THE LOWEST BIDDER.
THE JOURNAL has repeatedly pointed out the injustice done to the Fire Service by the practice, so generally followed, of awarding contracts for fire supplies to the lowest bidder. Where this is by legislative enactment or by city ordinance, made obligatory, it almost invariably leads to the purchase of inferior articles, which, speedily giving out, involves the city purchasing in additional expense to replace it. The question of quality is entirely swallowed up in that of cheapness. In no one particular has the fallacy of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder been more conspicuously brought out than in the purchase of fire hose. Philadelphia, in the past, has furnished a prominent illustration of this. Several years ago the city bought of the lowest bidder a large quantity of cheap hose that was absolutely worthless. Some of it broke in two while being reeled up for the first time, while other sections parted from their own weight when hung up to dry. When put in service at fires, section after section burst, delaying the Firemen in extinguishing the flames, and involving additional loss. Philadelphia lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the destruction of property that might have been saved had not the hose burst. Philadelphia learned a lesson that she has profited by, and of late has been purchasing a better quality of hose.
St. Louis, too, has had a severe lesson in this respect. Some months ago we called attention to the fact that St. Louis had purchased a lot of hose at sixty-four cents a foot, the price being insufficient to cover the cost of the raw material used in its construction. In view of the fact that good, trustworthy hose cannot be bought for much less than one dollar a foot, we predicted that St. Louis would soon have occasion to regret having thrown away her money on cheap hose. Such proves to have been the fact. The Globe Democrat, of that city, referring to the recent fire in the Excelsior Manufacturing Company’s works, says:
“ The most aggravating feature to the Department was the bursting of hose. There was scarcely a Steamer on the ground but burst from two to half a dozen sections of hose. These useless and torn sections were curled about in the mire all over the streets like great coils of rope. To the cheap quality of hose was attributed the mischief, and the City Fathers were blamed for their foolish policy of buying a poor quality of hose for sixty-four cents per foot when the best that is made can only be purchased at $1.10 per foot. On account of a short supply of water the strength of the streams of water were greatly curtailed, some of them playing for a considerable length of time with not sufficient force to throw over 100 feet. No fire of any magnitude has been known to occur in this city without the invariable complaint about bursted hose. Every accessory that human ingenuity has devised to hasten the movements of a well regulated Fire Department is adopted by St. Louis as soon as the value of the improvements become established. Horses are driven under the lash at a dead run to fires in order to gain a second or two of time, and no sooner do the Steamers get to work, under an ordinary pressure, than the bursting of hose begins. In this way much of the valuable time gained by racing at break-neck speed, at the risk of life and property, through the streets is lost. The destruction of hose at the Filleys Foundry fire rendered a requisition necessary’ yesterday for 2500 feet of new hose, and it was not longer than March last that 5000 feet were purchased.
“Secretary Tennile being interviewed on the subject, said the trouble was mainly due to the purchase of cheap hose. By ordinance the contract for supplying hose is let to the lowest bidder, and these low bidders who generally get the contract could and did give their guarantee bond to replace bursted sections within two years, the same as their superior competitors, whose hose sells at from 20 to 50 cents per foot more. The Secretary continued, saying: ‘But their guarantee don’t amount to anything. It never has nor never will compensate for the loss. The cost of the hose is not considered. It is the time we lose in putting in new sections that works the damage. What do we drive fast to fires for but to save time ? But when the engines get there, and are about to get the fire under control, the hose bursts, and while the torn section is being replaced the fire has gained a fresh impetus, spreading into an adjoining building, or has crossed a street, ruining thousands of dollars’ worth of property, which could have been saved if there had been no collapsing of hose. Now, what good does a guarantee do in such cases ? It does not pay one cent for the property destroyed, but simply insures the replacing of like worthless materials to bother us at some future time.’
“ Mr. F. L. Garesche, Commissioner of Supplies, said the awards must be made to the lowest bidders. These parties guaranteed their hose to stand a pressure of 500 pounds to the square inch, for two years, and to replace any section that burst within that period. The lot of hose purchased cost 61 cents per foot: the best quality costs more than twice as much, hence the cheap man got the contract, as he gave the same guarantee as manufacturers of better goods would have done. As long as every manufacturer in the country was permitted to bid on such terms, there would be a complaint about hose bursting. There was no question on his mind but what the complaint was well founded, and that an inferior quality of hose was the principal cause of the trouble. As a remedy for the evil, Mr. Garesche suggested that bids should be only received from two or three first-class manufacturers making certain well-known brands. It was his idea that opinion would grow into practice, as late requisitions for hose were accompanied by specifications of the kind wanted, and from what manufacturers bids would be accepted. As to the economy part of the business, he considered the dearest hose the cheapest in the end, but contended that the composition of hose was such that it soon rotted the duck and rubber, consequently there was no telling when the best of hose would burst, as it deteriorated more rapidly by disuse.”
The remedy for all this is, buy the standard hose made by responsible companies, whose experience has taught them how to make the best, and whose hose already has an established reputation. But to think of getting first-class hose for much less than a dollar a foot is an absurdity, readily apparent to any one who will consider the cost of the raw material entering into its composition. To fill large orders, where there has been heavy competition, the best makes of hose have sometimes been sold for ninety cents, but at this price the manufacturer cannot make a fair profit, to which every business man is entitled. In some cities, where the law requires the authorities to award the contract to the lowest bidder, they claim the right to determine what kind of hose they want, and then advertise for bids for that particular kind. It does not matter that the particular kind is covered by a patent—the courts have declared that a city cannot be deprived of anything it needs and is the best of its kind simply because it is patented. In New York, the Commissioners determine what make of Steam Fire Engines or hose they want, and then advertise for proposals to furnish that particular kind. It the article is patented, so that other makers cannot bid on it, that is their misfortune and not the fault of the Commissioners. The intention of the law must be taken into consideration, and it certainly never was the intention of law makers to compel city authorities to buy worthless material simply because it was cheap. St. Louis can follow the example of New York in this matter if she chooses, and hereafter get good hose instead of a cheap article that is continually bursting at critical moments.