Firetruck ventilation process sparks city debate

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Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration yesterday defended the award of a $977,550 contract to ventilate firehouses to a vendor picked from a state list, even as a mayoral rival criticized city contracting and other fire departments described competitive processes they used to pick vent systems.

Mr. Ravenstahl called criticisms of his administration's choice of Ohio-based Clean Air Systems Inc., which installs Swedish-made Nederman Inc. vent systems, "malicious." Public Safety Director Michael Huss said the city wasn't wrong in not soliciting price quotes or specific proposals from different vendors before awarding the contract.

"If we got [a rival system] for $100,000, we wouldn't take it," he said.

But Pittsburgh councilman and mayoral challenger Patrick Dowd said reports of non-competitive contract awards are piling up.

"Why can't we make it a very quick turnaround?" while still seeking competitive proposals for city work, he said. "You can't just go awarding contracts."

The city is installing systems that draw exhaust directly from the tailpipes of its fire trucks and blow it outside, then disconnect from the truck as it leaves the garage. It is using a Department of Homeland Security grant to pay for 80 percent of the work, and the department urges competitive buying processes.

The city picked Clean Air Systems from a list of products and prices submitted by vendors to the state's CoStars system, because it offered the Nederman product, which a union-management committee determined was the best, said Mr. Huss. The process was approved by the Law Department.

Firms based in Hempfield and Cincinnati said their attempts to interest the city in their less-expensive systems were ignored.

"What's the plum project in Western Pennsylvania? It's the city. And I didn't even get a chance to compete for it," said Mike Miklosko, owner of Hempfield-based EMS Specialty Equipment.

The manufacturer and distributor of the MagneGrip vent system said they couldn't get the city's attention, either.

"To say that the committee didn't research different products is a downright lie," countered Darrin Kelly, a member of the firefighters union safety committee. "We felt that Nederman was the best product for us at the time."

Mr. Huss said that based on his experience and that of other firehouses, and a visit to the Fire Department Instructors Conference in April, the city wanted Nederman's system. The city got brochures from competitors but did not meet with them or solicit price quotes.

Canonsburg got at least three proposals with price quotes before settling on the EMS Specialty Equipment system, said state Rep. Tim Solobay, who is that city's fire chief.

Philadelphia picked the Nederman system after hiring an engineering firm to evaluate the available products and put together specifications, according to Deputy Fire Commissioner John Devlin. Four manufacturers submitted to become qualified vendors, and only Nederman's system met the specifications.

Philadelphia then divided its 61 stations into three groups, and solicited proposals from different installation contractors. The total cost is not yet available.

Tim Reitz, chief of the Upper Yoder Volunteer Fire Co., near Johnstown, said he got four proposals with prices, had each manufacturer "come in and show us what they have to offer," and picked the Nederman system. "It was not the cheapest. It was actually the middle of all of the bids," he said.

He will spend $40,000 in federal funds, or $8,000 for each of the vehicles to be vented.

Pittsburgh expects to spend around $17,000 per vehicle.

City Controller Michael Lamb said that a few weeks ago, his office started a review of all city Department of Homeland Security grant spending, including the Clean Air Systems deal.

He said the city can use the state's bid list, but shouldn't just assume it offers the best price.

"A lot of times it pays to shop around," he said, "rather than just say, 'We've got an approved vendor, we've got the money, let's go.' ... I think sometimes we're a little lax when it's grant-funded."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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