8 questions to ask apparatus vendors at a trade show or conference

Apparatus manufacturer representatives offer tips for maximizing your time at fire service trade shows


Two things about fire apparatus have never been truer: They are complex pieces of machinery and technology, and they are expensive. Getting to know fire apparatus manufacturers and the products they have available is an important part of any fire chief’s job description or that of one of their deputies.

And while many manufacturers have developed very sophisticated websites that can provide a wealth of information to perspective buyers (e.g., interactive features, such as designing your next fire truck), speaking directly with manufacturer representatives at fire service trade shows and conferences can still be an added value. But how should you prepare before attending a show and speaking with an apparatus representative? We’ll explore that here.

Develop a conference plan

Meeting with apparatus manufacturer representatives at trade shows doesn’t have to be a daunting task if you do your homework and prepare questions in advance. (Photo/Sutphen Corporation)
Meeting with apparatus manufacturer representatives at trade shows doesn’t have to be a daunting task if you do your homework and prepare questions in advance. (Photo/Sutphen Corporation)

You should have a plan prior to attending the conference so that you maximize your time and that of those attending with you, especially if you’re also going to be attending educational sessions or other events during the conference.

See if you can obtain a vendor list and map of the exhibit area prior to the conference. Most of the larger fire service conferences like Fire-Rescue International and FDIC put this information on the conference website. Identify those vendors that you’re interested in visiting and then distribute a list among your conference team. And if you’re a “team of one,” organize the list based on priority so you ensure that you see the key vendors.

Become an educated buyer

Before you head out of town, do your homework; the vendor representatives you’ll be speaking with will certainly have done theirs. You’ll want to make good use of your limited time, as well as theirs.

A good place to start is with NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus (2016 Edition), specifically Annex B: Specifying and Procuring Fire Apparatus. There you’ll find a comprehensive listing of a variety of topics and features that you can address with a fire apparatus vendor rep on site. Read through the standard and flag areas of interest.

Develop a list of questions to ask vendors

Before heading to the show, you want to ensure that each member of your team is evaluating the same information with the different vendors. One good way to do that is to give everyone on your team a list of the questions (the script) they should use with the vendor reps. Doing so will help your people “stay on point” and maximize everyone’s time.

With this in mind, following are eight questions to get an idea for the types of questions you may want to ask apparatus manufacturer reps. There are certainly other questions specific to your department and its needs that you’ll want to add to the list, but these are a helpful starting point.

Question 1: How long has your company been in business and how long has the current leadership been in place?

Zach Rudy, director of sales and marketing for Sutphen Corporation, says a company’s stability is something that customers want to know about: “Sutphen is proud to say we have been in business for 129 years and have never been bought or sold,” he said. “And many of our customers tell us that’s an important item when they’re looking to spend $500,000 to $1 million on a piece of fire apparatus.”

Question 2: Can you take me through the purchasing process?

We want to know what purchasing a fire truck from your company looks like from start to finish. Some things to listen for in their answer include:

  • Assistance they can provide for writing specifications;
  • What their preconstruction process involves;
  • How they will communicate with your department during the construction process;
  • When the truck can be looked at during construction; and
  • How they will deliver your apparatus and get you ready to use it.

Question 3: What chassis do you use and where is it built?

For example, Sutphen is the sole manufacturer of the chassis, meaning that they build every part the cab. “We do not outsource any part of our cab from another vendor,” Rudy said. “Doing this helps us maintain a high level of quality control because we know that what we are making is what we engineered.”

Question 4: How does your preconstruction conference process work?

Jim Lyons, owner at J. Lyons Fire Consultants, LLC, says the preconstruction conference is an area where he’s seen fire departments overlook the importance of spelling out details in their apparatus specifications. Lyons says the preconstruction conference is the most important part of the pre-build process and sets the entire build agenda for the factory. Learning about a manufacturer’s process beforehand (why you’re going to the trade show, right?) will be critical when your department writes the specifications for your new fire apparatus.

Question 5: What in-service training will you provide for our people after delivery of the vehicle?

Lyons said that a common misconception is that training is automatically included after delivery, and that’s not true. Posing this question to the vendor reps you meet is critical because of the mechanical and electrical complexity of today’s fire apparatus.

“Even the same model of apparatus from the same manufacturer can have significantly different operational characteristics after only a couple of years,” Lyons said. “Just because you have a 2012 model pumper from, say, Pierce doesn’t mean that you can jump into a 2019 model of the same pumper and drive it and operate it without training specific to that newer model.”

Question 6: How can you deliver in-service training?

How much time would be involved for a training session? Can they do multiple deliveries of the training to accommodate career firefighter shift schedules and volunteer firefighter work schedules?

If yours is a volunteer department, ensure that the vendor can agree to a statement like “training will occur over [an agreed upon weekend].” You need this assurance so that you know that the vendor can deliver training when most of your members are available.

Question 7: Who will deliver the in-service training?

Ask the vendor what knowledge and experience their instructors have in delivering in-service training. You want to hear that their instructors are specifically hired to review their apparatus with the customer – and the training isn’t coming from a salesperson. This is important because you want training that is not just about reviewing items; it should include driving, pumping and operating all the systems on the apparatus, as well as maintenance review items.

Question 8: Describe your company’s process for service after the sale?

You want to know how a company is going to handle warranty work as well as after-warranty work. You’ll also want to know where your apparatus would need to go for after-sale work and who’s responsible for getting the apparatus to the repair site and back.

You’ll also want to know who’s their closest local dealer contact in your area and how to get in touch with that person after the trade show or conference. According to Sutphen’s Rudy, their local dealer network is a strong asset for both the company and the customer: “Utilize the manufacturer’s dealer network and learn from them,” Rudy said. “They will be able to understand the fire industry within your region better than anyone else.”

The more informed, the better

There you have it. Information from fire apparatus insiders who can help you become a more informed and educated consumer before your next fire apparatus purchase.

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