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Managing line-of-duty fleet

Published:  01 April, 2019

We see the blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, but how is that police car purchased, equipped, maintained, and decommissioned? Chris Brown, former police fleet manager, tells LAPV about the key challenges he faced keeping a fleet of 1,000 police vehicles on the road.

As a police officer, I never had to worry about where my vehicle came from or how it was maintained. New cars turned up, broken ones got fixed, and we knew the technicians at the workshops to get things done when we needed them. But that changed when I was a superintendent in charge of a large roads policing unit and a retirement meant that my force would be left without a fleet manager. I was asked if I would do the job while collaboration opportunities were explored. I had been involved in fleet matters for a while, looking at a couple of fleet reviews, and I was in charge of a department where the right vehicles were essential to service delivery, so it was an area that interested me.

Modern policing is heavily reliant on vehicles and the role was described to me by a colleague as a triangle of officer, transport, and equipment – take one of those away and the service can’t be delivered. With a 1,000-strong vehicle fleet and several hundred bicycles to contend with during a period of significant change in policing, how could I refuse the challenge?

The transport department team I inherited was made up of experienced and dedicated individuals, so that part of my new job was easy. Accustomed to a variety of police computer applications, I was also impressed with the vehicle management system, which allowed me to pull out meaningful data to manage the business processes.

I was also able to use my police experience and translate that into tasking and the coordination of the department. At a local level, police use the National Intelligence Model to identify crime hotspots and series and then deploy resources to tackle the problems. I used this format to support performance management of vehicle supply, maintenance, issues, and disposals in regular meetings to maintain a 95% vehicle availability target.

Even so, in my new role there were a number of major challenges, and some of the key lessons I learned include:

Operational command vs fleet conflict

Policing has always undergone shifts in style over time, as society and technology bring changes that have to be taken into account. Since the financial crisis of a few years ago, change has come at a significant pace. This impacts on the way policing is delivered and also the police fleet.

For example, a decision was made as part of a local organisational change to increase the number of response-trained officers, so a significant portion of the fleet became obsolete and needed to be replaced with suitable response cars (for police, cars are assessed for suitability based on a variety of factors, but key is power outputs for low, intermediate, and high-performance cars). A knock-on effect was that the driver training team also needed more suitable vehicles to deliver the upgrade.

With pressure on budgets, I went to a purely mileage-based replacement policy, whereas before this it had been time or mileage based – disposing of a five-year-old car with 40,000 miles didn’t strike me as good sense when it was perfectly serviceable.

As a senior police officer, I could bridge the gap between transport and operational demand and assist with advice on fleet options to support the delivery of operational policing. In particular, we worked with some dedicated specialist surveillance units who were very specific about their requirements, but also very appreciative of the efforts we made to ensure their vital work was delivered effectively.

On an operational note, several terrorist incidents in the UK and abroad meant that armed officers were required to carry more equipment, which affected the payload of their vehicles and required a change of fleet.

Management of risk

Police vehicles are generally nothing more than standard models that are pushed to the limit in response work. This means that vehicle maintenance is key, both daily checks by the drivers and regular servicing and repair to mitigate the risk of vehicle component failure. I sat on a national police pursuits working group and was required to review pursuits as part of a panel, so was able to bring back the importance of risk reduction. I also had driver training as part of my team and was able to link up the key processes better.

Reduction of fleets

The force I worked for reduced officers and staff by more than 500. My natural conclusion was that we could contribute to organisational savings by reducing fleet numbers and associated costs. Using the fleet management software system, it was easy to identify low-use vehicles that could be given up. Much harder was prising the keys away from the units that had them.

I secured support in the form of an inspector who was able to run this programme for me, and I could then balance the purchase and disposal processes. Travel and mileage sat under a different department, but I started working with them to ensure that reducing cars didn’t squeeze expenditure into mileage claims. We had set up a pool car scheme under a previous review and implemented a new booking system to ensure effective use of these vehicles.

Collaboration and fleet standardisation

The National Association of Police Fleet Managers (NAPFM) is a well-established authority for police fleets in the UK, and I was very grateful for their support when I first started in the role. NAPFM has several sub-groups, which lead areas such as technical development, and its summer exhibition is a great event for all of those involved in this sector of the industry.

While there are several police forces that collaborate with either neighbouring forces, or locally with other emergency services, the majority still operate as single-force transport departments. There are undoubtedly savings to be made by better collaboration of services, but senior leaders really need to drive this to make it happen. A small number of forces outsource their fleet services, including the UK’s largest force, the Metropolitan Police Service.

One area of success is the recent formation of consortia buying groups – North and South. These collated projected types and volumes of vehicles required during a four-year period and then went out to tender for multiple police forces at one time. This gave manufacturers a far better idea of contract value and they were able to adjust the prices of their submissions accordingly.

The challenge, however, is that variants of the nominated vehicles are then ordered, with different equipment and fitment options dictated by individual forces based on the amount of in-car technology required. For example, some forces now specify vehicle-based wifi hotspots or telematics. NAPFM continues to work towards standardised vehicles, but with 43 police forces in England and Wales, this may still be a way off.

Realising better resales values

End-of-life vehicles are generally stripped of all police equipment, some of which, such as light bars, can be reused on new cars. NAPFM members have a national tender for vehicle disposals with a choice of six suppliers. Most vehicles end up going through the routine on-site auctions. As a fleet manager, I found this particularly frustrating when an LWB van, which may have had £30,000 worth of conversion work done to it to equip it for a policing role, only achieved what any standard van would do at auction. I wanted to make savings for my organisation by increasing incomes, and not just reducing costs.

GovPlanet, part of Ritchie Brothers International Auctioneers, offers a solution by opening sales of specialist vehicles to a global market through online auctions. The business can reach up to 70,000 buyers across the globe each week. Now that GovPlanet is on the NAPFM contract, the UK returns have been significant – an articulated tractor and trailer welfare unit was expected to fetch £18-23K but achieved £65K from a direct sale. Converted vans have made a 60% better return over CAP average price.

In summary, police fleets are well-managed and operated because they have to deal with an exceptional level of risk for the roles they perform. There have been great steps in combining buying power to deliver lower purchase costs, and this shared-procurement approach will continue to find favour. Income increases through changes in disposal policy can also help to reduce the pressure to cut costs all the time, and this is another trend I expect to see continue in the future.

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LAPV (Local Authority Plant and Vehicles) is the only UK information source purely dedicated to local authority vehicles and affiliated plant equipment. Appearing four times a year, it offers well-researched technical articles on the latest equipment/technology as well as in-depth interviews with key industry professionals. More...

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