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Ineffective Fire Apparatus Purchasing Committees

By Bill Adams

Commentaries about fire apparatus purchasing usually follow the same script. They address the nuts and bolts of the fire truck; the value of competitive bidding; the importance of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus; and what a great job was done by the truck committee [aka apparatus purchasing committee (APC)]. The latter can be debatable.

Not every APC deserves the obligatory accolades bestowed upon it by commentators. In some instances, a committee’s performance can be subpar. Note—I am saying in some instances, not in all instances. The words, actions, and participation—or lack thereof—of individual committee members can reflect poorly on the whole committee. Because of political correctness, such incidents are seldom reported by commentators and never acknowledged by purchasers. Because discussing the same might affect their livelihoods, sane and rational vendors will disavow knowledge of such occurrences. Sometimes the truth hurts.

Shrimp and Steak
During World II, there was the saying: “Loose lips sink ships.” Visualize the mayor, a concerned citizen, or a nonfirematic-orientated member of the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) overhearing purchasing committee members discussing an upcoming factory inspection trip. Any of the following comments could be detrimental to the good will, morale, and discipline of the fire department and could quickly sour relations between the fire department and the AHJ—the people who sign the check. “Bring your clubs with you because there’s a fantastic course near the factory. Every time we inspect a truck, we manage to play a couple rounds.” “Have them take you to that restaurant in such-and-such town.” Holding a thumb and forefinger about three inches apart, the comment was made “They’ve got a beef-on-weck that’s this thick.” “I hope we’re flying on such-and-such airline. The salesman belongs to their ‘frequent flyers’ club. He gets us free drinks in their lounge. And, if it’s not a direct flight, we might get drinks at two airports.” “I wonder if we’ll get golf shirts. When we bought the other guy’s rig, we only got cheap baseball caps.” “They took us to a lousy diner for supper instead of a fancy restaurant. I was looking forward to shrimp and steak.” “Wining and dining us ain’t costing them nothing; the city’s paying for it.” I bet the mayor liked that comment. You have to wonder if each committee member brought a set of work clothes, a tape measure, a flashlight, and a set of purchasing specifications to perform a thorough inspection. Do you think anyone actually crawled underneath their new truck and inspected it? Harsh statements, but true.

Tom, Dick, and Harry
Tom, Dick, and Harry are the most senior members of the fire department. All are past chiefs and currently serve as fire commissioners in this fictitious volunteer fire district. Because of the positions held and their length of service, they expect and even demand respect and can be gregarious to the point of being overbearing. They believe fire commissioners may not always be right but are never wrong. Tom, Dick, and Harry run the place. And, they buy the fire trucks.

Their district’s APC is the five-member Board of Fire Commissioners. Input might be solicited from the fire chief and the volunteer entity providing the district’s firefighters. However, final decisions and how to write purchasing specifications are the sole discretion of the board, which conducts a public bid opening and makes the final purchasing decision.

Tom owns and used to operate an automotive repair shop. His reputation is he can fix any car—but in reality, only those built domestically before the 1980s and before computers, composite bodies, and technology. When serving on the APCs, he is vehemently opposed to any apparatus body material except galvanneal steel. He doesn’t understand and will not consider a multiplex electrical system saying it would be too hard to repair. He’s not in favor of, but reluctantly agreed to using, non-metallic booster tanks. He says they can’t be welded locally and he heard they didn’t have a good track record. He rails about the same things every time a rig is purchased. It’s like his comments are prerecorded and played year after year.

Dick used to be the superintendent of the local department of public works. He is a double-clutcher at heart and would purchase a five-speed manual transmission with a two-speed split rear end if there was anyone in the fire department who could shift it. Everyone knows Dick will argue with every vendor about horsepower, motors, transmissions, and gross vehicle weight ratings (GVWR). It seems like he argues merely for the sake of arguing. Vendors dislike him. Most of the commissioners do too. They only tolerate him because his kid is the assistant fire chief.

Harry is a jack of all trades. A shrewd salesman by profession, he knows enough about everything to be dangerous. He’s like that description of a Swiss army knife—it can do lots of things, but it can’t do any one thing really well. He’s always looking out for himself. Being very articulate, he can influence the uneducated, uncaring, and indifferent. Harry usually gets his way with the purchasing committee—playing Tom and Dick and the rest of the board like a fine fiddle. He plays golf; likes steak, shrimp, and adult beverages; and prefers golf shirts over baseball caps. Rank and file firefighters gave him the moniker of “Roll Call.” He responds to just enough alarms to be called active but rarely makes a rig and hasn’t got dirty yet. He’s always smiling.

Most of the time, it is the APC that decides who a preferred manufacturer will be and will tailor purchasing specifications in that direction. It happens every day, although most people claim ignorance of the practice. If there’s an unfettered five-person purchasing committee, it’s possible three people like Tom, Dick, and Harry can purchase what they want and not necessarily what is in the best interests of the fire department. Unfettered is a key word for the next segment. It will not be as harsh or negative.

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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