Must the person in charge of a law enforcement agency fleet be a uniformed member of that agency? Unlike other positions in a law enforcement department, the degree of law enforcement background matters less when compared to fleet’s specific discipline and specialized experience.
Efficient fleet management is an acquired skill for a professional, according to Spike Bailey, president of L.D. Bailey & Associates, a fleet consulting practice headquartered near Portland, Ore. What many inexperienced, uniformed fleet managers don’t understand is that management should be done on a cost-differential basis.
“You’d rather have your fleet manager be skilled in accounting and be someone who saved the first dollar from the first paper route he or she started than someone who is good at (making automotive) repairs,” Bailey said. “That certainly can be done by a uniformed professional, but he or she needs to go through the proper training.”
The only title relevant to a fleet manager relates not to a badge, but to the level of experience, Bailey commented. That understanding has never been truer than now, when the role requires more discipline and has become more specialized.
The reality is that fewer uniformed personnel are trained in — or interested in becoming — a fleet manager, said Warren Patrick, fleet manager for Harford County, Md., Sheriff’s Department. One reason for this disinterest is the specific training required to meet department fleet goals. Another reason is that fleet management is often considered a “fall-back” position among those pursuing a career in law enforcement.
“It’s a role that, in the past, some (uniformed) officers have been assigned because someone had to do it,” Patrick said. “But like other careers, it has become a more specialized position.”
Fleet Benefits from Finance & Budgeting Skills
“Fleet financial decisions must be based on a marginal replacement costs formula and not just total cost of ownership,” said Paul Lauria, president of Mercury Consulting, a Maryland-based fleet management firm. “That is a skill that takes some time to learn and understand.”
Essentially, the uniformed versus civilian fleet manager decision balances agency familiarity against financial skill. Does it make more sense to hire someone familiar with public safety and how departments and politics work who can learn the financial part of the job? Or is it more reasonable to hire someone from outside public safety who can handle the finances, but can learn to deal with the other industry issues the job entails?
“In many ways it might depend on the department’s environment,” Lauria said. “Administration should have a good understanding of which area will be more difficult for a new fleet manager to adapt to.”
Mounting Pressure to Outsource May Eliminate the Decision
Bailey sees the role of a uniformed fleet manager diminishing as more agencies consider outsourcing fleet management operations. In both private and public entities, an increasing pressure toward outsourcing such a role will make the question of uniformed versus civilian moot, he said.
“You’re increasingly getting administrators of police and fire departments asking he question whether they can get someone to operate their fleet for less than the current structure,” Bailey said. “All departments are seeing their budgets getting squeezed.”
Narita Holmes, former purchasing agent and current fleet consultant to Ector County, Texas, said shrinking budgets and more attention to cost containment have forced local public safety jurisdictions to outsource fleet management, or at least contract a manager position rather than hire a full-time staff. The decision between hiring a uniformed versus a civilian fleet manager is no longer a critical question agencies face, she said.
Instead, agencies are hiring or contracting to individuals or businesses that can best manage fleet costs while providing officers high-quality, reliable vehicles. In addition, maximizing the value of out-of-service resources is becoming a more critical element of an agency’s fleet manager job, along with an understanding of when and what to purchase.
“The resale value is something you have to consider these days because it is a way to help pay for new vehicles,” said Holmes. “Often, we made purchases based on the short-term quality and viability of a vehicle package. However, the skill set of a fleet manager should always include financial elements and an understanding of cost structures.”
Outsourcing: Not the Answer for All Public Safety Fleets
However, not all agencies need to outsource fleet management, and smaller jurisdictions with fewer than 50 vehicles might not require some comprehensive services, according to Bailey. Many of those jurisdictions are partnering with neighboring larger counties or agencies to oversee part or all of their fleet management operations. The bigger agencies often have more experienced personnel.
In addition, uniformed personnel in fleet management positions have a good understanding of how and where vehicles can be transferred to other departments, said Lauria. Uniformed fleet managers have a better understanding of where assets can be shared and reused. But familiarity with fleet utilization alone isn’t enough in selecting an individual to manage a large budget.
