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Selecting and buying fire apparatus: Getting the best equipment for the best price

Getting the best equipment for the best price

December 7, 2007
By James Careless

Whether it is a simple pumper or a multi-function "quint," selecting and buying the right apparatus is a top priority for fire departments large and small.

Whatever their size, the goal for all departments is to get the best equipment possible for the best possible price. That's not easy, given the need to balance equipment performance and fire fighter safety with the realities of tight government budgets and fickle politicians.

So how can your department get the best possible equipment for the best price possible? Here's some advice from the pros, in a concise step-by-step format that you can refer to over the years, again and again.

Find Out What You Need
When it is time to buy a new piece of apparatus – because an existing truck has come to the end of its operational lifespan, or growth in your community requires the establishment of new fire stations – don't just go out and buy what looks cool. Instead, talk to fire fighters and commanders to find out what they actually need most – do a "needs study," in other words – before starting the apparatus selection process.

"Use the purchasing opportunity to find out what kind of apparatus your department really needs, rather than just replacing or duplicating what you've already got," says Robert Tutterow. He is a health and safety officer with the Charlotte Fire Department in North Carolina, who has written extensively on purchasing for books such as the Chief Fire Officer's Desk Reference. "To do this, talk to your people. As well, get a sense of how your community is likely to grow by talking to local government planners. Will you need to deal with more high-rises? Will there be changes in traffic patterns that will affect how you need to deploy your resources?"

On a strategic level, it makes sense to create a long-term policy for ongoing replacement of fire apparatus first, and then conduct need studies on a case-by-case basis as required. This is what Alberta's Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority (BRFA) – which protects the Municipal District of Bonnyville and the Town of Bonnyville – did about five years ago, says Regional Fire Chief Bryan McEvoy.

"We sat down with our municipal council and jointly established a 15 year replacement cycle for our apparatus," Chief McEvoy tells Fire Fighting In Canada. "When it came time to switch out equipment acquired in 1991, the rules were already in place. This keeps the process simple and free of politics, and allows us to focus on the nuts-and-bolts of replacing equipment properly. We had also done the research necessary to determine what kind of basic truck design we wanted to deploy, so that the needs study could focus on customization."

The Necessity of Research
To decide how incoming fire apparatus should be configured, the BRFA talks to fire fighters and their officers, "to find out what they would like to see on the unit," says Chief McEvoy. "Once we have this feedback, and we know what the community's future needs are likely to be, we start to draw up the specifications."

"You also need to talk to other fire departments to get their views on new equipment," says Robert Tutterow. "As well, read fire industry trade magazines, surf the Web, and attend trade shows. You need to make as informed a choice as you can."

When evaluating trucks, check what each one offers in terms of user safety. "You should look for cabs that provide good access to seatbelts and other restraints," Tutterow says. "There are some trucks in use today that are very difficult to belt into if you're wearing turnout gear."

Avoid Unsuitable Options
The BRFA has a suggests that you can keep your new trucks bargain-priced by not purchasing unsuitable options by avoiding unnecessary options. "For instance," says Chief Brian McEvoy, "we found that a lot of fire departments are spending $18,000-$20,000 per truck for onboard telephone systems, which end up not being used. So we don't buy them on our apparatus. Then there's hydraulic ladder racks, which can add $10,000-$12,000 to the price of a new truck. There are ways to design a truck so that your firefighters don't need hydraulic racks."

The money saved can then be used for other equipment, or to outfit the new truck with items that fire fighters have been asking for.

RFP or Tender?
There are many ways to obtain fire equipment. Two of the most popular are Request for Proposals (RFPs) and tenders. In the RFP process, a department publishes a list of specifications that it wants in a new piece of fire apparatus, and then receives proposals (with bids included) from manufacturers and vendors who send them in. In the tender process, departments such as the BRFA literally design the truck themselves on an existing commercial chassis, and then ask manufacturers and vendors to submit bids on building it.

"RFPs tell vendors and manufacturers what you expect," says Robert Tutterow. "But they also leave room for the bidders to offer alternatives and options."

"We prefer the tender process," says Chief McEvoy. "With a tender, everyone knows precisely what the department wants to buy, in detail. Since different manufacturers have different products, we do allow a bit of variance from our design if the substitution meets our intent. But in general, using the tender process ensures that we get what we need."

Whether your department uses RFPs or tenders, Tutterow recommends reviewing the received proposals first, before looking at the actual amounts each bidder is asking for. "If you don't know how much each proposal is, you will be more likely to evaluate them on their merits, rather than price," he says. "Once you've shortlisted the proposals that best fit your needs, you can compare them to the bids and make tradeoffs then, if you so choose."

Once the Bid Is Accepted …
The process doesn't stop. In fact, it is vital for departments to keep a close eye on how their new truck is being built; including trips to the factory and meetings with the manufacturer's engineers. "Most sales people in this industry have good integrity, but you really need to talk face-to-face with the engineers building your apparatus to know what's really happening," says Chief McEvoy. "If a manufacturer refuses to allow you access to their engineers when you are negotiating with them, it's a bad sign. Look elsewhere."

In the same vein, Chief McEvoy conducts pre-delivery inspections at the factory, rather than the dealer or station house. "If there are problems and you spot them at the factory, they can be fixed fast," he explains. "But if the truck is at your location, it can take days to get someone out from the manufacturer, ship the truck back, and get it fixed. Why waste the time? Surely it is worth an $800 air ticket to ensure that a $300,000 truck is ready for use when it arrives."

The Bottom Line
With diligent research, pragmatic analysis, and ongoing supervision from a bid's approval to the delivery of your new truck, selecting and buying fire apparatus can be a positive experience. This is why it is worth doing this "the right way"; both for the sake of your fire fighters, and the people they protect.


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