Police Upfitting: In-House or Outsource?

January 2017, Government Fleet - Cover Story

by Thi Dao - Also by this author

The Florida Highway Patrol’s central installation facility can prep and deliver about 12 vehicles a week. Photo courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol
The Florida Highway Patrol’s central installation facility can prep and deliver about 12 vehicles a week. Photo courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol

Should a fleet upfit its police vehicles in-house or send the job elsewhere? It depends on staffing, fleet size, and how the fleet operates, as well as external factors such as regulations and vendor availability.

Send It Out

Sean Williams, fleet and procurement manager for Collier County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, believes whether an agency keeps or sends out this work depends on the structure of the organization and the complexity of the vehicle. For the Sheriff’s Office, outsourcing this work has proven to be the best solution.

“I don’t have the staffing levels that allow me to manage it in-house. I do some updating in-house…but new upfitting for me is 100% outsourced just because of the time it takes to do it and the size of my staff,” he explained.

Williams, who is president of the Florida Association of Governmental Fleet Administrators (FLAGFA), manages a fleet of 1,060 vehicles, about 450 of which are patrol cars. Up to 90% of vehicles purchased require some form of upfitting, and he has six technician positions at the maintenance facility. He purchased about 100 new vehicles in 2016, and the complexity of many of the upfits and his small staff size means it’s more efficient to send the work out.

“How complex are my vehicles? What does a patrol or the agency’s requirements call for that goes into the vehicle? Do they have video? Do they have radars, printers, gun locks, or gun boxes? If they have all that, sometimes it’s so time-consuming that it’s hard for a fleet management operation to do that internally,” he said.

He instead set out to find the best vendor for the job and three years ago, began using a local vendor in the radio business that wanted to expand to upfitting. This outsourced work also allows in-house technicians to focus on aggressive preventive maintenance to keep vehicles on the road.

For Keith Marian, fleet manager at the City of Orange, Calif., moving to outsourced police fleet upfitting eight years ago was a smart decision. Marian oversees a diverse fleet of 418 vehicles — 48 of which are black-and-white patrol units and about 20 more police vehicles that require specialized equipment. He purchases between 12 and 15 patrol vehicles each year.

Previously, the fleet dedicated one technician who worked on building out police vehicles about 75% of the time. At the time, workload increased, and it was taking him longer to complete the job; the Police Department didn’t want to wait. Rather than invest in additional resources to speed up the process, Marian decided to send it out to a local vendor with a detailed build specification.

Marian said it’s a faster method, and the cost is about the same as having fleet staff do the work.

The City of Orange (Calif.) communicates with its upfitting vendor about deliveries to make sure the company has all the parts available when vehicles arrive. Photo courtesy of City of Orange
The City of Orange (Calif.) communicates with its upfitting vendor about deliveries to make sure the company has all the parts available when vehicles arrive. Photo courtesy of City of Orange

An In-House Approach

The Florida Highway Patrol, in contrast, chooses to upfit its fleet of 2,345 vehicles in-house, even though it doesn’t do its own maintenance and repairs. It has a central installation facility near Jacksonville that employs 12 technicians and three production support personnel. In 2016, the facility completed 355 vehicle installations.

With a land area of nearly 54,000 miles, it’s more efficient for the Florida Highway Patrol to leave maintenance and repair to the 13 troops around the state.

“Yet when you talk about upfitting, we found that with a centralized installation facility, we can be more efficient than other shops. Since we specialize in only performing emergency equipment installation, we can do it more efficiently than most other fleet shops [that] include maintenance and repair, ” said John Kreiensieck, fleet & property operations manager, Florida Highway Patrol. “We can service the complete state’s fleet, where it’d be difficult or impossible for a vendor to accomplish the same task while complying with state statute requirements.”

The FHP has been doing its own upfitting for a long time, but it wasn’t until about 12 years ago that it opened the central installation facility. Kreiensieck attributes the need for such a facility to the increased use of technology, beginning with the widespread use of laptop computers in patrol cars. As more technology was needed for law enforcement vehicles, it became too difficult for radio technicians at each troop to handle installs. They needed a place to store parts and equipment, leading to the centralized facility.

Due to the increasing amount of technology in vehicles, the Florida Highway Patrol built a central installation facility where its technicians work on vehicles in one location. Photo courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol
Due to the increasing amount of technology in vehicles, the Florida Highway Patrol built a central installation facility where its technicians work on vehicles in one location. Photo courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol

One of the biggest reasons why in-house upfitting works for FHP is volume — finding a single vendor that could house and complete upfits for 350 vehicles per year as efficiently as FHP does would be difficult. Additionally, state statute requires vehicles be inspected when dropped off, and it would be a challenge to send fleet personnel all over the state to inspect vehicles at upfitting facilities upon delivery.