Outsourcing fleet management is not an ideal situation for critical vehicle assets such as police cruisers and rescue vehicles. Some management strategies developed internally by public safety fleet management personnel might be specific to that agency’s needs, thus making outsourcing a less viable option Bailey said.
“Fleet administrators shouldn’t be trying to build a shop department simply to build a personal power base,” Bailey said. “The fleet manager should focus on quality and cost reductions. He or she should only be concerned about spending when necessary, or when equipment is outdated or failing.
“And in lieu of that, outsourcing can be an answer, but only if the cost structure deems it appropriate,” added Bailey.
Contracted Fleet Manager Provides Solution for Some Fleets
The Harford County Sheriff’s Department employs Warren Patrick through First Vehicle Services. This arrangement allows the county to quickly replace a fleet management contact if Patrick were to move on in the loosely outsourced arrangement. While Patrick manages the county’s fleet of law enforcement vehicles, he is a First Vehicle Services employee and thus, first and foremost a fleet manager rather than a uniformed public safety employee.
In essence a contract employee through First Vehicle Services, Patrick admits encountering some challenges along the way. While nearly everyone else he works with at Harford County is in law enforcement, Patrick said he was accepted because of his expertise and the department’s belief in the importance of fleet to maintaining departmental efficiency and costs.
“I don’t think there are any repercussions or drawbacks to hiring a civilian fleet manager,” Patrick said. “I think because of all the outsourcing options, any perception of a right for a uniformed professional to be in that position is outdated.”
Patrick added, “It’s like starting any other job when you become a fleet manager in public safety. It takes some time to get to know your workplace environment and your coworkers.”
He also said that as a rule, public organizations respond to changes more slowly than private entities. Public agency fleet managers must be highly skilled in making decisions and recommendations in a timely matter.
In-House Civilian Fleet Manager Works for San Diego
The San Diego Police Department is an example of an agency with a civilianmanaged fleet, said Fleet Administrator John Alley. He has experience as a fleet manager from the private sector, but said his most difficult transition was scheduling vehicles. Not only must Alley accommodate different shifts and personnel, but also officers’ vacations and time-off, while managing vehicle usage and maintenance.
Yet those skills take less time to learn than the understanding of what it costs to use a particular vehicle of a certain make, model and year. Alley believes all fleet managers should have some fundamental knowledge of vehicle care, but they don’t have to be a mechanic.
In recent years, Alley and his counterparts in departments throughout California have been forced to cut costs to adhere to the state budget. Alley said his priority for newer vehicles is in the patrol area where command, utility, undercover, and administrative vehicles are often older. Out of 1,600 fleet vehicles, approximately 550 in the San Diego Police Department fleet are black and white patrol units.
“You can hire mechanics and professionals to manage maintenance, and you can learn how decisions are made within a department,” Alley said. “What the fleet manager needs to do, though, is understand and communicate the finances of running a fleet. That’s what he or she is responsible for. And it doesn’t matter if that manager is uniformed or civilian as long as he or she understands that end goal.”
Industry Education and Training a Must for Professionals
Regardless, uniformed and civilian personnel alike should take training courses through the National Association of Fleet Administrators (NAFA) and engage in continuing educational classes to improve skills needed to effectively manage a fleet.
The American Public Works Association (APWA) also offers a national public fleet manager certification program. The program covers operations, asset management, financial management, general management and business, human resource management, risk and environmental management, and information management and technology systems.
Professional fleet management certification indicates to public sector agencies and their customers that the fleet manager, through education, experience, and testing, has the capability to manage the public fleet in a responsible, economical, efficient, and professional manner. This was true for Harford County’s Warren Patrick.
As a civilian, Patrick has worked in law enforcement fleet management for nearly a decade and said that the skills learned as part of a certification program are invaluable.
“Really the question of whether a department should hire a civilian or uniformed fleet manager — or even a technician is moot,” Patrick said. “Public safety agencies will spend 50 percent or more of their budget on salaries and benefits, so you need a self-starter and someone who won’t require a lot of hand holding.”
The decision to hire a uniformed or civilian fleet manager shouldn’t be based on politics, but on experience and the ability to run the fleet cost efficiently while simultaneously improving quality.