Firefighter tools: Purchasing, procurement and policy
A detailed look at competitive bidding, asset management, equipment selection and tool training
Did you ever walk into your firehouse and find a new tool or other piece of equipment on the rig? How about finding it with no accompanying instructions, directives or training manual? If you have not, that’s great. But if you measure your time in the fire service in decades, then I would bet that has happened to you.
Maybe you received replacement tools and wondered what on earth they were thinking, if not something a bit more profane. This usually happens when the replacement is a knockoff that’s been purchased to replace the genuine article.
These things usually happen when there is a disconnect between published policies and decision-makers. Most departments are not large enough to support a dedicated research and development (R&D) team. So, what are you supposed to do when you are left to your own devices?
The first thing to do before you start shopping is review your agency’s purchasing and procurement policies. Why? Because they are the ground rules you must follow to get the desired tools and equipment onto your fire trucks. Failing to follow the policies will, at best, cause a delay in obtaining the item(s). The worst scenario features a state audit and the questioning of how goods and services are procured by your agency – and if things don’t go well here, depending on local rules, you might be required to pay for the item out of your pocket.
Purchasing and procurement explained
Although the words purchasing and procurement are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings.
- Purchasing is the actual financial transaction that takes place. An item is ordered and delivered, and payment is made.
- Procurement, on the other hand, is the method used by agencies to obtain goods and services.
Government purchasing and procurement practices are governed by myriad federal and state laws and local ordinances. Having a working knowledge of government finance should be on every firefighter’s to-do list.
If your agency does not have written purchasing and procurement policies, then you have financial risks that are not only predictable but also preventable. Well-written and enforced financial policies are essential to the operation and wellbeing of a fire department.
The gold standard for government procurement is competitive bidding. Generally, suppliers like competitive bidding because it gives all qualified bidders a level field to win a government contract for the goods and services. The government prefers it because it is relatively transparent, and it can deliver the desired goods and services at the best possible cost.
On the other hand, competitive bidding is both time-consuming and expensive for the government and vendors. It takes time to develop specifications and to put together all the additional documents required to be part of the bid package before the notice of competitive bidding can be published. For potential bidders, there are costs involved in reviewing the documents, addressing the specifications, explaining any exceptions to the specifications, and providing bid bonds.
The nature of the competitive bidding process makes it cumbersome and could cost more in time and money than the goods or services that the agency wants to buy. To overcome this issue, most states and local governments have created exemptions from competitive bidding.
Exemptions to competitive bidding
Many states set two distinct exemption thresholds for purchasing goods and services. The first is for goods under a certain dollar limit. The second is for public works service contracts and usually has much higher dollar limit. The exact dollar thresholds will vary by state.
Other exemptions include purchases through federal, state and county procurement contracts, goods and services purchased through cooperative purchasing programs, and emergency purchases (these may require an emergency declaration by the governing authority).
There are carve-outs and other mandatory sources that your agency may have to use. These include purchasing goods from correctional institutions and purchasing from organizations that support people with disabilities.
Lastly, purchases of surplus or used goods from another government agency are usually exempt from competitive bidding.
A few words of caution: Do not be tempted to break up a purchase to avoid competitive bidding requirements. This is usually prohibited by statute. One other caveat is cumulative spending with one vendor. This can arise when multiple agencies of a city or county issue separate purchase orders to the same vendor. For example, the fire, police and public works departments each issue purchase orders for paper goods to the same vendor. Individually, these purchases are under the bidding threshold, but when totaled, exceed the threshold.
Physical asset management
Physical assets are tangible and intangible assets acquired for use in operations that will benefit the local government for more than a single fiscal period. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board and the Government Finance Officers Association define physical (capital) assets as land, land improvements, construction-in-progress, infrastructure/improvements, buildings, furniture, motor vehicles, audio-visual and software. Generally, physical assets are the largest asset of a local government. Leased assets are typically not included in the inventory unless it is some form of lease-purchase, and then only after the lease term expires and title is passed to the municipality.
For our purposes, physical assets will include apparatus and other vehicles, furniture, tools and equipment, firefighting tools and appliances including hose, power tools and communications equipment.
After going through the steps required to make your tool and equipment purchases, the next step is to add it all to your inventory system. If you do not have an inventory control system, now is a good time to put one together. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet or something more sophisticated. There are plenty of inventory control systems available for purchase.
[Read next: How to buy inventory management software]
Why have an inventory control system? In a word, compliance. Do you have an AFG grant? If so, it came with accountability requirements that must be complied with. Then there is compliance with federal, state and local laws regarding asset management and disposal, inventory control and reporting requirements.
