Tips for better RFPs
By Warren McEwen
RFPs are critical for big ticket items like fire training systems. Following best practices not only attracts the best vendors to your project, but also helps ensure best use of funds.
By Warren McEwen
Sourcing a new fire training system is often a lengthy and complicated process. It’s critical to select the right vendors and suppliers to ensure your equipment meets the specific needs, challenges and technical requirements of your department. Creating a fail-safe RFP will attract stronger vendors to your project — ones who are capable of delivering high-quality results.
Pulling together an RFP can be both challenging and time consuming, but it’s important to get this right. An incomplete RFP could lead to incompatible submissions that don’t address your needs or meet your expectations. Further, if the RFP is unclear, you may receive a wide range of responses that are difficult to compare with one another, making the selection even more challenging.
Adapting best practices helps to ensure your RFP communicates clearly with potential vendors and sets your fire training system up for success from the get-go. Here are four tips to make sure you get the best possible responses to your next RFP.
■ 1. Share background information
Before diving into a fire training system RFP, know exactly what it is you’re looking for. Here are some good background questions to answer in your RFP that will give vendors context for the project: How many firefighters will be trained per year and on what skills? Will other departments have access to the facility? What training resources exist in the area that will continue to be used in tandem with your new fire training system? Will you still need to use outside resources for some training?
What are the short, mid and long-term plans for training? Are you considering additional equipment in the future? Are there certifications you want to meet?
How is your municipality changing? Will this impact how much space you have in the future? What about the types of structures being built and the density of population?
This background helps a vendor understand why you are asking for what you specify and how it fits into your goals. It also illustrates the bigger picture about your purchase and the value it brings to your department and the greater community. A strong partner may offer you time-saving advice to help future growth, or ideas for multi-purpose solutions you might not have considered possible.
■ 2. Clearly communicate as many details as possible
RFPs typically include a project scope with timelines and a budget. Where fire training systems are concerned, however, this usually isn’t enough to sufficiently inform vendors what exactly is needed.
Fire chiefs need to know what equipment they want and have the proper description of their facility requirements from the beginning. If you don’t provide enough clarification or put in the right amount of detail, you might get a quote or bid that doesn’t meet these requirements, and then there could be issues moving forward.
“Try to be as clear and specific as possible, so you don’t have to go back,” advises Steve Robinson, assistant chief at Kamloops Fire Rescue in British Columbia. “Make sure you specifically state what you want. The devil is in the details. You really need to nail down the exact details of what you want and what the deliverables are. If you leave that until after you award the contract, you could get stuck with additional cost because you didn’t put enough detail in your proposal.”
Having clarity on your specific needs from the beginning will save time and effort in the long run. For instance, you may be tasked with sourcing a multi-story training structure. However, if you’re based in a remote location and propane suppliers are few and far between, your options are going to be limited. If vendors know this from the start, it will be easier for them to submit proposals that specifically address your needs. Communicating clearly also ensures you don’t waste time and effort engaging with vendors who ultimately won’t be able to provide what you’re looking for and forcing you to start all over again.
Beyond listing off the technical requirements, consider describing different scenarios in which you’d actually like to use your fire training system. Including different scenarios allows vendors to get creative in their responses.
Also consider including a list of deliverables in addition to the fire training system. These could include training courses, operational manuals and references, project management support, detailed drawings, credentials of the vendor’s staff, compliance to local and industry standards, and after-sale service.
■ 3. Establish a weighted scoring metric to evaluate proposals
What happens when you’ve posted an RFP and the responses start rolling in? How do you determine which vendor is the right one for your project? The scoring metrics might include cost, service, vendor reputation and experience, warranty, life expectancy, environmental impact, code compliance and NFPA standards compliance. These criteria on a weighted scale allows for a clear decision on which vendor best exemplifies the right choice to build the system.
Establishing a standard set of scoring enables you to adapt a scientific approach to the selection process, rather than choosing a vendor based on price alone, especially when there are other important criteria that ensure you get the best value for your money.
For instance, consider this scenario: a fire chief based in Newfoundland is in the market for a mobile fire training trailer. They create an RFP but leave out crucial information related to provincial regulations, assuming that their vendors will know this. A U.S.-based vendor replies with an attractive offer, unaware of the technical requirements their equipment needs to fulfill in order to legally operate in Newfoundland. Only after this vendor is selected does the fire chief realize their trailer is unusable until it can be brought up to code, incurring additional expenses and adding another year to the project.
To avoid wasting time on poorly written bids or proposals, Robinson recommends additionally establishing a minimum scoring threshold.
■ 4. Consult with a vendor before the RFP process begins
Typically, departments post RFPs on bidding sites and wait to hear from vendors. But that doesn’t mean you can’t approach vendors before you start writing your RFP. Early work with the customer well before the RFP phase means we make sure the customer knows all their options. Then they can write an RFP that clearly addresses what their training system needs to be.
Including a vendor prior to writing the RFP means they advise on the different options available, as well as budgetary estimates, requirements for site preparation, relevant industry and local standards, options for expansion and customization, and value-added considerations. Vendors may also have some creative ideas about how to build out the fire training system you need while staying on budget. One British Columbia fire department, for example, enlisted Dräger to build a steel building structure with a first-floor kitchen simulation area. The following year, a second burn room was added to represent a two-story residential with upstairs bedrooms. This phased approach required less upfront investment and enabled the department to spread out the cost of their multi-floor fire training system over an extended period of time. Knowing this option was available, the department was able to structure their RFP accordingly.
Although writing an RFP is no small undertaking, it’s important to take the time to do it right — especially for complex, big ticket items like fire training systems. By clearly establishing needs and requirements, frontloading important details and consulting with vendors, you ensure the RFP process goes smoothly and ultimately you secure the appropriate system for your training needs.
Warren McEwen is a senior product specialist in the Engineered Solutions group of Dräger Safety Canada. Previously he worked as a registered EMT-A and firefighter in Alberta, where he headed up the training division of Lethbridge Fire and EMS Department.