How to drive champagne fleets on a beer budget

     Whenever someone's got good news and bad news, I usually prefer to learn the bad first. It's not exactly new bad news, but more like industry common sense: When management needs to save money, bargaining on police equipment is bargaining with lives. So how does one save on law enforcement's more essential tools? That's where the good news comes in: In recent conversations with experienced fleet administrators, it turns out there are corners to cut.

     Take police cars for example: Vehicles are one of the trickier tight ropes management has to walk when it comes to need versus budget, since there are several areas where cost can seemingly not be compromised. The elusive answer to the quantity, quality and prioritizing questions is ever on the minds of agency heads and is the annual headache of most. Management's challenge, then, is to take measures to be sure the fat set aside on the plate is not joined by some of the meat.

     It turns out a variety of solutions such as maintenance tips, equipment recycling and rethinking the bid process can help management make it work.

Streamlining

     One money-saving solution a fleet management veteran came up with was to eliminate a step in the installation process on the agency's end.

     Jerry Newbury, the fleet manager with the Texas Department of Public Safety, has been steeped in the business of acquiring and maintaining a fleet on the government's stipulated budget for nearly 33 years. He's responsible for state fleet operations like outfitting the Texas Highway Patrol fleet, as well as buying vehicles for SWAT and the Texas Rangers.

     In 2001, the agency began bringing about double its numbers—from 500-600 vehicles to 1,000+ — and it knew it wouldn't be able to complete installation on that many vehicles each year with the personnel it had. Newbury's team decided a cost-effective solution would be to have its newly purchased vehicles arrive already equipped with in-car accessories and gear, such as the two-way radio antenna, an anti-theft device, headlight flashers, decals and the rear red-and-blue flashing lights.

     "One of the strategies we developed was we outsourced … so when the selling dealer delivers the vehicles to us, he's got to provide all of those items," Newbury says. The agency added the public safety-only equipment specifications to its outgoing bids to dealers. The lowest-bidding winner would be providing not only the vehicle, but its new accessories — already installed — reducing TDPS technicians' installation time from 18 man hours to 3 per car.

     "I don't think there's any doubt: It saved us a ton of money in man hours, installation costs and outfit time," Newbury explains. "We're very fortunate that our Ford dealer that has received the bid over the course of the last five or six years has been exceptional working with us on upfits."

     The St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Department in Louisiana has reconfigured its vehicle assignment system. Chief Deputy Hilman Papillion says the department has gone to a one-car-per-man.

     "Each individual deputy's assigned a unit, that way it's a take-home unit, so those units are not running 24-7," Papillion says. "It cuts back on the equipment used, the mileage [and] on the service for those vehicles if they're only being used 12 hours a day."

     In the Midwest, another agency decided to postpone car retirements a few thousand miles.

     "We used do take them outof service at 70,000 miles," saysCapt. David Kiddle, Grand Rapids (Michigan) PD commander of the Support Services Division. "Now we're running it to about 85,000 miles."

     Investing in quality

     Sgt. David "Doc" Halliday of the Michigan State Police, who has worked in law enforcement since 1977, was formerly the commander in MSP's Precision Driving Unit, and is currently a sergeant in MSP's Aviation Unit. He reiterates that safety is not a bargain.

     "A word to the wise from my point of view is don't skimp on safety because it'll come back to haunt you," Halliday warns. "One of the things that we heard around the country is that some garage will recommend [cheaper brake components]. But what they don't realize is that they don't have the ability of the OEM's [models] that were tested; the original equipment manufacturer components that were put to a battery of tests so that they could pass all of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, plus they could pass our tests with flying colors."

     Though he has been on the police advisory boards for Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Chrysler since their inception, he is careful not to choose one make or model as the most economical or cheapest choice. Instead, he says each agency must assess its needs and choose a vehicle that's strongest in the categories most relevant to their mission.

     "We're careful not to do product endorsements, and we're also careful to say that everyone brings something good to the table," Halliday says. "It goes back to applying the mission to the vehicle and the vehicle to the mission. Can it do what you're asking of it?"

Recycling

     Another pointer from the experts: refurbish and reuse equipment from old cars in the new flock. Newbury says the items the Texas agency recycles from the retired vehicles, such as radios, video cameras and light bars saves money, too.

     In 2001, TDPS was converting from halogen light bars to LED lights, which was a costly investment to the department as it outfitted every new car. But in 2007, the department was able to begin reusing the LED light bars, transferring them from the retiring vehicles to the newly purchased fleet.

     "As a large agency, we couldn't operate without reusing some of this stuff," Newbury says. He explains that based on the department's experience and the history of an item's durability, he is able to keep the fleet furnished in refurbished in-car accessories and parts, getting more use out of more expensive or longer-lasting equipment.

     "For instance, we can pretty well tell you that after two lifecycles of a vehicle, you probably want to go ahead and get rid of the video camera," Newbury explains. "But a light bar — especially one of these new LED light bars — it looks like we're going to be able to get three, maybe even four vehicle lifecycles."

     Newbury says he's been able to keep radio in service for several lifecycles without a problem. However, he warns that advancing technology may require older equipment to be replaced even if it still works.

     "We recently got rid of some radios that had only been in service five years, but the technology changed," Newbury says." You hate to get rid of the item, but the technology caused you to have to change [and] upgrade it."

Maintenance

     Both Halliday and Newbury suggest a meticulous maintenance schedule to keep fleet costs in line and catch issues before they get costly.

     "Of course, we have our guys on a very strict maintenance schedule as far as checking the brakes and such," Newbury says. "We don't just let them drive until they have a problem, they're required to check their brakes and check their other items on the vehicle every so often. We try and stay on top of the issues before they become a problem because typically at that point, it costs you more to fix it than if you'd have caught it ahead of time. We've got a pretty comprehensive plan in place to make sure we're getting the best bang for the buck for that vehicle."

     Newbury also says his department is using synthetic fluids in its vehicles to extend the lives of the under-the-hood components.

     "That's helping a lot," Newbury says. "We're not seeing near the failures — motors and transmission — that we used to."

     Halliday also advocates tire health. "Tire pressure plays a huge role," Halliday says. "People don't understand that tire pressure is very, very important when it comes to handling. We actually do a demonstration where we change the tire pressure in the car and the police officer gets an opportunity to see how the handling is affected; they're like, 'Wow. I had no idea.' "

     He says the MSP fleet, which is made up of mostly Ford Crown Victorias, Chevy Tahoes and some Dodge Chargers, sticks to a maintenance schedule which has tires changed out when the thread depth goes below 3/32nds of an inch, and recommends drivers be vigilant about monitoring tire pressure, making sure it is at 35 pounds per square inch when measured cold.

     In Maine, the Kennebunk PD is reducing the number of cars it brings in during conservative budgetyears, and is able to do so because it sustains a dedicated maintenance schedule.

     "We definitely maintain our fleets really well; keeping the oil changed every 3,000 miles and [having] safety inspections done," Chief Robert MacKenzie says. "That's done a lot for us in the last few years. We're going to attempt to see if we can scale back on the cars that we're buying this year, knowing that maybe next year we'll have to have an additional car." MacKenzie says the agency's current crunched budget has come after a couple successful budget years, so it is able to scale back without any big dents in its fleet.

Champagne or beer bargain?

     In the last month of a year plagued with bad news (see: economy, gas prices, forecasted budget cuts, etc.), it's best to end with good news: With some common-sense backed equipment recycling and restructuring tricks, law enforcement administrators can maintain an outfitted flock in a conservative budget year. But it's about more than just champagne versus beer: Ultimately, it's about security and protection, and in law enforcement, those components can't be bargained.

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