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Apparatus Purchasing: Business as Usual?
BY BILL ADAMS
The fire apparatus industry
and the American fire
service in particular may
not have felt the full impact
of the fiscal uncertainty in
It is immaterial if the nation’s sour mood
is caused by unemployment, the health
care debate, economic recession, individual financial depression, or political ineptitude.
Taxpayers appear to be apprehensive, wary,
and reluctant to authorize large expenditures.
Whatever uptick the apparatus industry may
have recently experienced might be in jeopardy domestically. This article looks at possible
pitfalls an apparatus purchasing committee
(APC) may encounter in the future.
The good old days when buying a fire
truck was fun, easy, and gratifying could be
a thing of the past. Fire departments, accus-
tomed to writing purchasing specifica-
tions (specs) for exactly what they wanted,
Regularly scheduled apparatus replacement
programs may be a thing of the past.
Disgruntled taxpayers may demand public officials, including fire departments,
exercise fiscal self-discipline. If the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) does not show
fiscal restraint, the citizenry may do it for
it. An APC may not consider itself as comprising public officials, but it is—acting as
a legal representative of the AHJ. Doubt it?
Ask your attorney.
Fire apparatus are expensive—probably
the most expensive vehicle a municipality
will purchase. Being a big-ticket and high-
ly visible item, they’ll probably be one of the
first things on a political subdivision’s fiscal
chopping block. APCs would be wise to pre-
pare themselves for a possible onslaught of
financially strapped taxpayers demanding
to know why the fire department needs a
new rig, why the one it wants is so expensive,
and why it can’t buy a cheaper one or recon-
dition the one it has. APCs should preplan
their responses very carefully as questions
may have to be answered in a public forum.
It may not only be angry taxpayers an
APC faces. The AHJ may be an elected body
of politicos not directly affiliated with the
fire department. Be aware, AHJs are not
required to have an obligatory allegiance to
the fire department. A politician confronted by unhappy constituents with the power
of the vote may side with his political future
rather than the fire department’s request to
replace a 25-year-old pumper. Whether for
political showmanship, reelection purposes,
or a genuine concern for fiscal responsibility, an AHJ can grill a purchasing committee
just as aggressively and intensely as an irate
taxpayer. Don’t become complacent—you
may get thrown under the duals.
Few in the fire service will admit and
fewer will address the fact that conflict can
come from within. In the volunteer sector,
disillusioned members may take advantage
of the economy to express their personal displeasure with a new purchase. Older members
may reflect their desire to return to the good
old days by disparaging or voting against purchasing a new rig. It’s not right, but it happens. The days of riding the rear step, open
cabs, and rubber coats are gone. Past-their-prime members should acknowledge it is
someone else’s turn. Decision makers today
should take care not to confuse experience
and knowledge with animosity and jealousy.
Doing so may come back to bite them.
Personality clashes can also occur in the
career sector, although repercussions there
can be swift, harsh, and final. Both management and labor must struggle with priorities in times of dwindling resources. Is the
cost of two new safe and reliable rigs equal
in value to having one less firefighter each
to staff them? Answering that question is
an unenviable position no firefighter should
be placed in. I empathize with those who
must make such decisions, especially when
the choice is one or the other.
Know Your Specs
Additionally, a disgruntled vendor challenging a bid award to a competitor or one
questioning the veracity of the APC’s decisions or published specification can create
a political firestorm a fire department may
not need, deserve, or be capable of extinguishing in the court of public opinion.
Be prepared. An APC can best serve itself
if it can adequately explain what every widget
is in its purchasing specifications, what each
is used for, and why each is specified. When
writing purchasing specifications, be aware
that you may be publicly challenged about
any part of the document. APCs should know
the document intimately and be prepared
to answer any questions about it. Do your
homework diligently. The person asking the
question may have already found the answer
on the Internet. Don’t get blindsided.
Most fire chiefs will not tolerate being
questioned on the fireground—nor should
they. It’s human nature to become confrontational when questioned by an “outsider”
about a new apparatus purchase. APC members, mostly being experienced, can likewise
become contentious when challenged or
questioned. Being argumentative and openly
combative are attitudes that lack diplomacy
and political correctness in today’s purchasing climate, whether dealing with a member
of your own department, a politician up for
reelection, or an aggravated taxpayer who
can’t find a job and just lost his health insurance. The fire service may have to reevaluate
the way it approaches apparatus purchasing.
It may not be business as usual.
Career, combination, and volunteer fire
departments are all susceptible to the wrath
of unhappy electorates. In one New England
state, taxpayers disillusioned with the management and operation of a career fire district repeatedly rejected proposed budgets,
forcing the closure of three of five staffed
stations, causing the return of a leased ladder tower, and sending the district into
receivership. It is up to the courts whether
the fire district will be liquidated.
In the same state, a new landlord purchased the land under one fire district’s
rented fire station and went to court to
evict the volunteer fire department. Rather
than build a new fire station, the fire district decided it was less expensive to
contract with a neighboring district for coverage. That evicted volunteer department
is fading into history. It is unfortunate that
some taxpayers are not willing to pay for
adequate fire protection. It’s tragic when
they can’t afford it. It is incomprehensible
that some are willing to wait 20 minutes for
the first-due engine company to show up.
APCs should anticipate negative reactions to a proposed new apparatus purchase. Don’t rule out open hostility. Be
proactive to residents’ concerns. Have a
backup plan. It’s no different than having a preplanned second and third alarm
response for the “big one” on Main Street.
Don’t be caught off guard by the suggestions
of purchasing a used rig, cooperative purchasing with other buyers, or tagging onto
another department’s order.
Be considerate of taxpayers’ apprehension and be prepared to civilly, diplomatically, and factually answer questions. Write
purchasing specifications smartly. Be innovative. Have specs reflect the mood of your
taxpayers. After all, you are asking them to
pay the freight.
BILL ADAMS is 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.