Do hoarding, excess inventory, over-purchasing and maverick spend sound familiar? If the answer is “yes,” you aren’t alone. Many fire chiefs across the country say that one of the biggest issues they struggle with is getting a handle on how to buy, stock and use inventory within their departments, especially in the category of station supplies.
Firefighters Aren’t Inventory Managers
So, what’s causing these issues and creating excess expenses for departments? There are several contributing factors, says Grainger’s Public Safety Program Manager, Nate Nevala. “Ultimately, firefighters just want to have the things they need to execute their missions and operate efficiently,” he says. “However, we find that due to inconsistency with supply chain processes, shifting demands on usage and short-term shortages leading to stock outs, many feel the path of least resistance is to have plenty of ‘just in case’ stock, especially if you are trying to manage supplies over three shifts.
“Firefighters’ core competency is protecting, serving and savings lives, and when they get weighed down with complicated supply chains, procurement rules and inventory upkeep, firefighters tend to adopt habits and behaviors that can become costly for the department,” Nevala adds.
For example, when speaking to a chief who had completed a recent station visit, Nevala says the chief noticed fingerprints on the white ceiling tiles at the station. Curious as to why his staff would even be touching the tiles to begin with, the chief inspected further and found large quantities of toilet paper stored in the ceiling. “As we discussed this issue further, he explained that this concerns him in two ways,” Nevala says. “First, it means that part of his budget is tied up in hoarded supplies, and second, his staff doesn’t feel confident they are going to have what they need when they need it.”
The Pain Chain of Supply
Due to the broad breadth of products needed to maintain and operate a 24-hour operation, fire departments often find themselves having to manage a number of vendors just to get all the supplies they need. In many fire departments, staff members are required to drive to multiple store locations to pick up supplies—a process that can be costly and that presents additional cost through time and risk, not to mention the occasional problematic perception of the department being out “shopping.”
Additionally, fire departments also rely heavily on outdated order management procedures, such as Excel spreadsheets or emails, to manage their ordering processes. This can cause a number of issues, including ordering errors or time delays due to waiting for approvals. Furthermore, most departments don’t set par levels (minimum and maximum inventory levels for a stocked item) on supplies at a station level, causing inconsistency in stock and supply.
Below are four time-tested approaches for managing fire department inventory and to streamline their purchasing process and better manage their supplies:
- Optimize your supply chain. After reviewing the supply chain processes of the firehouse where the toilet tissue hoarding was going on, Nevala and his team learned that one of the reasons this happened was because of the strict order and approval process the firefighters were forced to follow. Since they could only place orders on certain days, there were instances where they were unable to meet the deadline because they were out performing other duties. One way to avoid issues around ordering is to select a contracted supplier like Grainger to supply all of your station’s needs via a single, consolidated platform. Focus on consolidating your suppliers and using vendors that cover a broader range of inventory in order to leverage your buying power and streamline the ordering process. Evaluate your approval and buying process (who is in charge and who really needs to be involved?) and eliminate unnecessary steps. As part of this evaluation, think about standardizing the supplies you use so as to limit confusion about which products need to be purchased. This ensures that the goods are where they need to be when firefighters need them, and that you’re getting the best possible contracted price (versus having to shop around every time).
- Leverage technology. It’s easy enough to run out to Walgreens or CVS when your firefighters need a toothpaste replenishment, but when you repeat that process over and over again throughout the year, the time and dollars spent really begin to add up. Instead, technology can help save time and streamline processes. Ecommerce, for example, means you can save all of your standardized items in a list and automatically replenish from the saved list with a click of a button instead of a trip to the store. Grainger’s Work Order management system eliminates paper order requests and streamlines the approval process for order review. Using Grainger’s app also allows those in charge of purchasing to scan an item at the site level in order to automatically generate an order, rather than having to write down items on paper and then transfer it to your ordering system.
- Use inventory optimization techniques. Inventory optimization (IO) ensures that the right amount of inventory is in the right place at the right time. Using advanced modeling techniques and IO software, fire chiefs can make better decisions about station supplies (i.e., hand soap, paper towels, etc.) and have better control over inventory levels. Using just in time (JIT) replenishment, fire chiefs can ensure proper par levels while also reducing waste. By leveraging Grainger's supply chain, fire departments can keep fast-moving items readily available and let Grainger carry slower-moving items, freeing up space at the station. Control dispensing options for things like paper towels or hand soap to help eliminate waste and keep a better handle on how much of these items are being used on a routine basis.
- Partner with a trusted third party. If you’d rather focus on what your fire department does best—putting out fires and savings lives—consider partnering with a trusted third party to manage fire department inventory. Grainger KeepStock® Inventory Management, for example, offers a full suite of inventory management solutions that can address your department’s most critical inventory challenges and concerns. With inventory control that is created to meet a fire department’s specific needs, KeepStock Inventory Management Solutions can help keep your department running at a maximum level—and with minimum cost and efforts. “By making the inventory management process easier for them,” says Nevala, “we’ve literally given fire chiefs back hours that they can spend on more important tasks.”
By taking these steps, fire chiefs can gain better control of their inventory and effectively reduce the amount of rogue spending, hoarding and waste that eats away at their budget. The fire department that makes these moves will be the one that operates more efficiently and effectively.
“Fire chiefs want their firefighters to focus on two things: Fighting fires and saving lives,” says Nevala. “They don’t want them weighed down by the process of trying to manage their supply chain or worry about having the right items on hand.”