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A Comprehensive Guide to Purchasing Your Next Fire Apparatus in 2018

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Purchasing a fire apparatus today can be a complex process of determining your department’s needs, meeting with manufacturers’ representatives, specification development, and securing adequate financial support from your community’s purchasing authority.  To complete the mission of your fire department effectively, the fire crew under your authority must have dependable fire apparatus that are replaced on a maximum lifespan basis. When the purchase price for a customized fire engine is in excess of $250,000, the decision to allocate funding for a replacement fire apparatus must be supported by a thorough review and needs assessment.  Ultimately the fire chief or a ranking authority must be prepared to justify the expenditure to a board of his community constituents.  Let’s discuss a number of ways you can ensure you’ve covered all your bases before purchasing that next apparatus.


The first and most important part of your apparatus purchase is to perform an extensive needs assessment.  “In my opinion, the key to acquiring any vehicle is acquiring the right one for the job and/or intended purpose. This might seem like a simple concept; however, any vehicle acquisition will be unsuccessful if the final product does not fulfill its intended mission from an operational, cost, safety, and acceptance standpoint,” said John Clements, manager, fleet operations, San Diego County Fire Department.  An apparatus needs assessment includes considerations for community construction types and sizes, building access, zoning laws, water availability, staffing, size of the apparatus, fire department tactics, and other related topics.

An effective way to start the process of establishing credibility in your apparatus purchase is made by forming a committee of community members whose responsibility is to ensure the process goes smoothly start to finish.  An apparatus committee will develop a set of specifications for the new equipment based on lessons learned in the needs assessment.  The committee’s ultimate purpose is to draft specifications for new vehicles, determine replacement schedules, and recommend ongoing maintenance.


The cost associated with the purchase of an apparatus is high, sometimes approaching $1 million or more.  This price tag brings difficulty in convincing policymakers that the expense is justified especially if they fail to realize the full value of rescue vehicle.  Cities and municipalities are suffering from lower real estate transfer tax, sales tax receipts and other funding streams.  The effects are forced budget cuts that reduce the level of services such as libraries, schools, and large capital purchases such as those required for a new fire apparatus.

Fire chiefs and administrators need to have a well developed cost benefit analysis to be used to substantiate investment in new equipment.  As an example, if your 20 year old apparatus is prone to endless maintenance costs then it is imperative that you document and compare the cost of the new equipment to the monthly maintenance cost of the old equipment.  This will clearly demonstrate the cost savings you will realize when acquiring a new apparatus.


The editions of NFPA 1901 and 1906 Standard for Automotive and Wildland Fire Apparatus must be adhered to when undergoing the process of apparatus purchase. The NFPA standards include compliance concerns and outline prudent engineering principals.  The standard provides a more detailed information on the rationale and the various safety factors that must be incorporated during the construction of the equipment.  If your fire apparatus is not constructed to the standards laid out in NFPA 1901 and 1906 the result is reduced safety for your fire service members.  It is important to understand this standard while consulting with your manufacturing partner.  A fair amount of Chiefs may take the developers word, however, knowing the standard can protect your department from unnecessary add-ons that you ultimately do not need.


A September 2008 report done by the New Jersey Commission of Investigation examined dozens of fire truck procurements in communities within the state.  The Commission found that state agencies lack the ability to ensure proper accountability and transparency in the procurement process. In many instances, the competitive procurement process that is required by law has been reduced to a sham in which the public’s business is ruled by private interests.  Throughout the contracting process with external partners it is best to vet any contractual documents through your authorized local or state legal counsel.  Most manufacturers have contracts that have been drawn up by paid legal representation that is designed to protect the prospective apparatus developer.  A fire department lawyer can recommend wording that protects firehouse interests and presents the opportunity to negotiate solutions to any unexpected problems.  Furthermore, asking for a list of fire departments that have been supplied with an apparatus from your bidding manufacturer will allow you to gauge customer satisfaction.

