By Bill Adams
Fire apparatus pundits and industry experts forever praise the value of holding a preconstruction conference (meeting) before the build process begins on a new purchase. They claim it is the venue to resolve all items in the purchasing specifications that are mandated to be determined at the preconstruction conference. The commentators expound it is where any mistakes, misunderstandings, and omissions by both buyer and seller are rectified. They’re right. In the end, the fire department receives the rig it thought it spec’d and everybody lives happily ever after. The stories are plausible and for the most part are true.
You seldom hear about the preconstruction meeting that turns to hell in a hand basket with the end result being the fire department and the apparatus manufacturer being at each other’s throats. Who is responsible and who pays for an omission, a misunderstanding, or a mistake is usually the root cause. It’s possible for a purchaser to hate its new fire truck before it starts down the production line. Such a scenario could be avoided. Writing a comprehensible and easily understandable purchasing specification is the most obvious solution, however that is sometimes easier said than done. Conducting a prebid meeting or conference may be the answer to preventing possible problems. Simply put, a prebid meeting is where interested bidders and the purchaser meet together in an open forum to discuss the purchaser’s preliminary purchasing specifications.
Commentators must walk a fine line when writing about apparatus purchasing. As an example, not every article is applicable to purchasers wanting true competitive and those who do not. A purchaser who is writing a proprietary specification and knows exactly what rig will be purchased may not be a candidate for a prebid meeting. The purchasing committee has probably met with the preferred vendor a half dozen times or more, and the committee really does not want anyone else bidding. So, why hold one? (Note: Having a relationship with a preferred vendor is not being debated nor is its legality or moral correctness being questioned.) A preconstruction conference with the preferred vendor, although highly advisable, might be like attending a family reunion.
Conversely, purchasers writing nonproprietary specifications to receive competitive bids are prime candidates for conducting a prebid meeting. The reasons are numerous; some are compelling. Basically, the prebid meeting keeps everyone honest and on the same playing field.
There are no industry-wide procedures or established policies for holding one. Apparatus purchasing committees in political subdivisions are advised to check local governmental bidding protocol because some may require a prebid conference be publicly advertised and subject to jumping through all sorts of regulatory hoops. Volunteer entities not subject to governmental oversight can pretty much write their own rules for a prebid meeting. The meeting will only be as effective as the rules are.
A purchasing committee can send its preliminary purchasing specifications to interested vendors stating if they have concerns, questions, or need clarifications with the document verbiage, they can address them at a prebid conference with the committee and other prospective vendors. It is imperative that prospective attendees know the rules of the meeting—everything is in an open forum—and after review the purchasing committee will make the final decision on questions and concerns that may arise.
All players including the purchaser, interested vendors, and possibly the spec writer are on an equal playing field. There is nothing hidden, and no secrets or tall tales told behind closed doors. Each concerned potential bidder has the opportunity to express concerns about the technical nuts and bolts portion of the specs as well as boilerplate requirements. They have the opportunity to review verbiage and ask for clarifications. What is significant is all the vendors’ complaints, concerns, whining, and bellyaching will be done in front of each other and the purchaser. The advantage is the vendors have to be—or should be—honest. Peer pressure can be intimidating. Some purchasers may require attendance at a prebid conference be mandatory.
Again, vendors should realize the purchaser has the right to make clarifications, changes, or amendments to the purchasing specification verbiage as the purchaser deems appropriate. The prebid conference is another tool to make the purchasing committee’s job easier. Vendors should jump at the opportunity to review and analyze the purchasing specifications. They should appreciate the opportunity to express concerns and confirm a purchaser’s requirements prior to expending time and money in preparing a proposal.
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.