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Regional Fleet Maintenance Operation: Small Agencies Enjoy Big Benefits
Written by John L. Gray
Snohomish County’s vehicle fleet maintenance facility in Everett, Wash., is a bustling place with police cars, boats, command vehicles and an array of SUVs. However, what is immediately distinct from other government-run shops is the large number of different agencies that are being served. Eleven city, county and tribal police agencies, plus five non-police agencies, bring a total of nearly 800 vehicles to the 28,000 square foot facility for upfitting, maintenance and repair.
On any given day, there are black and white patrol cars from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and CVPIs in different colors and graphics, all side by side receiving service from the largest fleet maintenance facility north of Seattle. The Snohomish County government, serving a total population of 704,000, maintains several large fleet vehicle operations, and the Everett shop specializes in gas engine vehicles and is an expert in police cars.
During tough budget times, participating in a regional service is a tried and true strategy for agencies to save short-term costs and long-term expenses because talent and resources are combined together to provide more efficiency. Agency executives are tasked with the responsibility of reducing costs while keeping the high standards of safety and quality; this is why word-of-mouth advertising is bringing in more cities and agencies every year to this area’s regional service provider in fleet maintenance.
Cost Control is a Philosophy
Brad Graff, the long-time supervisor of the Everett shop, has developed the operation to handle nearly all the needs of the agencies, from receiving cars, upfitting and custom fabrication, maintenance and repairs, to stripping out old cars and sending them to auction.
The shop uses local vendors only for front-end alignments, automatic transmission repairs, body work and windshield replacements. The full-time staff includes eight mechanics, a radio technician who installs and repairs the Motorola radios, and another technician who is also qualified to install and calibrate radars. A detailer cleans and waxes the cars before they leave the shop.
Prevention is the key to controlling costs. Patrol vehicles are serviced every 4,000 miles or four months; all other cars are serviced every 5,000 miles or six months. Mechanics use the routine lube-oil-filter service as an opportunity to look for emerging or minor problems and fix them before they get bigger and become more expensive. They will put a bar on the ball joints to test them; inspect the brakes and tire treads; look for structural damage to the undercarriage; and visually inspect the powertrain, hoses and all the lights.
Focusing on finding the small problems has paid big dividends for the agency, resulting in a dramatic reduction in large, lengthy and expensive repairs. Allen Mitchell is Snohomish County’s fleet manager who oversees the operations in all the county’s garages, and he is especially proud of the number of city and independent agencies that have come to the facility for service.
Mitchell created the cost model by which agencies are charged, using a time and materials method rather than the for-profit business way of using an industry guidebook to determine the labor time. The time and materials method works because the shop’s team of mechanics has become experts in the assessment and treatment of repairs on patrol cars, especially CVPIs. They beat the guidebook nearly every time.
Mitchell sets the hourly shop rate every year to reflect the facility’s cost of operating because, by law, the county’s fleet operation must be self-supporting. Some years the cost has gone up, and other years the cost has dropped. The biggest driver of costs has not been the labor rates of the mechanics but rather the building, equipment and overhead expenses that include legal, information services and a proportional share of the county’s administrative costs. In 2010, the facility charged $89 an hour.
The county also passes on its savings from buying parts to the customer agencies. Mitchell has negotiated discounts ranging from 20 percent to 80 percent and then tacks on a flat rate percentage for the agencies. The result is that agencies pay less than what they would in the commercial marketplace. For example, in 2009, the county bought 1.2 million gallons of fuel, and because they have a contract with one supplier, they received a discount of about 50 cents per gallon.
Brad Graff works with each agency’s fleet manager to keep the scope of the repair work and the costs under control, and he negotiates prices from vendors for the agencies. When a remanufactured Ford engine was needed for a small police department’s Expedition, he negotiated the price down by $500. He also has authority from each agency to conduct repairs up to a specified amount, such as $1,000, and for anything over that, the agency’s approval is required.
Graff and his team continue to work at being more efficient. The shop operates a metal fabrication shop and an auto parts recycling operation. On one particular repair job, $22,000 was saved by using parts from the wrecked vehicles that the shop stores on site.
With about 50 new cars arriving each year for installation of emergency equipment, getting these cars upfitted quickly but to the highest standards is a priority when a car needs to be replaced. Wiring harnesses are built in advance, and every mechanic is qualified to upfit a vehicle.
In addition to transferring equipment, mechanics rebuild the strobe and LED light bars when they are moved to another vehicle; they are expected to last through three vehicle rotations or almost 15 years before being replaced. About 40 hours are needed to completely upfit a new vehicle. This flexibility in using staffing has allowed the shop’s team to be agile to meet the changing daily work demands.
Though the individual agency can choose any brand of emergency equipment and accessories, most agencies have moved to a short list of manufacturers and suppliers. This has streamlined the number of parts that are stocked, reduced the number of problems when different brands are connected together, and made the relationship with the local distributers more responsive.
The sheriff’s office saved time and money in the upfitting process by simplifying the graphics on its patrol cars. The vehicle colors changed from all white with vinyl graphics that required a professional installer, to a black-and-white paint format with simple decals applied by the mechanics.
