By Bill Adams
Apparatus purchasing should be a two-way street between purchasers and prospective vendors. A degree of mutual trust and professionalism should be demonstrated between them, especially during initial meetings. It doesn’t always happen. The time expended by apparatus purchasing committee (APC) members and apparatus vendors is irreplaceable. Both have left unproductive meetings bemoaning the lack of productivity and honesty saying, “Well, I’ll never get those two hours back.” Although both parties can be faulted, assigning blame is not the intent of this dissertation. It focuses around what could cause negative interaction between some APCs and those vendors sometimes referred to as “cherry pickers.” There is no written description for cherry pickers. Most purchasers are unaware of them. Some vendors don’t even realize they might be one.
Cherry pickers are fire truck vendors who pick and choose both the apparatus they want to sell and the prospective customers with whom they want to interact. They want to expend their time wisely and fruitfully. There is nothing wrong, immoral, or illegal about doing so. They will not abuse a committee’s time or attempt to force an unwanted rig on them. Vendors also don’t want a committee wasting the vendor’s time, thus the expectation for a two-way street. Cherry pickers are professional. They justifiably become upset when a purchasing committee “strings them along” or “cops an attitude” or displays open hostility during a meeting. When that occurs, most cherry pickers will finish the meeting, pack their bags, express appreciation to the committee for the opportunity to meet, and politely excuse themselves—never to be heard from or seen again. They are very perceptive in reading the handwriting on the wall—especially when they are being deceived.
It is not unheard of for APCs to reluctantly request meetings with multiple vendors merely to satisfy a requirement by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) that more than one manufacturer be evaluated. Requesting such meetings is deceitful when the APC already knows whose rig it wants and is going to write purchasing specifications around it. That’s life. It happens all the time and most vendors grudgingly live with it. Occasionally an APC will unjustifiably challenge and belittle a nonfavored vendor in a meeting—almost to the point of being condescending. APC members might not want to be there and know they’re not going to purchase the vendor’s rig—so maybe they want to have some fun by verbally harassing the vendor. That could be a mistake. Not all cherry pickers are passive. Some may discreetly express their disillusionment with an arrogant and offensive APC by firing right back and challenging its members. The cherry picker also knows it is a loss sale, so payback might ride on that same two-way street:
- “You said you’re standardizing on the model ABC fire pump although you currently don’t own one. Please enlighten me as to why you picked the ABC pump so I can help other departments in choosing a pump in the future.”
- “I noticed you want model DEF discharge valves. Every rig you own has model GHI valves. Have you had many problems with GHI valves, or did you pick them because they’re the ones your preferred vendor uses?”
- “You say the apparatus body must be a particular gauge of a certain type of metal and you will not consider exceptions to the requirement. Curiously, none of your current rigs are constructed of that specified gauge and type metal. I looked them over pretty closely, and there’s no obvious structural, corrosion, or paint adherence issues. Not for nothing, is there a reason you are rejecting what you are currently using?”
- “Your maintenance officer said every pumper in your fleet has experienced problems with the model JKL primer you are specifying on the new rig. Am I missing something?”
- “You have me confused. Your purchasing spec specifies a model MNO pressure controller on the fire pump because of ‘it’s proven reliability and performance in the field.’ That verbiage is directly off MNO’s spec sheet. By the way, isn’t that the brand your preferred vendor promotes? To the best of my knowledge you’ve had zero issues with the model PQR pressure controllers that are on all your existing apparatus. What are the problems you are experiencing so I can forewarn other purchasers?”
- “Your booster tank specifications are very detailed. Someone did an excellent job copying them verbatim from the tank manufacturer’s Web site. Unfortunately, you forgot to put the tank capacity in the specs. If you really want water in it, how much do you want to carry?”
- “The model STU generator you want isn’t made any longer. Your specs say there will be no exceptions allowed for the STU generator. Should I look around for a used one?”
- “Your compartment dimensions are very precise—right down to the one hundredth decimal point. I know, and the rest of the vendors in the world know, they are the exact dimensions from the VWX Fire Apparatus Company. Isn’t that the same manufacturer whose logo is on the ball caps and shirts half your people are wearing? If that’s the rig you’re going to purchase, why are you wasting your time and mine by having this meeting?”
- “Should I cut my hair short to keep it off my forehead? That way you people can see that STUPID is not tattooed on it.”
At least once in their career every fire truck vendor has wanted to stand up during an APC meeting and scream at the top of his lungs: What the hell am I doing here? Most vendors understandably will not admit wanting to. Cherry pickers will.
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.