By Bill Adams
There’s been a fundamental change in the traditional “competitive bid” process used to purchase apparatus as well as noticeable changes in the attitudes of some apparatus buyers and sellers. That is some buyers and sellers—not all of them. Attitudes can be explained away as habits, characteristics and idiosyncrasies. In the business world, attitudes are mildly described as opinions and viewpoints. In the fire truck world, an attitude is easily and more harshly defined as being arrogant or defiant. Both the change and attitudes are topics worth discussing. They’re not restricted to a particular fire department, geographical location, or apparatus manufacturer.
In some political subdivisions (aka tax-levying entities) using local, regional, and interstate cooperative purchasing contracts has all but eliminated competitive bidding. Cooperative purchasing has become the norm for many fire departments. It has sometimes negatively affected the mannerisms (attitudes) of both buyers and sellers. Numerous articles have been written about the cooperative purchasing phenomena, so the process itself is not discussed. Some of its consequences are.
A downside of cooperative purchasing is a political subdivision’s responsibility to oversee the spending of taxpayer dollars is often relinquished to a fire department’s designee(s) who can “pick and choose” any manufacturer to supply a rig. There is no oversight by elected public officials.
Some elected officials favor absolving themselves of the technicalities of fire apparatus construction and the expense of conducting public bid openings as long as the process is “legal.” Cooperative purchasing of items such as asphalt, toilet paper, and grass seed may not be as complicated as fire apparatus.
Another downside to cooperative purchasing might be an unexpected interest in municipal spending by activist members of the overly fiscally responsible public (do-gooders) whose sole purpose is wanting media attention for their cause. Be prepared for them.
Apparatus Purchasing Committees
Co-op purchasing can negate the unwritten requirement and expectation that apparatus purchasing committees (APCs) exercise due diligence when purchasing. Fire departments can legally purchase whatever they want from whoever they want without the inconvenience of public bid openings and oversight. They don’t have to contend with the possibilities of unexpected low-ball bids; confusing optional bids; unsolicited alternate bids; and the whining, complaining, and threat of legal action by unsuccessful bidders. Purchasers not held accountable to the public sometimes make that fact known by bragging: “We buy what we want from who we want.”
Unless prompted by outside sources, politicos usually don’t harass an APC about the technical details of a fire truck. If the process is aboveboard, legal and the politicos’ names are not disparaged in the media, the fire department usually gets what it wants. Proponents defend the process: “The legal bidding has already been done.”
Many APCs believe they deserve to purchase a rig they want rather than a possible low bidder that just meets their specifications. Whether the danger and hazards of firefighting in a community justifies purchasing a rig desired rather than one actually needed is a local decision. It’s not the topic of this discussion. Firefighters living in a political subdivision that is purchasing a rig should realize the tax obligation a purchase is placing upon themselves.
Most apparatus vendors favor cooperative purchasing because of the time and expense they save by not participating in the public bidding process. They only have to “sell” their apparatus to the APCs. When public bidding, they may have to justify their recommended purchasing specifications to the entity managing the bidding process. After the bid, they might have to publicly justify their pricing and defend against competitors’ sometimes nefarious bidding techniques. The aforementioned unsolicited alternate and optional bids can muddy the waters with fiscal conservatives especially those who believe a low bid is best—regardless of compliance to the technical requirements of the published purchasing specifications.
Vendors whose apparatus was not purchased through a co-op sometimes flip flop from liking the cooperative purchasing to disliking it. Some may disparage the successful vendor and the purchaser. That type of negative attitude may affect future sales. Smart unsuccessful vendors say nothing. They might be the preferred vendor the next time.
Most apparatus purchased today is the result of fire departments “crawling in bed” with a preferred vendor who assists in writing a portion, if not all, of a department’s purchasing specification. That happens regardless if it’s a public bid or a negotiated sale. It is a fact of life that cannot be ignored but is seldom acknowledged.
When cooperative purchasing, the specifications have already been written, and the apparatus already publicly “bid.” Local politicians may not realize there isn’t a single low bidder. Each participating apparatus manufacturer bids its own product to their own technical specifications. There are no exceptions. There’s no actual “low bid.” Local politicians may not want to hear that.
Vendors selling a good portion of their apparatus via cooperative purchasing contracts may no longer want the hassle of going through the competitive bidding process where they are not guaranteed a sale. Losers are the departments that have to purchase via public bid. They might feel slighted by vendors opting to spend their time on co-op purchases. That isn’t being disrespectful or copping a negative attitude to those fire departments. Its smart business sense.
After a fire department picks a rig and the manufacturer it wants, unsuccessful manufacturers have no legal recourse. They lost. Hopefully the taxpayers did not. Stuff happens.
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.