by Tim Pillsowrth
During your years of service in a volunteer, combination, or even a small paid department, you may have the chance to sit on one or more purchasing committees. This committee can be for a new truck, a building addition, a new building, or rescue tools. These are very popular committees to help departments make the “big’ purchase. But what about your personal protective equipment (PPE)? Too many times, departments do not consider their gear a “big” purchase, or they don’t research it as much as they would a new truck. But take the number of sets of gear you have and multiply by $2,000 (head to toe) and see how high the number becomes. A hundred full sets of structural gear can run the department well over $200,000.
Many departments might not even think about replacing their gear or not know if they need to replace it. Too many just keep purchasing what they have in previous years without any additional thought. If you are wondering if you might need replace or update your PPE, see if you can answer the following questions.
- What is the manufacturer of your PPE?
- What is the age of your PPE?
- How old is the specification of your PPE?
- What alarms you do respond to?
- What materials is your PPE constructed of?
- Outer shell?
- Moisture barrier?
- Thermal liner?
- Do you even have a PPE specifications?
If you cannot answer the majority of the questions, or the answers are not what you should be saying, it is probably time to take a serious look at replacing your PPE. This article will not dive into the technical aspects of gear design but focus on the methods of specifying new gear. You can use the same methodology for any large purchase in your department.
To help you select knowledgeable members for a purchasing committee, ask the firefighters in your station the questions above. I bet they can tell you the year, make, and model of each piece of apparatus you have in your truck room. Most likely, they can tell you about the majority of the equipment in the neighboring station. But when it comes to PPE, they might be able to tell you the manufacturer but, most likely, not the answers to the other questions.
If you have a specification already, that is a good place to start, but to move forward you must pick your committee. You need a small group of dedicated members who can share the workload and can share thoughts, ideas, and decisions. Then, when it is time to present the committee’s findings to the decision maker, there will be fewer questions and more support.
Who should be on the committee? You need people who are willing to complete research, be open to new and different ideas, and understand what the department needs. Interview and pick a committee of four or six members, not including you. The total will be five or seven; an odd number means no ties and keeps the number in the normal span of control. Choose officers, past officers, younger members who are willing to learn, and members who have been around awhile. If you have more than one station or company, make sure the committee includes members from the other stations/companies. This will reduce the “That is what they want” or “We were never included in the discussions” comments.
Once you have selected the committee, have the kick-off meeting. This will set the tone for the entire process. Present a set of written goals and an estimated timeline to work toward. Timelines are required to keep the process moving forward. Without them, the process will drag until people lose interest.
If you are like many departments today, you respond to fires (OK, automatic alarms), motor vehicle accidents (MVAs), medical calls, brush fires, and public service calls. So ask yourself and your committee, “What type of PPE do we need?” Many departments only have structural gear but might respond to 60 percent or more medical calls or have a busy brush fire season. If that is the case, why aren’t you looking into purchasing more than one type of PPE? By using turnout gear for brush fires, you could be damaging it, shortening its duty life, and putting more stress on your members by inducing higher levels of heat stress and possible injuries by performing duties your PPE really was not designed for. You could reduce physical stress at alarms and possibly save some money in the long run by supplying more than one type of gear. Please don’t take this to mean you must issue each form of PPE to each member. But if you have a heavy workload other than structural response, it might be smart to look at more than one form of PPE.
What do you need? Well, what types of alarms do you respond to? How many? You cannot guess, so you will have to do a response analysis. This might seem like a daunting task, but it will not be if you already submit your department’s responses for the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). Your responses will be already be broken down into groups (fires, medical, rescues). You can easily obtain the data you need if you use one of the approved NFIRS computer software programs. The programs enable you to print out the responses into the groupings you request by year and even directly place the data into a spreadsheet for easy review and analysis. By grouping the type of alarms for a number of years, you can see the trends and total numbers of responses. By grouping into similar types such as brush/wildland, MVA, medical, and fire (structural, vehicle, and automatic alarms), you will be able to see the number of and types of alarms to which you respond. The data can help you determine if you should look into more than one type of PPE. For example, if your area is being built up, your need for wildland gear may be decreasing.
Once you have completed your response analysis, record the findings. This will make it easier to remember them correctly and defend them.
