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Upfitting Tricks of the Trade

PFM asked some of the companies that participated in the Upfitters’ Challenge at this year's Police Fleet Expo about their upfitting “tricks of the trade.” These are tips, shortcuts, cost-reduction ideas, lessons learned or special things they do distinguish themselves from their competitors, make their work easier or make the upfit more reliable.

Adamson Industries

According to Steve Contarino, Adamson prides itself on its team environment, which allows its production line process to produce the highest quality public safety vehicles. Contarino said a quiet, team-oriented environment makes for the best production.

The company’s commitment to a “green environment” has allowed it access to very unique battery-powered tools that are quiet and can be recharged at night while electrical demands are lower.

Command & Control Installations

As a former officer, Matt Ayers of Command & Control Installations said his first car had no regular maintenance program. Basically, they fixed what they could when needed. His understanding of the importance of preventative maintenance for police fleets led him to start C&C Installations.

C&C Installations networks with other agencies to understand budgets. Agencies will wait months for an upfit from C&C, because the company develops unique solutions and tries to make existing parts work for an agency. It once built 60 cars for the city of Knoxville, TN, but typically it upfits 26 cars in one clip. Ayers said some of C&C Installations’ special qualities include credibility and trust with its customers. He carefully explains to his customers if something they requested can’t work or if it’s a bad idea.

One of C&C’s “tricks” is being creative with fasteners. This eliminates bracketry, Ayers said. A second tip from Ayers: “Strobe connectors are perfect for LED lights.” Departments just now understand how console systems can benefit them, especially with laptops so prevalent in police vehicles. Today’s police cars are getting smaller but more gadgets are being put in. Ayers believes the police car should be built around the laptop so it’s the centerpiece of the installation.

Ayers also learned not to buy what he calls “junk” parts or products. He only uses 3M electrical tape because it lasts, and he won’t have to redo a repair with it. He also said it’s overkill to solder every connection. He has never had a connection failure. Ayers said C&C is more in tune with what works and what doesn’t work. Using the right tools is important.


According to Donnie Norman, CopStuff does a couple of special things to distinguish its upfitters from the rest. First, it completely strips out the seats of the vehicle. This allows workers to professionally run all wiring in factory conduit or wire channels. Second, CopStuff custom builds wiring harnesses for each car. “This is very important, as generic wiring harnesses may not cover all components in a vehicle,” Norman said.

Norman also emphasized that agencies should look at the Web site of product manufacturers to see if their installer is listed as a master distributor or authorized service center. If they are not, then the agency may want to seek an alternative, and most likely this vendor has not been properly trained to install the equipment and warranty issues may arise.

Cheapest is not always the best, Norman warned. There are many reputable installers throughout the nation. “If the price quoted is extremely cheap, then they have cheap labor,” Norman said. The cheap laborers have probably not been formally trained to do the work.

Emergency Vehicle Technologies

Steve Roake is the director of operations at Emergency Vehicle Technologies (EVT). “Here at Emergency Vehicle Technologies, we have a start-to-finish process that makes the installations flow better,” Roake said. All of EVT’s processes are documented. When an old vehicle comes in to be decommissioned, EVT starts by filling out a worksheet listing all equipment, how it is installed, configured and its condition (operational or not). Digital pictures are also taken and recorded.

The equipment is then stored in labeled containers with the customer’s information. Before the equipment is reinstalled, the installation is reviewed by the engineer and wiring diagrams and installation instructions are written. This keeps the installations uniform and easy to troubleshoot should there be any equipment failures. It also makes sure the technicians are all making the most efficient use of time and materials.

At the completion of the install, a worksheet is used to record the current draws and function tests of all the equipment installed. All this information is kept in the customer’s file for future reference.

Something that separates EVT from the rest of the upfitters is a very diverse customer base that covers a very wide region. This has allowed EVT to see many other upfitters’ flaws and hear many different customers’ opinions about how they expect their cars to be built. “We have built this business on learning from others’ mistakes and are always finding ways to improve and utilize new technology to make a better, more reliable, and cost effective emergency vehicle,” Roake said.

Lund Industries

One of the first tips Keith Mandic of Lund Industries recommends is purchasing a scan tool / code reader. With computer-controlled vehicles, this is the only way to determine the problem that is setting off the malfunction indicator lamp on the dash.

Mandic said an agency should ask the following questions: Is the problem caused by a vehicle component failure or something done by the installer? Has a wire been knocked loose or a plug accidentally pulled during equipment installation? Or did the car come in with the lamp lit? Mandic said a scan tool is the only way to tell.

