Bid specifications. The mere mention of those two words can send shudders down the spine of anyone who has ever been asked to create them. The process evokes thoughts of legalese, minimum acceptability, standards compliance and committees that can’t agree. And, once the pain of that process is complete, you get to send it all over to purchasing and start the pain all over again.
This may be what bid specifications have become, but what are they meant to be? For the purposes of discussion, we will juxtapose the differences by assuming we are specifying a flathead axe as well as a thermal imager.
Bid Specs: “Wants and Needs”
At their heart, bid specifications are supposed to be a method by which customers can communicate what they want and what they need in a way that multiple suppliers can evaluate their product offerings against the customers’ wants and needs to determine a fit. This effectively transfers some of the research and comparisons to the supplier to choose those products or models that meet the stated wants and needs of customers.
In the case of a flathead axe, this might contain statements such as: a hand-operated, non-powered striking tool configured with a weighted head at one end of a handle that contains a cutting surface opposing a striking surface. Low maintenance and ergonomics will be important to the selection process as will the balance between weight and performance. Offerings may be submitted to…
A thermal imager might say: a handheld thermal imager capable of seeing through smoke produced by any common combustible regardless of density produces a usable image under intense heat conditions. Utilizes a simplified colorization, alerting the user to certain abnormal temperature conditions. Operates greater than two hours on a single battery charge regardless of environmental conditions and has a display that is large enough to be viewed by more than one firefighter at a time. Low maintenance, overall durability, available training and service will all be important to the selection process.
These two examples are simply statements of needs, followed by wants. Minimums followed by preferences. Both matter.
At some point, these types of general bid specs failed to result in the department getting what it wanted. Somewhere along the line a department was forced, by legislation, process or purchasing procedure, to accept a product it did not want – usually because that product was the “low bid.”
Tech Specs: “Facts and Figures”
This failure of the “wants and needs” process gave rise to fire departments looking for ways to tighten up or close up the bid specification. Include so many details that most products don’t comply, leaving only the product you ultimately desired in the first place. Enter the technical specification.
The list of technical specifications can be endless and the more technical the product, the more intricate the specifications can be. These types of specifications can require an engineering degree to decipher or understand and even then can ultimately be confusing or meaningless, but they do have their desired effect. They set a bar against which other products can be evaluated and determined to meet or not meet.
The technical specification historically has been seen as the raising of the veil so that the customer could get right to the crux of the matter. In other words, answer the question without sales hype or marketing spin – could the product or couldn’t it? The advent of and reliance on technical specifications has created an interesting phenomenon. Many fire departments rely heavily on technical specifications to communicate wants and needs. The bid specs often look more like straight technical specifications with little explanation.
Our flathead axe specification might say that it needs to weigh no more than 128 ounces and be made of a non-conductive material. A thermal imaging specification might require that the imager be capable of displaying infrared information in the seven-to15-micron range and exhibit a thermal sensitivity of 50 millikelvin.