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10 Mistakes When Purchasing Apparatus and How to Avoid Them: Part 1

By Phil Gerace, Director of Sales and Marketing, KME

Today’s fire service is likely one of the best educated in the history of the nation and has relatively easy access to vast amounts of information about fire apparatus, suppliers, components, and regulations. Yet whether the department is a rural volunteer, a combination, a county, or a large municipal department, the fire apparatus acquisition process is likely one that challenges the staff because of its complexity. Decision makers are burdened with numerous elements beyond the simple task of deciding seating positions, pump and tank capacity, and body style. The challenge today is to consider all aspects of the process including budget constraints, operating costs, stability of suppliers, methods of acquisition, effects on personnel, life cycles, regulations (NFPA, DOT, and EPA), new technologies, training costs, as well as a wider selection of components than ever seen previously.

KME’s core sales management and marketing team has well over 200 years of fire service experience in fire apparatus design, sales, service and support. In addition, many team members have held or continue to hold leadership positions within fire departments from coast to coast. Over the last 29 years, KME has worked with federal, municipal, and industrial departments and delivered more than 10,000 vehicles. Through the years, we’ve observed common challenges and offer here some advice to consider when making an apparatus purchase. These are not unique to a single supplier or type of fire customer; they are commonly seen across the board. It is our hope that through this information, we can contribute to a more informed and better equipped fire service that is able to obtain the safest apparatus available.

Research Before the Acquisition Process Begins

Mistake: Placing a low priority on considering current apparatus needs and options or relying solely on past practices.

Recommendation: Before releasing a specification for purchase, it is recommended that the department “do its homework.” Items to consider include:

  • Who will assist in writing the specification—a potential vendor, consultant, department personnel, or a combination?
  • Will there be a multifunction apparatus committee or will the process be managed by a few select individuals?
  • What are the maintenance costs and challenges of the current apparatus, and are there repetitive failures of certain components in existing trucks?
  • Are there current apparatus features not used on the fireground, or are there features required currently not available?
  • What qualifications are required of potential suppliers?
  • What acquisition process will be used—RFP, RFB, tag-on, group purchasing, etc?
  • Will a “prebid” meeting be held to obtain feedback from potential bidders prior to a final specification being released by the fire department?
  • Are there timing constraints because of funding?
  • What is a realistic budget for the apparatus?

The process of buying a fire truck can be intimidating and complicated, so often the process goes on “auto-pilot” where what was done in the past is reissued for convenience. Given the challenge of designing apparatus for today’s and tomorrow’s needs, we recommend setting aside time to examine the entire process and understanding the bigger picture. Research up front can eliminate a whole host of problems including rebids, protests, and costly changes late in the process. Depending on the nature of the apparatus and the acquisition process, this research phase can generally take three to six months and should be considered in the overall timeline.

Understanding Purchase Options

Mistake: Relying solely on RFB’s for making acquisitions without looking at alternative options.

Recommendation: The line item purchase order cost of the apparatus is only one element for consideration in the total cost of the truck during its in-service life. Other considerations include staffing, cost of future replacements, maintenance, spare parts, training, as well as the administrative costs of acquisition. While it’s impossible to say what the average administrative costs total for a public bid, it’s safe to say that the costs are often substantial. The specification process usually takes technical personnel away from their duties for dozens, if not hundreds, of man hours. The bid must then receive both financial and legal staff review before someone posts it publicly. Man hours are then usually expended for prebid meetings or questions, addendum creation and distribution, and bid submission review. Different manufacturers respond using a variety of formats and verbiage, so comparing each bid is often quite time-consuming. Lastly the bid award and protest portion can also create unforeseen expenses.

Alternatives to RFB’s include:

  • Long-term purchase agreement.
  • Cooperative purchasing contract.
  • Add/tag-on to public bids.

All of the alternate strategies still include:

  • Assurance of competitive pricing and audit accountability.
  • Established pricing guidelines for future purchases.
  • Minimized administrative costs and product price increases.
  • Minimized training, service and parts inventory expense.
  • A provision for competitive bids at any time should you choose to do so.

A long-term purchase agreement (LTPA) usually begins with a request for bid (RFB) or request for proposal (RFP), and then the awarded vendor provides the department with a baseline for all future purchases under the contract. The LTPA then establishes how changes can be made to future specifications, how pricing will be handled and the necessary documentation for each purchase.

Cooperative purchasing contracts are group purchasing schedules with multiple manufacturers offering a wide range of products. Several states have such contracts as well as national programs like HGACBuy. These programs strive to make the governmental procurement process more efficient and often have been awarded by virtue of a public competitive procurement process compliant with state statutes.

Lastly, some vendors have large, multiple apparatus awards received from various fire departments nationwide that allow for “adding on” or “tagging on” to the purchase to benefit from the volume pricing and often permit some level of customization.

Translating Performance Expectations into Specifications

Mistake: Having specific requirements for top speed, speeds while on particular terrains within the protection area, and other important requirements that are not fully detailed in the specification.

Recommendation: Make sure the fire department’s apparatus team fully understands what’s required to be included in the purchase specifications to obtain the performance needed for the protection area.

For example, is there a particular required minimum speed necessary for a steep hill within the area? To obtain that speed, it may require specific horsepower and axle ratios. There’s often a big difference between what is acceptable on a transmission SCAAN report and what is acceptable when the truck goes up the local hill at 20 mph.

However, we’ve seen gaps between expectations and what the fire department has specified in all areas of the truck including overall height and length requirements, angles of approach and departure, and even lettering and striping. Another very important area that can be somewhat confusing is specifying pump performance.

NFPA 1901 and ISO rate pump performance in 250-gpm increments (1,000, 1,250, 1,500, etc.) at 150 psi. And, that may be important for the department, particularly if you are looking at overall ratings. However, in reality, it’s not about the nameplate performance of the truck, but how you actually want to use it. For example, if you expect the unit to be able to supply four 2½-inch handlines, then you need approximately 120 to 250 gpm per handline at 120 to 150 psi. If you want to be able to supply a master stream device, you may need 1,000 to 1,250 gpm at 100 to 120 psi. If you want to be able to supply water to another engine, you may need 1,000 to 1,500 gpm, but the pressure may only be 60 to 80 psi. As a general rule, as pressure goes down, flow goes up, so you may not need a full 1,500-gpm-rated pump to supply 1,500 at a lower pressure. Also, don’t forget that NFPA 1901’s ratings are from draft, so if you are going from a hydrant, your actual pressures will be higher at lower engine speeds.

In addition, if the truck is a wildland truck or a pure water supply unit, then the rated pressures may not be 150 psi. The rating points for NFPA 1906 are considerably different from 1901. It’s not uncommon to be asked for a 500-gpm pump on a brush truck, but it makes a huge difference if you want 500 gpm at 150 psi as compared to 500 gpm at 50 psi. So again, communicate your performance expectations clearly.

Lastly, it never hurts to ask for a demo. Nothing will give the department more confidence than getting to drive and pump a unit where the new unit will actually be used. Even if that particular demo doesn’t meet your requirements, don’t be upset. It can still be used as a benchmark for creating the specifications for the new unit.

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