A second tip is recording installations with a good digital camera. “Not only does this give a photo album to show others your work, but it is an in-depth record of each vehicle for build repeatability,” Mandic explained.

Each vehicle in a department’s fleet may have subtle differences: type of radios, cameras, radar, etc. and antenna placement on the roof and trunk. According to Mandic, saving photos in a department file is a good way to make sure the antennas go on the trunk lid and not the roof. Lastly, Mandic recommends reviewing the pictures before the car leaves the shop to make sure they’re useable—not too dark, too light or out of focus.

MPC Communications & Lighting

Marty Murphy of MPC Communications & Lighting said MPC is different from many upfitters in that it is a one-stop shop. “When the car is done, it’s ready for the road,” Murphy said.

First, an agency brings MPC an existing police car to have the equipment removed (to be put into the next car). Workers remove all the old equipment, remove the decals, detail the car, and return it to the department ready to be sold. By detailing the car, the department can get the maximum amount of money for the vehicle. Then they review the equipment with the department. They find out what is not being used anymore and what new equipment is to be installed.

Next, the new car is washed and prepared to be built. MPC then reinstalls the equipment, cleaning everything, painting equipment as needed, and performing any updates to the equipment. They assign one to two technicians per vehicle to follow the job from beginning to end. One of the two technicians is assigned to each agency so one technician knows the way the department likes its vehicles upfitted and any do’s or don’ts.

MPC prides itself on each car being built the same way, in and out, from the decals to the wire colors. The company has a specific wire color for each circuit. That way, if something must has a problem or they are adding more equipment down the road, they know which wire does what. “At our shop, we communicate with each other and our customers, attempting to give every customer the best vehicle possible…We think that is what sets us apart,” Murphy said.

Patriot Enterprises USA

Kurt R. Murray is the CEO of Patriot Enterprises USA. Something Murray learned from his years of running small, medium and large automotive repair facilities (that provided every level and type of repair and accessorization service) is that detailed documentation of what the customer is requesting for service or upgrades is critical.

“Often my SAs (service advisors) resented the detailed process of checking in the customer’s vehicle,” Murray said. This process includes gathering the vehicle’s VIN, color, year, make, model, engine type. It also includes a complete exterior and interior inspection for any damage or missing parts such as hubcaps, mirrors, cracked glass, bullet holes, body damage, etc. The information is documented with digital photos and placed with the customer’s work order.

After review with the customer of the exact work to be performed and detailed pricing, Murray discusses the specific labor costs for each job. All faulty parts removed are kept for the customer to inspect and decide final disposition.

Finally, a complete detailed file is kept electronically of all equipment and parts used and parts warranties. In addition, installation documentation is scanned and saved. Lastly, photos of the completed vehicle work and total comprehensive file is assembled with one copy for the customer and the other filed with a copy of the work order. This process works whether the work to be performed is a small job or a large job.

According to Murray, one key benefit is that there will never be any confusion or room for interpretation at a later date, and any follow-up work can start right where the last work stopped as requested by the owner / customer. “The devil is in the details, and the job isn’t really done until the paperwork is 100% done, the customer consultation is completed and filed,” Murray said.

The next strict “mantra” is that Patriot Fleet Services requires the use of a “professionally” built wiring harness with its own protective circuitry. That will allow quick and easy identification of every accessory circuit that is installed on a public safety vehicle, such as a lightbar, grille lights, siren loud speakers, rear-facing lighting, radar, in-car video, laptop computers, modem, printer, radios, remote radio heads, etc. Having each flameproof wire labeled every 6 inches and the independent fuse block labeled to ID each piece of equipment that is protected and powered by this system independently identifies every circuit.

Police Department Services

Sean Kelly of Police Department Services said one tip for upfitting deals with pulling wires through firewall boots and grommets. Kelly advised spraying down the area with Windex because it acts as a lubrication. It is alcohol-based so it evaporates quickly. This makes for an easy installation.

The second trick is for installing lightbars on the vehicle. Kelly said when siliconing the cables, wet your finger and the cables won’t stick to your finger because they’re wet. Silicone repels water. According to Kelly, it is a useful tip, and the end result is a clean look.

The third trick is the extensive use of back plates or reinforcement plates on everything they bolt or screw into. They don’t just run a self-tapping screw into plastic or fiberboard. And they use stainless steel screws on everything they install that is exposed to the environment.

The best tip from PDS is the exclusive use of high-quality components. From fuses to fasteners, from wire cables to load-shedding devices, from wire loom to wire connectors, they buy the best available so they install the best available. This assures the components assemble easier, work the first time and last the life of the vehicle. Everything about the upfit goes more smoothly with quality parts.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Jan/Feb 2009

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