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Pittsburgh vendors criticize ventilation system bid process

Rich Lord
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh firehouses are getting new systems for venting diesel exhaust fumes, but some vendors are raising a stink about a city process that excluded American-made products and local installation teams in favor of an Ohio firm that installs imported equipment.

At issue is the city’s federally funded $977,550 project to guide the cancer-causing fumes that fire trucks spew from the buildings where firefighters work, sleep and eat. The job went to Toledo-area Clean Air Systems Inc., which distributes the wares of Swedish manufacturer Nederman Inc.

“This is a long-overdue project,” said Public Safety Director Mike Huss, adding that many city firehouses are “filthy dirty with soot.”

But competing firms say the project is tainted and overpriced, and defies the spirit of federal guidelines that encourage bidding.

“They should competitively bid that process,” said Ed Rossman, president of MagneGrip Group, a Cincinnati company that manufactures and installs firehouse venting systems. City officials “let themselves get ripped off,” he said.

Mike Miklosko, owner of Hempstead-based EMS Specialty Equipment, which also installs such systems, called the price the city is paying “highway robbery.”

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has said all city contracts should be awarded competitively but has given his directors until April 15 to begin meeting that standard.

Mr. Huss said the Fire Bureau and the firefighters union wanted the best product and choosing it from a state list of companies that have submitted price bids meets city procedural standards. “Any time you choose a vendor, you are obviously going to have people who are disappointed.”

A handful of city firehouses already have the new systems, which include hoses that connect to tailpipes and draw vehicle exhaust into ducts and then out of the building with fans. The version the city is installing connects to the truck with electromagnets that release as soon as the truck leaves the bay.

Firefighters love it. “We’re just happy to have a system that cuts down on the diesel exhaust in the firehouse,” said Darrin Kelly, a member of the firefighters union safety committee, noting that firehouses also are used for voting, school tours and other activities.

Of the cost, 80 percent is covered by a federal Department of Homeland Security grant, with the rest coming from city funds.

When the city got the grant, the handful of suppliers and distributors of firehouse ventilation equipment began contacting purchasing and fire officials to offer their wares.

Debbie Anstett, a regional sales manager for MagneGrip, said she called or e-mailed city officials “30 or 40 times,” mailed information, sent an engineer to speak with an assistant fire chief, and was told that her product would be considered by a committee. But she was not allowed to speak to the committee and then was told that the city picked another vendor.

Mr. Miklosko, who has run EMS Specialty for 12 years, hoped a local company would get a fair shake but got no calls or e-mails back from the city.

The city has so far paid $145,252 to outfit four fire stations.

The invoice for the Forbes Avenue station near Duquesne University totals $41,190, for rail-hose-and-duct systems for three vehicles, or $13,730 each.

If the city spends the entire budgeted amount contemplated on its 49 fire trucks and some of its ambulances, its costs will be around $17,000 per vehicle.

“These costs are outrageous,” said Mr. Miklosko, who said he charges around $6,500 per vehicle. In Canonsburg, he bid $32,000 for a five-vehicle firehouse, winning a competitive process against three other firms.

That system “has been good for us,” said state Rep. Tim Solobay, who is also Canonsburg’s fire chief, adding that the low bid allowed Canonsburg to use the remaining $6,000 of its federal grant for other upgrades.

“We would’ve been under $8,000" per vehicle, said Mr. Rossman. His distributor put together a rough estimate and was prepared to bid $700,000 for the entire job.

Copyright 2009 P.G. Publishing Co.