A well-designed inventory control system does more than just keep a list of “stuff.” The system includes a description of the item, including make model and serial number if applicable, warranty information, location of the item, acquisition date and cost, service and repair records including the associated costs. All this collected information can be used for reasons other compliance.
For instance, the department has rotary power saws that are starting to become maintenance-intensive or are being cannibalized for parts and should be replaced. The folks in the finance office or maybe the city/county council want to know why you want to buy six $2,000 saws. The data you have collected can be analyzed and presented to show that it is costing thousands of dollars each year to keep them running, or that they are tagged out of service because of the difficulty obtaining parts. Those folks can still say no, but you made a better argument than “because I said so.”
Selection and acquisition of tools and equipment
As you are working through the purchasing and procurement policies, there’s plenty of other work to consider. Have you identified your needs and wants? Are you replacing equipment or adding something completely new to your inventory? Are you able to justify the expense? Municipal spending is always a touchy subject, and you will need to present a coherent explanation to ignorant politicians.
Fire chiefs should not be deciding what to purchase in a vacuum because they are not among the firefighters who actually use the tools and equipment. Gather a committee made up of your maintenance members, chief officers, company officers and firefighters. Your mantra as the chief should be, “I’ll get the money and take the hits, but I need your help in selecting what is best for our department.” (You can delegate authority, but not your responsibilities.)
On a personal note, when my former agency was upgrading and replacing our SCBA and PPE, I gave my team the budget they had to work with and gave them authority to get the job done. To say they pounded the sales representatives is an understatement. This little group got sample SCBA and PPE from different manufacturers and tested them under street conditions before making their recommendations. It was a great experience for everyone involved, apart from the sales representatives.
Replacing axes and Halligan bars certainly does not require much training. On the other hand, if you are putting new hydraulic forcible entry tools, saws and other power tools into service, training your members in the safe use and routine maintenance of the equipment is vital.
Remember, predictable is preventable, and allowing an untrained member to use these power tools could get someone seriously injured. Initial and refresher training on equipment that is not frequently used is critically important.
The process of buying tools and equipment for your fire department involves requirements that can make buying something as simple as an axe more complicated than simply running down to the local big box home improvement store. There are any number of people interested and concerned about how you are spending the taxpayer’s money.
Purchasing and procurement rules can vary from one municipality to the next. The variations are likely to be local in origin because Smallville might have different spending thresholds from Gotham City. Your job is to be aware of the thresholds that apply to your agency and develop department policies that comply with those rules.
Another part of your job is to safeguard the tools and equipment. Use an inventory control system to make that aspect of the job somewhat easier. Tools and equipment will break, wear out, or are lost or stolen. A solid physical asset management plan will make it easier to maintain and track the lifespan of your tools and equipment.
Firefighting is a team sport. Input from the team in selecting tools and equipment is a good way to encourage member ownership in the job. It also adds more eyes and brains to the decision-making process. And maybe it will keep you safe from purchasing the next one hit wonder tool.
Sidebar: One-hit wonders
Over the course of your fire service career, you will come across tools and equipment that are marketed as panaceas. They are one-hit wonders for a reason. These tools worked, were used, and then relegated to the ash heap of history for various reasons. This is not a criticism of new tools and technology, more a word of advice about being an early-adopter. Most of the younger members of the fire service probably never heard of “Jet Axe” and “Rapid Water.”
“Jet Axe” was a forcible entry tool that used the explosive RDX to punch either a round or square hole through heavy walls and doors. The 1970 cost per unit was approximately $100. The per unit cost left it available to only military fire departments and the largest municipal fire departments. Jet Axe was credited with several successful saves, and a 1971 Popular Mechanics article highlighted it as one of the most promising technological advances for the fire service. Jet Axe faded from the scene in the early 1980s and was completely removed from service after a 1982 training accident injured several firefighters.
Another one hit wonder was “Rapid Water.” Developed by Union Carbide and Bendix in the late 1960s, today Rapid Water exists only in the history books and has two legacies: 1¾-inch hose and fewer firefighters assigned to FDNY engine companies.
The science of Rapid Water was essentially adding an agent to the water at the pump that reduced the turbulence that naturally occurs in flowing water. Doing so allowed for increased volumes of water in each size hose. And yes, it worked. A 1¾-inch hoseline could produce a flow nearly equal to a 2½-inch line. On the other hand, it created incredibly slippery floors and stairs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that several firefighters sustained career-ending injuries because of problems with the mixture.
According to the 20th edition of the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, at the time of publication in 2008, the authors were unaware of any agency using agents such as Rapid Water.