By Bill Adams
Many fire departments enjoy little to no oversight by political subdivisions that provide taxpayer financing for their apparatus purchases. In particular, volunteer entities often purchase what they want from who they want without political recourse or fiscal accountability. While not commonplace in all scenarios, some apparatus purchasing committees embody a sense of invincibility and entitlement. They should exercise a degree of caution because in today’s political environment, an unexpected financial smack-down can come at any time.
Following is a fictitious example of how a purchasing committee could meet its demise. Just like the other four in the town, each year the East Podunk Volunteer Fire Company receives a sizeable operating stipend from the town. Most of the companies earmark a substantial portion for new apparatus. The independent companies purchase their own apparatus and equipment with no oversight by the town. The town isn’t aware some of the apparatus are not always compatible company to company, which made for inefficient fireground operations.
Of some concern was the lack of oversight and accountability in fire company purchasing. The companies did not follow a formal bidding protocol. Most purchased outright whatever rig they wanted without competitive bidding. It all came to a head when a state audit blasting the town’s bidding protocol exposed the companies’ purchasing practices. All of a sudden, taxpayers demanded strict oversight. The fire companies were taken aback. Their fiefdoms were being challenged.
The companies protested by saying monies they raised on their own also went towards purchasing equipment. The state said it didn’t matter because taxpayer monies were used. The ensuing political firestorm was graphically played out in the media. Irate taxpayers wanted the town’s finance department to purchase all the apparatus and hire a career chief to oversee day-to-day operations of the fire companies. After multiple contentious meetings with the fire companies and the town board, a compromise was reached.
The career chief hiring was nixed. The town created a Fire Advisory Board whose membership consisted of the volunteer chief from each of the five companies with a rotating chairmanship. The town agreed to fully fund all apparatus purchasing, and the individual company stipends were appropriately reduced. The Advisory Board coordinated day-to-day fireground operations amongst the companies and would make recommendations for apparatus purchases. The companies would retain their apparatus purchasing committees and write their own specifications and the town would pick up the whole tab. The companies thought they had won big time.
What they didn’t realize was that life as the purchasing committees had known it was over. The town hired an outside consultant familiar with fire department purchasing to establish a formal bidding protocol the companies would be required by a new town ordinance to follow—without exception. The town’s financial department would oversee purchasing. Some of the protocol follows.
- State and local competitive bidding rules and regulations will be followed.
- Purchasing specifications shall be nonproprietary.
- Prebid meetings shall be held with all interested vendors, and their “concerns” are to be addressed in writing by the purchasing committee. If requested by any vendor, a second followup prebid meeting will be held.
- The companies’ purchasing specifications must be approved by a simple majority of the town’s Fire Advisory Board before being submitted to the town for competitive bidding.
- Apparatus purchasing committee meetings shall be verbally recorded.
- All communication with vendors shall be in writing. Verbal questions and answers will not be permitted.
- Decisions by committee members shall be by a yes or no vote. Abstentions will not be tolerated. Members refusing to vote will be replaced.
Disclaimer: Decades ago, when selling fire apparatus and “writing specs” for potential customers, the specifications were always proprietary to my product. I was offended if another vendor showed up at the bid table. Concurrently, when serving on apparatus purchasing committees, I was equally offended that anyone would question what the committee wanted. Times might be changing. Apparatus purchasing committees should take note. Good luck.
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.