Bob Barraclough, a 50-year veteran of the fire service and fire manufacturing industry says to “Detail how exceptions are to be handled. The best method is to require that any exception be printed next to the  appropriate paragraph in your spec with an explanation why the bidder wants a different item.” “Clearly define that if there is any deviation or question on specific items between the fire department spec, the bidder’s proposal, the approval prints and the manufacturer’s shop build sheet that the fire department spec will take precedence.”  A strong contract establishes baseline specifications, pricing, and budgets for future projected support that includes maintenance costs.


A handful of fire officials often rely on design specifications provided by manufacturers because they lack the technical expertise to draft them independently.  As a consequence, it is never really clear   whether a fire department got what it ordered, whether it paid too much or the extent to which it paid for things other than the truck itself.  Due to the complexity of writing apparatus purchasing specifications many fire departments have sought external unaffiliated consultants to provide the technical expertise to ensure the department’s needs are met.  This may be advantageous for fire departments that may not be apparatus purchasing experts.

Regardless of the author, specifications should be quantifiable and written in verbiage that is clearly defined. When specifying the succinct criteria dimensions, sizes, capacities, and model numbers can be evaluated by both parties.  There should be no doubt as to what the verbiage means and what the fire department expects. If the department language is not clear then expectations cannot be set due to poorly phrased specifications.  As an example, a specification may read, “There shall be one large compartment above each rear wheel.” A “large” compartment cannot be measured, evaluated, or compared. It is a useless description because it is not quantifiable. It can have different meanings to different people. Any size compartment proposed will legally meet the specification.  A more appropriate specification would read, “There shall be one compartment with 13 cubic feet above each rear wheel.” Bids proposing more or less than 13 cubic feet will not meet the technical specification as written. Only those proposing exactly 13 cubic feet will.  Nonconcrete descriptions can cause unnecessary grief, inaction, and aggravation during the entire purchasing process. Finally when the apparatus is delivered outside of perceived specification some bidders may cite non-succinct requirements by claiming they met the intent of the prerequisite.


One part of the purchasing process that allows the department heads to view the construction of the new apparatus in its infancy is pre-construction conference. The pre-construction meeting is where all details of the vehicle are reviewed as well as providing the opportunity to determine final design configurations for dashboard, cab seating, pump panel and interior body compartments.  It’s integral that you hold the pre-construction conference at the manufacturer’s plant, where the department heads will have the ability to tour the facility.  Moreover, this allows the buyer access to the multiple engineering and support personnel who are responsible for the production of your new apparatus.  During the pre-construction meeting, there should be the appropriate technical documentation that was required as a part of the department’s specification that include a weight analysis, load measure, electrical requirements, and engine performance.  Moreover, in preparation for the meeting, the purchasing committee should ensure that equipment inventory is factored into the walk through in order to envision weights and proper placement.  It is the fire department’s responsibility to advise the manufacturer as to the hose, tools and equipment that are planned for the vehicle.


A final factory apparatus inspection represents many months if not years of planning, communicating, and negotiation.  There are a vast amount of items that should require your attention, in fact, too numerous to count to ready your new rig.  The important thing to remember is that the quality of your final inspection will determine the magnitude of firefighter complaints in the future as well as your last opportunity to propose modifications while the apparatus is still housed within the facility. It is well worth your time and money to insure that thorough, well thought out inspections are performed.  As you go through the inspection, keep a running list of discrepancies or questions. As you review the apparatus and find concerns, make sure you write them down and discuss them with your company representative at the end of each inspection session. Finally, take the apparatus for a test drive, and ask the representative for a quick tutorial of anything you don’t understand or any operational tips that he or she is knowledgeable on.


After you have undergone the committees, numerous revisions, and funding you are now ready to receive your new fire apparatus on your proposed ready for pickup date. The pickup date gives departments the ability to plan out when the rig can be placed in service and fulfill the commitment made by all involved.  During this final stage, the department should check the major components as well as every light, warning light, compartment dimension, compartment accessory, door latch, paint, lettering, nut, and bolt to ensure correct operation and adherence to department specifications.  No matter the manufacturer, departments will always find some issue, problem, discrepancy, or clarification that needs the manufacturer’s attention.  This is why when purchasing a new apparatus your department should focus on vendors who have a demonstrated track record of guaranteed value.  

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