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Another Day…More Challenges

Written by Dennis Tucker

There is no typical day for police fleet professionals. Challenges come in many different forms such as long term, short term, immediate and even the impossible. Not everyone in your agency may define a challenge the same way nor will everyone define in the same way how a challenge should be resolved. That’s when you have to sift through all the information and provide your own perspective based on your knowledge and experience. Don’t be fooled; you may not always find a solution immediately. But by defining a challenge, you’re prepared to at least attack it, and that may eventually lead you to a solution.

So what are some of the challenges facing fleet professionals? A group of colleagues gave several responses. No surprise that fuel costs were put on the backburner, at least temporarily. The main concern is what the future holds for us in regards to what we’ll be driving. Certainly, the $4/gallon has the manufacturers thinking about fuel efficiency and how production can be streamlined during these days of financial distress.

Sergeant Jerry Farrow from the Geauga, OH Sheriff’s Office offers the following five issues and what he’s doing to address them. First, do more with less. As funds get smaller, how can we keep our fleets running? Don’t let preventative maintenance go by the wayside because it will cost you sooner than you think. Keep a close eye on aging equipment by ensuring that the maintenance schedule is followed and necessary repairs are made. Remember that ultimately, the safety of agency personnel driving vehicles rests on your shoulders.

Second, even though fuel costs have dropped, high prices can still come back with little warning. So if you’ve instituted policies to save money such as no-idling, limited personal use, eliminating take-home vehicles and these and others have not affected the department’s operation, then consider keeping these practices intact. Once your officers are used to cost-saving practices, it’s easier to keep them than to resurrect them later. Try to shift the funds from fuel savings to your repair line item.

Third, even if you buy new vehicles, maybe your budget for upfitting has been cut or even eliminated. Contact the manufacturers of your partitions, push bumpers, lights, consoles, etc. to see if they have a kit that allows you to re-use your equipment in a new or different vehicle. Maybe your shop can make the modifications for you and save you even more money. Sure, new equipment would be best, but recycling what you have could be your only choice.

Fourth, how do you stretch your fleet? Assess what you have. Is the right vehicle being used wisely? You may not be popular, but if you take a low-mileage vehicle from admin staff and shift it to an officer on the front line, you’ve taken a positive step to stretch your fleet. Another positive result of this type of switch is that admin staff will get a real sense of the condition of the fleet, and this may encourage them to redefine spending priorities.

Fifth, would you like additional staff for your shop but lack funding for full-time employees? Expand the use of part-time employees. This keeps costs down since you don’t have to pay benefits. It also gives the opportunity to evaluate these employees for a full-time position if one becomes available.

Dave Tifft from the Vermont Department of Public Safety said his largest issue is “limited budgeting for vehicle replacements.” He offers the suggestion to buy pre-owned cars for use in the detective / administrative roles or other functions to reduce expenditures. This idea breaks a paradigm that a high-mileage or old vehicle must always be replaced with a new one.

When I was with the Illinois State Police, we examined seized and confiscated vehicles for use within the agency. Most weren’t the best vehicles, but some provided great options for specific uses such as in covert, drug enforcement and even for facility maintenance. We also purchased vehicles from other agencies such as the Missouri State Highway Patrol. These were vehicles with 50,000 miles that we could put into service immediately without having to wait for factory delivery.

Another colleague, Sergeant Scott Coy from Western Michigan University Police Department, is thinking about what the next vehicle will be for police departments in the future. Will the next generation of police cars be smaller? Will it be an SUV? Will it be front-wheel or rear-wheel drive or maybe all-wheel drive? Will it actually be a police vehicle or just a few changes made to a retail car? But Scott isn’t waiting until the manufacturers announce what’s around the corner. He’s looking at what’s on the market now and examining how it can be transformed for his use.

For example, a mid-size crossover vehicle may be modified to meet the department’s needs. A 4x4 or all-wheel drive is nice to have and, in certain situations, is a must. Get loaner vehicles from a dealer or the manufacturer and have your officers get some road time behind the wheel. Do a ride-a-along with the officers and get their view on likes / dislikes and what they think about the vehicle being used every day.

Don’t wait for Detroit to tell you what you will be driving in a few years. We don’t know what the future holds, and like it or not, we are at the mercy of the manufacturers to provide vehicles and equipment that we hope meet our needs. We certainly appreciate the advisory boards and other forums created to solicit our input. But in the end, it will be what’s economically right for the manufacturers to decide what they produce—not our hopes and dreams.

Our focus should be “flexibility and readiness.” This doesn’t only have to apply to vehicles, but all equipment and services fleet managers purchase and use. This means we can’t keep expecting the status quo. As individuals and a group, we need to look beyond today and plan for tomorrow.

As we question what the next generation police car will be, if there is one, look at the vehicles in the retail mix over the next couple of years and ask which ones are practical as your next cruiser. Maybe you look at a sedan, a sports utility vehicle and a truck with different engines, 2- and 4-wheel, all-wheel drive systems. Keep your mind open, and try to plan for the future; when the future does arrive, you’ll be “flexible and ready.”

I want to finish this column on an upside and to let you know that challenges can result in good things happening. Just a day before I submitted this column, my past bureau chief at the Illinois State Police informed me that a legislative bill I had worked on pretty much my entire career as fleet manager to provide self-sustaining funding to purchase new vehicles annually was on its way to being signed.

This was a big accomplishment for the department, and it shows if you try long enough and hard enough to meet challenges, obstacles you thought were too high to climb can be scaled down to a reasonable height. I think the bottom line is to keep your challenges within reason to accomplish and be flexible. To quote the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.”

Dennis Tucker recently retired as police fleet manager for the Illinois State Police with 29 years of public service experience. He is chairman of the Police Fleet Expo hosted by the Hendon Expo Group. He can be reached at dtucker@hendonpub.com.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Jan/Feb 2009

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