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Success Means Spec It Right

Written by Dennis Tucker

Do you compromise when you sign on the dotted line to buy or order a vehicle for yourself? Is the vehicle outfitted with the optional equipment you want as long as it fits into your budget? Or do you want different wheels, a sunroof or maybe a better sound system, for which you will wait until the car is delivered and then go to the local accessory shop to add these items and save a few bucks? This local buy option is not really the most efficient way to buy a vehicle and to get the most for your money.

The way you order a vehicle may not always be the best way, but sometimes there are circumstances beyond your control that guide your decision. So what is the best way to purchase squad cars and administrative and support vehicles? Here is what worked for me.

Phase I: In-House Research

The first step is NOT to decide on which make or model of vehicle to buy. Instead, determine how your current vehicles are set up. Think about the types of equipment you need and include any special mounts or wiring involved. Identify this for each type of vehicle in your fleet. Then, speak with the shop technicians who install your vehicles and ask for their input on what works, what doesn’t work and how this process can be improved.

Next, speak to your drivers and get their input, just as you did with the shop techs, on individual items as well as how the entire package works for them. This should include items such as communications and enforcement equipment, console, prisoner partition, shotgun mount, ergonomics of the vehicle, trunk needs, lights, etc. You may not be able to incorporate all their suggestions, but at least you’ll have a record of their suggestions on file for future reference.

Talk to command staff to determine what their needs/dislikes are and what may lie ahead for changes to vehicle-based equipment as well as any operational changes. Finally, establish a Department Equipment Committee if one does not already exist. Pull together street officers, command staff, shop techs, IT staff, communications staff and others you deem appropriate. Use this committee to review your findings and to solicit their input and recommendations. Then prepare your findings. As the fleet manager, don’t act in isolation. Instead, get input so others will buy into and support your future decisions.

Phase II: External Research

Compile vehicle information from each manufacturer and review the vehicle order forms as an overview of the standard equipment, manufacturer options and available upfit alternatives. Go to your dealers to talk to them and drive the vehicles you are considering. Then, bring those vehicles to your shop or installer and have them assess the compatibility with your equipment.

Try to find out about available options from the manufacturer and/or from a third party that will simplify and reduce your overall time and expense to get the vehicle ready for duty. Research magazines and online sites, and talk to upfitters and fleet managers. Using someone else’s experience is not cheating; it’s merely learning from past practices.

Once the research is done, contact current and possibly new vendors of vehicle emergency equipment and seek their input. Know up front they’ll want to sell you their product, but experience has taught me that respectable vendors are honest and will want to help you. They may not make the sale this time, but that doesn’t mean you won’t approach them in the future to buy their products. If you like what you hear and you think it will help achieve your fleet goals, get cost estimates, timelines and availability information.

Compile all the information you’ve gathered from this phase and prepare a summary in an easy-to-read format so you can share it with command staff and the equipment committee.

Phase III: Combine Information

This is probably the most difficult phase. You’re going to have to “marry” the input from users, technicians, manufacturers, upfitters, third party product providers and other input you’ve compiled. There could be scenarios and facts some in your agency may not want to hear, but at this point, your job is to provide options.

Those options could be in the form of a matrix examining costs, manpower hours, operational considerations and a timeline. Provide the information to your command staff and meet with the equipment committee. Discuss the options, answer questions and, if needed, do additional research.

Phase IV: Make a Recommendation

The final recommendation should: include the model or types of vehicle(s) to purchase, and what optional equipment to buy from the manufacturer and why; identify the emergency equipment you recommend to purchase; prepare an installation plan; prepare an order plan for vehicles and equipment; and have a distribution plan for once the vehicles are ready for service.

After you have made the recommendation, inform your command staff and the equipment committee. Once the plan is approved, share it with all involved parties within your agency who contributed to your final decision.

Obviously, some constraints are out of your reach as you process the information you have compiled. It would be nice if you had an unlimited budget and everyone involved in the decision-making process told you they trust you to move forward. The fact is they do trust you, but there are many considerations, and there’s a budget.

Vehicles are a key element in the operation of your department, but in the last several years, most of you have cut back in spending and are probably doing more with less. Obviously, this can’t go on forever, but you’ll always be expected to pull a rabbit out of your hat. So your choices are to either find more rabbits, or a bigger hat. Providing options to your command should be first and foremost as you implement this process.

Your job is to provide the best information possible for a well-thought-out decision. This decision can include ordering more options from the vehicle manufacturer, ordering from a third party and/or a totally different approach for your agency. There’s nothing wrong with thinking outside the box.

When my department was faced with getting possibly 400 vehicles delivered in a very short period, I went through this process and examined all opportunities to get these cars upfitted and out the door.

The bottom line is get input, do your homework, present all the facts, get support for your plan and be flexible.

Dennis Tucker retired as the fleet manager for the Illinois State Police and can be reached at DTucker@hendonpub.com

Photo credit: John Bellah

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Nov/Dec 2009

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