Kreiensieck also believes centralized, in-house upfitting is just more efficient. “It’s for uniformity of installation, consistency of installation, and quality control,” he explained.

Working with a Partner

Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s current upfitter formerly specialized in radios. Williams saw the need for a local upfitter — the one the Sheriff’s Office was using was two counties away — and gave the new vendor a chance. He researched the company, looked at the facility, spoke to those responsible for upfitting, started them with simpler work in small quantities, and made sure he was fully comfortable before handing over front-line patrol cars and, eventually, the entire fleet.

In the past three years, they’ve worked out a system for deliveries.

“We work together to decide when's a good time to order, get them upfitted, and issued in the same fiscal year. Communicating with our upfitter is key to timing our upfit process in order to reduce unnecessary downtime,” Williams said.

For example, if the upfitter is fully scheduled with other work in October and November, Williams will schedule deliveries for December.

Collier County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office purchases about 100 vehicles each year, all of which are upfitted by an outside vendor. Photo courtesy of Collier County Sheriff's Office
Collier County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office purchases about 100 vehicles each year, all of which are upfitted by an outside vendor. Photo courtesy of Collier County Sheriff's Office

This close communication allows the upfitter time to purchase parts and also allows Williams to warn the vendor if there are delays, such as instances when he doesn’t get vehicle funding until mid-year. In this case, the vendor would have to prepare to upfit 100 vehicles in six months.

In return, Williams will be flexible as well — he went with a new light bar brand because the new vendor wasn’t selling the same product. This was a change he was willing to make for better customer support of a vendor in the area.

“Folks have to decide what’s most critical for them — if service is more important than the brand of lights. Is that vendor able to provide after-upfit support? If we have a programming issue in the light bar that’s acting up, can they come and fix it quickly and efficiently or is it something that you have to tackle yourself? The support element is the most important key for us.”

The vendor can upfit up to five cars a week for the Sheriff’s Office, or two weeks from start to finish.

To expedite the procurement progress, Marian at the City of Orange uses cooperative contracts for services including upfitting. His current upfit contract for patrol vehicles comes from a neighboring agency.

He gets police vehicle deliveries all at the same time, and a vendor can usually complete two vehicles per week. He communicates with the vendor so its staff can order parts ahead of time to start builds right away.

“If we had to do it in-house, it’d probably be hard for us to get one [complete] a week based other priorities,” Marian said.

To ensure vehicles are being upfitted correctly, fleet and police staff members sometimes make visits to the vendor location. They also have multiple meetings with the upfitter once the purchase order has been issued, Marian said. This is to ensure the technical aspects and quality requirements are being met.

The City of Orange has been outsourcing its upfitting for about eight years. Photo courtesy of City of Orange
The City of Orange has been outsourcing its upfitting for about eight years. Photo courtesy of City of Orange

Streamlining the Process

FHP orders vehicles in three waves, and it takes six to eight weeks after delivery for vehicles to arrive, plus an additional two weeks for painting. The dealer agrees to deliver a set number of vehicles to the central installation facility per week, depending on the facility’s production goals, Kreiensieck said.

With three teams — one prepping and two installing — staff can finish about 12 units per week. The build season takes anywhere between seven to 10 months, and the rest of the time is spent prepping for the next year’s deliveries and performing repairs on lights and equipment.

“We preassemble everything we can, so when the cars do come in for the next year’s orders, we can just plug and play, putting them in, bolting them down, and moving on,” he said. Pre-assembled parts include center consoles and partitions.

As for repairs, officers in the area and anyone in transit can bring their vehicles to the facility during this down time, allowing the state to reduce its outsourcing costs for this period of time.

One of the keys to success for FHP is in having a dedicated parts person, Kreiensieck said. This person makes sure parts arrive early in time for pre-assembly, and that there’s extra in case of a delivery delay for the next batch.

“I can’t stress how important the supply chain and supply management is to a production facility,” Kreiensieck said. “Without the [parts personnel], you just cannot operate efficiently, or you’ll never hit your goals.”

Kreiensieck has honed the process through trial and error — as well as through research. He researched common industries and learned about pre-assembly from another state highway patrol facility. He reaches out for training opportunities from other agencies and private sector shops, which can conduct training events to demonstrate upfit building techniques.

“We then take the good and bad and implement what works into our processes. Process improvement is always a continuous thing,” he said.

He thinks creating a sense of buy-in with technicians is essential, as well as holding staff members accountable to their production goals from the top down.

Finally, he believes sworn officers need to be involved in every aspect of vehicle decisions. Kreiensieck runs the installation facility from a different city, but he makes sure to have a lieutenant that runs the facility on the grounds there. He also manages contracts used for procurement, and another sworn officer is always available to test and check compliance for anything new.

“I want it to be officer tested, officer approved. If he thinks it’s a good idea, then I feel good about rolling it out,” he explained.

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