By Bill Adams
The first segment about ineffective apparatus purchasing committees (APCs) described one fictional fire district as an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) that served as its own purchasing committee. The article ended with the comment that an unfettered APC could possibly specify a rig that might not be in the best interests of the fire department. In the examples below, the AHJ does not act as its own purchasing committee—tasking the APC to develop the purchasing specification.
Disclaimer: An unfettered purchasing committee is not necessarily dishonest or untrustworthy. Its actions or inactions could be the consequence of a lack of oversight by the AHJ. It is irrelevant if this fictional AHJ oversees a volunteer entity or a combination department or is the governmental agency overseeing a large career department.
An absence of supervision could be the result of indifference by an AHJ: “Look, we’re busy with the new building committee and personnel issues. Just spec what we need and tell us how much it’s going to cost.” A politically attuned AHJ might not be firematically orientated, caring more about the electoral process with constituents, keeping all department heads content and maintaining a fiscally sound municipal budget: “Keep the new rig under budget; don’t make waves and keep our name out of the newspaper.” A large career entity may have an administrative staff whose responsibilities could include specifying apparatus. While some hierarchies in the fire service keep a tight rein on apparatus purchasing, others might entrust staff with the entire project. “You know what we need. Coordinate with fleet maintenance and some of the troops on the line and come up with a good spec.”
All these AHJ’s could be accused of inadvertently saying, “Here’s a million bucks. Go buy us a fire truck.” Salespeople will foam at the mouth and trip all over each other to become the committee’s best friend.
The preceding examples are not an accusation of how every AHJ charges a purchasing committee with its task—but it could be for some. I suggest that the vast majority of APCs do a good job, and many do excellent jobs. Getting back to unfettered, some definitions of unfettered include being autonomous and unrestricted. Autonomous means self-governing and self-directed. Unrestricted means free and unhampered. The hierarchy in most fire departments encourages the up-and-coming within the ranks to be aggressive (but not dangerously so), to think for themselves, and to become educated not only in fireground operations but in administrative responsibilities. They’re expected to look ahead and to anticipate. It is no different than participating in formulating a preplan for the “big one on Main Street.”
Responsible fire department hierarchy rides herd on, helps, cajoles, and guides the up-and-coming in the department. When the hierarchy acts as the intermediary for the AHJ, it should do the same with an apparatus purchasing committee. A purchasing committee can be inadvertently destined to fail by the lack direction it was given and by the lack of supervision exercised over it by the higher ups. Sad, but true. A few examples:
- The city administration’s long-term plans are to continue annexing unincorporated areas with limited domestic and static water supplies. Fire stations will be few and far between, hence long run times are anticipated for the second-due companies. The fire department traditionally assigns new rigs to busy downtown companies for a couple of years and then rotates them to outlying less busy stations. Should the APC been given direction to start specifying apparatus with large booster tanks in anticipation of relocating later?
- The maintenance shop foreman, line officers, firefighters, and apparatus operators dislike and do not want apparatus built by the ABC Apparatus Company. They may have justifiable reasoning. However, the administrative staff officer chairing the APC still wrote specifications favoring that company because “that’s what we always buy.” Off the record, he also knows the chief really likes the people at the ABC Company. Can’t rock the boat.
- The fictitious APC for the fire district was told to replace the ladder truck. It did, and the district ended up with a rig so large and intimidating, half the volunteer drivers said, “No thanks. I’ll just drive the pumpers.” After it was delivered, the hierarchy said “Gee, we didn’t have any idea it would be that big.” Too bad it only fits into one of the district’s four stations. The media will love that story.
There may be hidden dynamics an AHJ or the fire department hierarchy should be aware of. They are the unspoken “we really don’t want to admit” and hard-to-prove factors that could affect an APC’s performance. Some APC members have a predetermined preference for certain manufacturers. Some fail to accomplish basic research regarding the expected mission of the new rig. Some care little about budgetary constraints. In larger departments, personnel may be put in charge of logistics, a position they might not be comfortable in. Some may have no experience or background in putting together specs for apparatus. Some might look for the easy way out. Some may worry more about low bid rather than getting the best apparatus for the mission. Some may see a benefit in purchasing a rig that makes them look good to the boss rather than purchasing the best rig needed to accomplish the mission. Supervision is important.
Who Educates the Truck Committee?
How many AHJs inform an APC of the fire department’s short- and long-term apparatus replacement schedules, possible changes in the response area demographics, anticipated consolidations and future mergers, anticipated company closings, possible effects of changes in firematic administrations, and changes in political environments? Does it matter? The AHJ has a responsibility to oversee, supervise, and advise the purchasing committee during the entire specification writing process. More importantly, it has an obligation to instruct it beforehand and establish well defined ground rules.
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.