Q & A of the Governing Body
Next, talk to your department’s governing body and see if there are any changes planned for the next three to five years that you might not know about. Are you going to start first response duties (EMS)? Are you going to stop running EMS because the local EMS service is changing? At this meeting, tell the board what your plan and schedule are and that you need them to set aside money (the money will be explained later). Your plan should include the following:
- Research of standards and regulations.
- Interviews with department members.
- Interviews with neighboring departments.
- Presentations from PPE manufacturers with their local sales representatives.
- Review and decisions of what you want to investigate further and test.
- Writing your preliminary specifications and wear testing.
- Writing your final specifications.
- Bidding and award.
- Receipt and issue.
Research of Standards and Regulations
Once you have your response data, possible future changes in your department’s response, and an understanding of what you might need, it is time to read. Get the latest copy of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard for the PPE you are looking to purchase. Here is a list of pertinent NFPA standards:
- NFPA 1951, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Technical Rescue Incidents, 2007 Edition.
- NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, 2007 Edition.
- NFPA 1977, Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting 2005 Edition.
- NFPA 1999, Standard on Protective Clothing for Emergency Medical Operations 2008 Edition.
Also, don’t forget your local or state rules. In New York State, there is a requirement for all interior firefighters to have a form of a personal escape system. The general scope of the law is if you have any structures over four stories, you must offer each interior firefighter a personal rescue system so he may escape the fire if he is cut off from all other means of egress. Your state may not have this rule but might have something that can affect your PPE purchase.
Committee members must read and understand each of the standards and rules that apply to your future purchase. As a side note, this applies to every large purchase you are planning (apparatus, SCBA). The more you learn now, the more you will understand when the salesperson comes.
From your reviews, write down the most important items in your PPE for you and your department. It could be thermal protective performance (TPP), total heat loss (THL), durability, reflective striping, reinforcement, or a long list of other items that you feel you need to operate at every alarm. If you type up your list, you can use as it for question and answer with your sales representative and others.
Interview Department Members
Once you know what you want to ask, begin your department interviews. Yes, interviews. Sit down with your members and ask them what they like and don’t like about the gear they have now. If they say “everything,” pry specifics out of them. Is it the fit? Location of pockets? Size of pockets? Color? Yes, that does come up.
Once you have conducted interviews, group the answers together into similar comments. Review the largest number of similar comments. If in all your interviews the members say they do not like the cut of the coat/pants or the pocket locations, for example, look into changing these items with your new gear specification.
Interview Neighboring Departments
For you next set of interviews, talk to departments around you. Use the same questions you asked your own members but add a few: What company manufactured your PPE? How old is the specification? Do you have any problems or complaints with the gear’s performance? Who is the local sales representative? How is the service?
The last question might appear a little odd, but remember, you will be entering into a relationship with this representative and company for years to come. In the past, if your department or others have had numerous service problems or problems with the sales rep, you need to note and address it in the final review.
As a side note, I have worked very closely with two sale representatives; one won the bid, the other did not. By working with both, I can still call on both of them today to ask questions and gather information, and I have become friends with both. If you grow a relationship such as this, you will be able to accomplish more for years to come.
In the first round of meetings with manufacturers, you will need to talk materials, styles, and features–thus, the first round will take some time. One or two hours on a weeknight will not be enough; set up three to fours hours for each during the day, most likely a weekend. This will give you time to hear their presentation, ask your questions, and complete the first “hands-on” time. Each person on the committee should ask questions and take notes. What one member might miss, another might get. Sometimes the little items are the ones that matter the most.
Once the presentations are complete, you will need some time to review the manufacturers’ literature and product information. You have lots of styles and materials to choose from. Review the Q&As and compare the answers. Remember, if you purchase the same outer shell material from two different PPE manufacturers, it is the same. An honest sales representative will tell you that materials are the same from manufacturer to manufacturer–it is the construction that makes them different.
Try to complete the first round of interviews over a few weeks so all the information is fresh in your mind. During this time you will receive follow-up phone calls, e-mails, and mailings from the supplier and the local sale representatives. You will need some time to review the information. Be honest; tell them you will need a few weeks or a month to review the information and will get back to them. Make sure you do get back to all of them, even the ones you might not be interested in. It will be difficult to tell the sales representatives that you don’t want to look at their products, but that will make you more credible and will help with future purchases of other equipment.
