By Bill Adams
In previous commentaries, I’ve mentioned that it is frustrating trying to interpret what specification writers are trying to say in specifications (specs) containing nebulous and confusing requirements. Extremely long, flamboyant, and hard-to-read verbiage can make the purchasing process tedious and confusing for all parties. Manufacturers (OEMs) and fire departments can be guilty of complicating the process—some inadvertently and some intentionally. Purchasing and proposal specifications that are brief, concise, and right to the point eliminate individual interpretation. They are easy to read and not hard to understand. That should be the objective of all parties.
Disclaimer: I formerly sold fire apparatus and also served on numerous purchasing committees when an active volunteer. I’m retired and no longer active in the fire department.
It is not politically correct to point out that straightforward and uncomplicated specifications may not be the goal of some purchasers and sellers. When selling apparatus, I always offered to help potential purchasers write their purchasing specifications. Of course, they ultimately ended up being “tighter than a coat of paint” for my product. That was my job. If I could confuse my competition with specification verbiage, I did that too. If selected words might discourage them from bidding, so be it. The quest was to legally beat other bidders before they got to the bid table. I didn’t want them eating my lunch!
When a fire department promulgates a set of purchasing specifications, it owns them regardless of who helped write them. The dealer or whoever helped write the specs is absolved of any responsibility and liability. Should other bidders complain about a proprietary specification, the fire department or the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) has to answer. There is no claim the process is ethically or morally correct or even if it is practiced today. But, it sure worked well years ago.
By and large, fire department purchasers are honorable, virtuous, and principled. It goes hand in hand with the turf. And, it is expected conduct within the profession whether it be career or volunteer. I’ve often made the statement that 95 percent of the fire apparatus purchased today are “sold” before bids are solicited. Most dealers and apparatus purchasing committees (APCs) would agree—although not publicly. It’s one of those things everyone knows but really don’t want to or can’t admit. I think it is human nature to “want it your own way.” I know it was when I served on APCs. How dare the mayor question what manufacturer of fire truck we want? Another indefensible statement that others, including myself, made decades ago was, “If I have 30 guys regularly getting out of bed at three in the morning for a car fire and they want a Brand ABC fire truck to ride on, then that’s what we’re going to buy.” Such reasoning, valid or not, is why some purchasers’ specifications favor a preferred apparatus manufacturer. Please note: I said most and not ALL.
Other more practical reasons for writing a proprietary specification are for apparatus standardization, establishing a level of quality and workmanship, and to ensure the proven experience and reliability of similar apparatus. In a highly regulated bidding environment, such reasoning, while admirable, may be difficult to justify writing a proprietary document to cost-conscious politicos. Unfortunately, taxpayers are sometimes the last or even the least concern for some purchasers. Good luck. Hope you don’t get caught.
Dealers writing proprietary specifications for fire departments are often reluctant to promote prebid conferences. The last thing they want is a half dozen highly irate competitors complaining to the fire department that the purchasing specifications are too tight, too proprietary, too restrictive, show too much favoritism, and whatever else they can think of to have the specs “opened up.” Another reason seldom expressed is that the APC may be placed in an awkward position where it would have to answer questions about the document verbiage for which there is no definitive answer.
Specification writers insisting on writing and fire departments insisting on using excessive and unnecessary words and phrases that defy description may have their words come back to bite them. Dealers can be caught between a rock and a hard place if they ask a purchaser for a clarification—a better understanding of what the purchaser actually wants. It is extremely aggravating when the purchaser doesn’t know and can’t answer. The APC really can’t say, “How dare you question what our specification says? Everybody knows what ‘heavy duty’ means.” Future postings will show examples from actual purchasing specifications and how an ill-mannered and caustic salesman might address them.
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.