Wise Fire Service Leaders Know Their Place in the Market

It has long been my experience that the buying and selling of things is what helps to makes the world go around. If you are a buyer, be an educated consumer. These are people who know exactly what they want and exactly how much they should pay for it. My hope for the fire service is to create a market where educated buyers can come together with educated industry salespeople. This approach may well lead to better interactions and improve the buying experience for fire service people around the world. When next you attend a county, state, regional or national convention or conference where salespeople are clamoring for your attention, I want you to be ready. I am pitching this column to people on both sides of the buyer-seller aisle.

It is my desire to make the fire service a better place to live and work by helping all parties to the buyer-seller equation understand just how they should act and interact. My research indicates that today's consumers are faced with strong competition among traders, a wide range of products and services, and readily available credit.

Two pressures affect each of us who chooses to become an educated consumer. In the first instance, each of us needs to become conversant in the laws governing public-sector purchases. In the second instance, we need to learn about the pitfalls facing each of us in those instances when we are faced with a decision to buy something for our agency.

People who are charged with spending public funds usually find that they are subject to the stringent confines of governmental regulations designed to keep them from squandering the public's largess. To some, these regulations can be confining. However, since they are the law, they must be obeyed.

Like many of you, I have lived a life colored by the curse of the low bid. I have had to use shoddy equipment because the people buying it were unaware of the ways in which bids for equipment should be written. If you are a consumer in this arena, it is critical for you to know the law.

There will be bid thresholds and quotation requirements that vary from state to state. However, if you really know what it is that you wish to buy, then that is what you should write your specifications around. A failure to craft your bids in a way that reflects what you really want to acquire does a disservice to your agency. An agency can never be faulted for writing tough specifications.

If you are going to become an effective consumer of fire and emergency service products, you must spend time learning how to operate within the confines of the law. In our case in New Jersey, we are bound by state law to advertise and solicit public bids when the size of a purchase exceeds a given amount. My agency is in the midst of constructing a new substation, so I am well aware of the process. Further, our agency makes a number of purchases each month. The members of our staff who generate the purchasing requests are aware that for purchases under a certain amount, they have to obtain only three quotations from different vendors so that we can indicate that we are selecting the lowest bidder.

In our state, a mechanism exists for speeding up the process. The state has created a list of pre-qualified bidders. If we choose to purchase something from a state contract, we need only indicate in our records that we are buying from a state-contract vendor. It takes a bit of time to become conversant in the ways of public- sector buying, but it is time well spent.

Now it is time to move to the other side of the coin. Each of us is subject to the nuances of our personalities and our learned behaviors. When it comes to the buying experience, each of us is subject to internal and external pressures. You must learn to control your response to them.

It has been my experience that poor consumer practices can make purchasing troublesome. The worst of all is impulse buying. This is human nature and can create bad situations. You see something and you want it right away. The pull of the instant gratification gene (if such a biological anomaly exists) is tremendous indeed. Think about what can happen at a supermarket if you go food shopping when you are hungry. I have seen this same phenomenon at work at fire service trade shows. I have been attending conferences and conventions for more than 30 years, and I have seen salespeople snare an unwitting victim with a slick sales line and a few drinks and dinner. This is an area rife with pitfalls for the buyer.

When you attend these conferences, go with an agenda. If you are attending for the purpose of gathering information, stay within the bounds of information gathering. If you are looking to purchase, have a plan for weighing item A against item B. Some of you may have created purchasing committees for this purpose. This is a good thing. There needs to be an open airing and sharing of ideas as to what your organization needs. You can save time and money if you plan your purchase and understand your rights and those of the person making the product pitch.

Far too few of us understand that any time we are buying something, we are forming a contract with the person selling us the product. The bigger the purchase, the more important is the need for an official contractual obligation. My research has told me that a contract is an agreement that is legally binding on the parties. Usually, the contract consists of an exchange of promises to act in a particular way, provide a particular item or pay a specified sum of money.

My agency recently approved a number of annual service contracts. Our choice of firms for the new contracts was based on their past service. Since they all fulfilled the terms of last year's contracts to our satisfaction, we entered into fresh agreements with them for the new year.

When making larger purchases, attention must be paid to the planning process. During the period prior to our advertising for bid to construct a new fire station, many months of intensive interaction was held by our station planning committee. Most of the needs were specified and the agreements were made internally before we brought in the architect to hammer out a set of plans. Rest assured that our purchase was made in accordance to law. Our contracts were planned and executed with the advice of legal counsel. Our financial arrangements were created so that they would fall within our ability to pay. Our construction is being monitored by our architect, in concert with our engineering advisors. At some point, our project will arrive at a successful conclusion.

This is how it should work every time that a buyer and a seller come together. Does it work out this way every time? Of course not. I do not like ignorant salespeople. If you are going to sell me something, you had best be very conversant in the use and operating features of that product. Far too many people are masquerading as salespeople when they could better be described as hucksters. The true salesperson wants to sell you something that meets your need. The huckster only wants your money and will say or do whatever it takes to accomplish that job. Here are a few simple rules for the buyers and sellers in the emergency service world to use: Buyers

  1. Do not act in secret
  2. Do not make surprise purchases
  3. Do not buy the first thing you see
  4. Know what you really need
  5. Plan your purchases
  6. Do not lie to your friends
  7. Do not lie to the seller
  8. Not every salesperson is honest
  9. Not every salesperson is dishonest

  1. Not all buyers are fruit trees to be picked in the pursuit of profit
  2. Know your product
  3. Know how your product works
  4. Do not try to sell something that the buyer does not want
  5. Do not sacrifice a possible long-term relationship in pursuit of a quick, short-term profit
  6. Do not lie to the buyer
  7. Do not make outlandish promises
  8. Not every buyer is dishonest
  9. Not every buyer is honest

A successful relationship with an honest merchant is a rewarding experience. It is critical to know what you want and to identify vendors who can meet your needs. If you are in the industry, it is critical to provide a quality product at a reasonable price. You should also be able to provide necessary remedial services in an effective manner. The buyer and seller need to come together in a way that allows for the creation of a relationship built on trust and reasonable expectations. A failure on either side can lead to a very bad experience.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently the chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is secretary of the United States Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through drharrycarter@optonline.net.