This will be the long list to help you decide what you want in materials and final design. Take a look at Fire Engineering. How many different outer shells, thermal liners, and moisture barriers are advertised? In the end you will need to pick one of each of these for your PPE, not to mention the materials for other forms of PPE you might be purchasing as well. Shorten the list for each layer to two at most. The greater the number, the more difficult the testing will be. I was lucky; I knew that I wanted only one thermal liner and one moisture barrier, so the outer shell was the only layer in question.
This phase can be difficult and cost money. Some gear manufacturers will charge money (sometimes reduced) for the gear you test, to help offset the cost of the PPE you will be using, or you might use gear that has been wear tested in the past. If you are going to use a previously used set of PPE, make sure it has been completely cleaned and inspected by the manufacturer; then inspect it yourself to make sure it is not damaged. You might ask if you can get a few new sets to test. It can take weeks and sometime months to have a set of gear manufactured, so your tests have be pushed ahead. And at a price of between $1,200 and $1,600 for the coat and pants alone, it is difficult to expect the manufacturer to make and issue thousands of sets of PPE for tests across the country each year. (Our department and some others I know had to pay for some sets to test. The gear tests are to check fit, construction, etc.) How many apparatus manufacturers will give you a $500,000+ truck that meets your specifications (or close to it) to test, take to alarms, and beat on for a month or more?
Pick the styles you want to test, and break up the material options between them. This is the most efficient way. The performance of the materials and options themselves will not be much different between manufacturers. The fit, quality, and design are the differences you will see. The difference is if you use different thermal liner ands moisture barriers in conjunction with the outer shell. The three work together as a system, and if you change one part of the system, you will notice the difference. The synergistic characteristics of the three layers are what create the total TPP and THL values you are looking for. So the importance of limiting the number of each is evident.
Contact your local sales representatives and work out the test gear specifications together. Go in knowing what materials and options you want with each test set. Let the sales representative write the test specification for you, and ask for a copy. This will give you language and a base for the final specification. Attempt to get gear that will fit more than just one person; this will allow you to pass it around and get input from more than one person per set. Make sure that testers understand and work around the minor fit issues (from not being specifically sized for members).
Now here is the fun part: Use the gear–alot! Wear it to alarms and drills. Set up drills at your training facility so you can do live burns, place and climb ladders, operate handlines, vent and search, and complete other tasks such as extrication. Do all the functions you normally do and some you don’t, such as drive. The PPE you are using now might not be comfortable or safe to drive in, but the new gear might. If you are testing boots and might change from rubber to leather, you might see many of your drivers don their pants before they drive.
After a member has completed the wear test, interview him and take notes. This will be important in the final review process. Get the list of likes and dislikes and reasons. If you hear “I just don’t like it” or “I will not use it,” it is something personal, not professional, and do not consider it in the final decision.
From the wear test list of likes and dislikes, you can write your final specifications. You may be surprised at what you might find in the end. For example, the set of gear I thought we were most likely going to purchase was not the favorite. It ended up a close third. Would we have been happy with it? Yes, but we determined there was something better for us.
The specifications that the wear test gear was based on will assist in writing the final document. It will be the basis to start from and you can then add or delete the required changes. The bid specification will most likely be written around the one manufacturer your committee found to be the best for your department. This is good and bad. It is good because it is the manufacturer you want based on your committee’s research and tests. It is bad because it can be an issue with your governing body and legal review. Many departments have made strides to purchase the same manufacturer of apparatus, tools, and power equipment for standardization and preference. But if the specification is overly restrictive, problems in receiving more than one bidder or legal challenges may occur. So make sure you include the design features that will ensure you can capture the product you want, but do not make the specs so loose that you will receive and might have to accept a product your committee does not want. Remember, in most cases, the lowest bidder meeting the specifications is awarded the bid.
Most manufacturers have a general specification you can edit to meet your requirements that will be able to go to public bid. It will be much like writing a specification around one truck manufacturer so you can keep the same type of truck in your department. In that spec, you will find stitches per inch, descriptions of the cuffs or knees, type of reinforcement materials, and so on. This will allow you to create a specification that the manufacturer you desire can meet. To allow for open competition, make sure there is a way for all manufacturers to bid on the gear if they have a different design, method, or way to “meet the essence of the specifications.”
It is best to complete the specification, review it within the committee, and then present it to the governing body. This presentation can be difficult. There could be many questions that you must be ready and able to answer. How do you answer them? Honestly. And remember the notes you and your committee have been taking throughout the process? Notes from the interviews, research, and tests will be very valuable in defending your decisions. Remember the one guy who just did not like the PPE? Have his comments ready to answer as well. This person might have the chance to go through the “back door” to the governing body. Although these comments might not have any merit, if the committee cannot address them, they can become valid.
