training for repair personnel, increasing efficiency of the work performed by mechanics, less firefighter training required, and more firefighter efficiency on the fireground are terms vote-conscious politicians understand. Purchasers would be wise addressing standardization with politicos and getting their acquiescence prior to writing specifications. Having them on your side could be a plus if a dollar value must be placed on those selling features after a bid opening.
Apparatus OEMs, dealers, and salespeople are between a rock and a hard place. They all want prospective purchasers to favor their apparatus in their purchasing specifications. Realistically they wouldn’t complain when a purchaser specifies “no exceptions” when describing a feature favoring their product. They could be accused of being hypocritical trying to justify complaining when their product is not favored. A couple of apparatus manufacturers addressed the topic objectively. Phil Gerace, director of sales and marketing, KME, said, “ ‘No Exception’ is a powerful tool for fire departments and should be used with forethought and understanding of the consequences. If the proper research has been done and the department has decided that nothing else is acceptable, then it’s appropriate. However, sometimes ‘no exception’ is added by a supplier to limit competition and that may not always yield the best results for the buyer.”
Alan Hollister, northeast region director, E-ONE, said, “Regarding the use of the statement ‘No Exceptions,’ I feel it is certainly overused, and often times the fire department may not really know why they are taking a ‘no exception.’ It may limit bid responses, which I suppose is a positive, if that is the fire department’s intent. However, it also limits exposure to alternative methods of solving a problem or providing something that is actually better. In some cases, the fire department knows what works for it and has probably explored other alternatives, finding nothing else that is acceptable. In this case, it may be prudent to say ‘no exception.’ If I were to give advice to the fire department’s spec writer, I would encourage him to use the ‘no exception’ statement sparingly and only where he can absolutely justify using it based on past experiences or what [the department] feels, from its research, is absolutely the right thing it needs.”
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.