Because the mechanics generally work on only a few car models, they have become experts at the assessment and treatment of problems. Routine maintenance is done in hours, even though the shop does not accept appointments for service. The work for repairs is done faster, keeping the turnaround time to about two days, and the quality is higher, all resulting in savings to the agency. The smallest agency enjoys the benefits of using experienced professionals who have learned from servicing a large fleet.
The management philosophy that is felt on the shop floor is another reason for the high quality service that every agency enjoys. Each mechanic is expected to be his own boss, possessing the authority to prioritize work and to contact approved vendors for parts. By decentralizing the ordering of parts, eliminating the repetitive approval and review process for routine ordering, and acquiring same-day or next-day delivery of parts that are not stocked in the shop, vehicles are not kept waiting for service.
Graff trusts the mechanics to determine that every car is safe to operate when they are done with it. He views his role as setting expectations, providing the tools and up-to-date training to do the job, and removing obstacles that get in the way. The mechanics are chosen for both their technical ability and their people skills in dealing with the car’s operator. While some shops will keep the driver away from the mechanic, at the Everett shop, drivers and mechanics talk about problems and possible solutions. Mechanics often know the officers and deputies by name, and there is a friendly atmosphere in the busy facility.
The mechanics regularly participate in training to keep their skills up to date. At shop meetings, lessons-learned and new ideas to fix a problem are shared. The facility has qualified to perform warranty work on some makes and models. Soon, each mechanic will have his own computer at his stall to access up-to-date information that will include the work history of the vehicle that he is working on.
The shop is open 11 hours a day, five days a week. The facility was designed with a separate and secure area where cars can be dropped off or picked up when the shop is closed. One police department uses its graveyard shift officers to shuttle vehicles back and forth to the Everett shop.
The county’s fleet facility operation keeps records on each vehicle for its customer agencies. Mitchell can provide a spreadsheet to each agency listing the cost of service for each vehicle, including what was done and when. The database for each vehicle is also used to remind the customer of routine service by sending e-mails to the agency’s fleet manager.
Each agency makes its own decision as to when to replace patrol cars. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s patrol cars are tagged for replacement at 105,000 miles or once they’re 15 years old, but the typical mileage at replacement is closer to 120,000 miles. City police cars receive a different kind of use—more stop and go, more idling and more brake use—and their life span is typically shorter. One city agency uses the lifetime cost of repairs, excluding routine maintenance, to determine when a car should be replaced, and when that cost exceeds the current auction price, the vehicle is sold.
Graff and his team do more than spin wrenches for their customers; they provide expert advice on what products to buy, what options to order and what add-ons to incorporate into the police vehicle. Encouraging agencies to buy quality products and avoid the temptation of the cheaper, off-brand, Internet deals has resulted in longer lasting equipment that can be moved from one vehicle to the next. Because all the agencies’ managers have access to this resource, their time spent on researching products, receiving bids and visiting with to vendors is nearly eliminated.
The Customers’ Perspective
In 1999, the Lake Stevens Police Department was the first department to use the county’s shop. At the time, the department had six vehicles and used a combination of dealers, local garages and department staff to install and maintain them. Quality was a huge issue, and the cost to repeatedly assess and treat problems was consuming the budget. The approach was “penny wise but dollar foolish,” so the county shop was approached. Today, the department takes 23 vehicles and three vessels to the Everett shop.
The Arlington Police Department had its eight vehicles serviced by the city’s public shop prior to 2002. The lone, part-time mechanic could not keep up with the workload as the city grew and, more importantly, was challenged by the ever-increasing complexity of the police vehicles’ emergency lighting systems, laptop computers, vehicle radio modems, radar and electric gun locks.
When the city decided to stop buying and “retrofitting” used police cars, a contract was signed with the county’s fleet maintenance operation. Today, its 19 vehicles are kept up to state-of-art standards, the cost per vehicle for maintenance is lower, the number of maintenance issues has decreased and staff morale is higher with the new approach.
Arlington’s public works shop is still busy serving the city’s light trucks, cars and mowers, but the city has avoided the costs of stocking parts and buying the tools and infrastructure required to serve the needs of the specialized police fleet. The contract with the county has put off the need for expansion of the city’s repair facility. Another regional fleet provider, an agency that has specialized in fire department equipment, services the city’s fire department vehicles.
Balancing Competing Priorities
What with servicing 11 agencies and 800 vehicles, how does the Everett shop balance the competing priorities among its customers? Graff and his team treat each of the customers with equal importance.
For example, the Granite Falls Police Department is a small agency with five patrol cars, and when one is in for service, that is 20 percent of the fleet that is not available to them; therefore, that job becomes the priority. The mechanics work together to prioritize the jobs and get them accomplished as new work comes in. As one mechanic said, they do not cherry pick work but rather adapt constantly to the needs coming in the front door.
The daily workload at the shop cannot be predicted. Some days are very busy, and others are slower. This presents a challenge in adjusting the priority of work to be done as new work arrives. The shop tries to keep a stock of lower priority work on hand, such as building consoles and wiring harnesses, for the lulls in the repair and maintenance to keep the mechanics busy.
John L. Gray is a speaker, author and former police chief. His Web site is www.johnlgray.net, and he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 7807 33rd Street NE, Marysville, Wash., 98270.
Published in Police Fleet Manager, Mar/Apr 2011
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