Presenting Specs to Governing Body/Bid Period
Once the specifications are presented, there will be some edits, with any luck very minor. Then it’s off to the lawyer. Yes, the lawyer. It is important to have the specification undergo legal review before it goes out to bid to ensure that there will be more than one bidder, not a sole-source bid. This can limit or eliminate any bid protests from a losing bidder. This is a very fine line and difficult to understand, so let the lawyer help you. In the end, if the lawyer’s changes are too vast, you will have to sit down with the lawyer and governing body and work out the differences.
If it gets to this point, talk with the committee and see what is agreeable to remove from the specification and what is a must have–a list of give and take items. If you have to remove one or two minor things so the lawyer will agree to the document, there is still a very good chance that the gear your committee wants is what you will get. If you fight for and expect everything, you might just lose everything.
Once it is out to bid, you might receive requests for information (RFI) on the specifications from the bidders. Under most governmental-based bidding, you must answer the RFIs to all that have requested the bid. Ensure the lawyer tracks the questions and sends out the responses. Remain the technical expert on your specification. Your committee wrote it, so you should be the expert.
At the bid opening, all the bids will be opened and most likely read into record. The cost would be one item to consider; the other and most important item is to review the submissions for any specification exceptions. Unless your committee’s specification is extremely general, not all manufacturers will be able to meet it completely.
Review all the exceptions, and make a list for each bid. By having all the exceptions together, you can “grade” each bid on its meeting the specifications. Pick the bid that meets your specification the closest, and compare it to the bid costs. With any luck, the lowest price will be the same as the bid that meets the specification the most. If not, inform the governing body and lawyer. The discussion to follow is to ensure that if the lower price bids have large enough exceptions to the specifications, then they can be disapproved without being challenged.
Once the winning bid has been determined, let the governing body or lawyer announce the winner and losers. At this point, there will most likely be a group of sales representatives who are very unhappy. Call all the bidders and thank them for their effort. This small gesture will help smooth your relationship with your vendors for future work and purchases.
Once you award the bid, the sales representative will need to size the PPE to each member and place the orders. Not everyone will be available at one time, so schedule a number of times and days so the majority of the membership can be fitted. For the remaining stragglers, you may have to place the first order without them.
In the specification, make sure you add a short section on gear sizing: how/when and how many sizing sessions will take place. Most manufacturers have mock gear that is cut the same as the actual gear so the fit testing will be more accurate. Measurements can be made to adjust sleeve or pant lengths. The sizing gear will be able to take into account clothing and general body irregularities we all have. After members are sized, if there is anything such as names or numbering to be attached on the gear, make sure each member checks the name and number to reduce the chances for error. Then review the list with the representative; this can help catch any errors as well.
Once the order is placed, there will most likely be an order or manufacture number. This will be the number to track the progression and delivery of your order. Keep in touch with the sales representative on the manufacturing and delivery date of the gear, and keep your department membership and leadership apprised.
Delivery and In-Servicing
Once the new gear is delivered, each member should inspect it and try it on to ensure the order is complete, correct, and ready for service. If there are any problems, bring them up to the sales representative before he leaves. It could be a minor issue such as incorrectly sized suspenders that can be changed out at a later date. Note all discrepancies in writing, and make sure both parties have a copy. If you are ordering a large number of sets of gear, expect a few problems.
Once the gear is in service for a few months or a year, interview some of the members involved in the field testing. Ask if there are any problems or things they might change. If there are only minor problems, you can easily update them in the gear specification for the next round of purchases. If the problems are major, bring the committee back together to review and find solutions for the next purchase cycle.
Although specifying PPE might not be as exciting or as flashy as purchasing a new truck, it is the most personal and important equipment you will use at every alarm. By purchasing the best gear for your department through a committee of your own members, you will have the best, and your members will be happier and safer for years to come.
TIM PILLSWORTH is a 22-year veteran firefighter/EMT and a former chief of the Winona Lake Engine Company #2 in Orange County, New York. He has presented at FDIC East and has contributed articles to Fire Engineering. He is the author of the PPE Chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009). He is also a civil engineer at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.
Subjects: Specifying personal protective equipment (PPE)