A department chief’s vehicle is a tool to enable chief officers to do their jobs better, safer and more efficiently.
With that said it is not my intention to alienate readers from those departments. For the sake of this article, let’s agree that departments that do not issue a chief officer a vehicle cannot do that due to a lack of political support, the lack of financial resources or the desire to put their limited financial resources into other more vital areas. In these departments members still clamp light bars onto their roofs, bolt sirens and radios under their dashboards and install antennas on their quarter panels. Let’s also agree for the sake of this article that most departments in that situation most likely would in fact issue vehicles if they could ultimately fund them without taking financial resources away from other areas.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must come clean and admit that I am a pro-chief’s vehicle fire department board member. If you are looking for an article that downplays the need for these vehicles, you won’t find that here. I was actively involved in the discussions when my department increased our chief’s vehicles from two to four. While serving as board chairman, I wrote our chief’s vehicle fleet management and proper use policy.
Chief’s vehicles can be a blessing and burden all wrapped up into one package, but I cannot envision our department ever going backwards and reducing the vehicles we issue to our four chiefs. However, a well-organized purchasing and replacement plan, coupled with policies for the appropriate use of these vehicles, can keep your department from any unnecessary fleet management and public image problems associated with these vehicles.
This article addresses many of the topics from discussions that are probably taking place in volunteer fire department boardrooms and in community corners right now. As the economy begins to tighten and the price of gasoline continues to remain high, we as department managers and leaders must approach each and every one of our decisions with a well thought out plan. The care and feeding of chiefs vehicles are no exception.
The decision to issue chiefs vehicles should be clearly a safety and service-based decision. I also feel that the chief’s vehicle is also provided as a perk for taking on the added responsibility of a chief officer. Call it what you want, a thank you, a benefit, reward or incentive, nonetheless, chief officers deserve it.
In today’s world, where we are all busy raising our families and working multiple jobs, if you get members of your community who step up and say they will do the chiefs job for free, I believe the vehicle is the least we can do for them. Often times the fact that they are volunteer fire chiefs is the reason they may not be able to work a second job to improve their financial position. The time is instead put into the fire service and their community, therefore the car eases some of the financial burden that may be created through their community service.
Emergency response — yes or no? What most community members do not understand when they see a shiny SUV roaming around the community on a Saturday running errands, going to soccer practice and hitting a local restaurant for lunch, is that in most cases the chief driving the vehicle is ready for emergency response.
As members of our departments, or as board members, or commissioners, we have to be the ones to educate the community to our needs and how the vehicles they see directly benefit them. I recently wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper in Connecticut that had an article in it about the removal of take home cars that were used by the police and fire chief. My point was simple. Do you expect an almost immediate emergency response from your chief officers at any time of the day or night? If the answer is yes, then you must provide a vehicle. It completely defeats the purpose of an emergency response if you have to drive to the firehouse to get the command vehicle then go to the scene. The same is to be said for the volunteer chief out on a Saturday with his or her family. The community should want those vehicles out and visible. The chiefs should not be “out of service” just because he had to leave the department vehicle home and drive his civilian car to soccer practice. The only time I endorse leaving the department vehicle parked is when the chief is going to an event where alcohol may be consumed, and he or she will then be fully out of service and have no need for their assigned chief’s rig.
Another reason chiefs vehicles are a good piece of equipment is due to the large amount of people leasing cars today versus 10 or more years ago. When I joined the fire service in 1983 it was almost a badge of courage for a new chief to have taken the drill and screw driver to his car to install antennas, radios, lights and sirens. When his term was done all of the holes left in his car or truck where the emergency equipment once was, were then filled with tub caulk, and there were only three colors available clear, white and brown. Today, volunteers who step up to be chiefs cannot turn in a leased vehicle with holes all over it and excess mileage. Our chiefs should not take a financial hit at lease turn-in so the vehicles we issue can reduce that problem. I am also sure that most leasing companies do not expect their leased vehicles to be running red lights and sirens as part of their lessee’s daily use.
In the event of an accident, the lessee might get into hot water with their lease company.
I called the fire department, not Joe’s Pool Company. I had this very discussion with one of our former board chairs when I was promoting increasing the chief’s vehicles we had from two to four. One of my points was that our members come from all walks of life. Business, construction, landscaping, funeral, and real estate are a few of the full time careers our chiefs have, and they drive vehicles that serve their personal needs. Our departments need to issue vehicles to our chiefs that serve the department’s needs first and theirs second.
Our community, like many others, is made up of homes that range from $50-$100,000 and new subdivisions with homes near $500,000. I am not saying people will judge a book by its cover, or for this article a chief by his vehicle, but I believe that the professional image and properly organized and ready equipment that comes from an issued vehicle is worth its public image weight in gold. Our former board chair feels that the caller will be darn happy just see somebody, anybody show up in their time of need. You decide what image you want for your department.
Under this heading I am going to present two different types of equipment for you to consider. The first type of equipment I will discuss is what I call the annual equipment. What I mean by that is that in most cases chiefs are elected every year, or sometimes every two years. What happens in departments where the officers do not remain intact year after year is boards and ultimately taxpayers end up paying for annual removal and reinstalls of radios, lights and other items from the ex-chiefs and incoming chiefs personal autos — sometimes to the tune of a few thousand dollars per pop. There is something to be said for cleaning out your personal items, washing and vacuuming the rig and handing the keys to the new chief on New Year’s Eve. Done, no fuss no muss. The other equipment is the department issued equipment chiefs are expected to have like incident command items, EMS equipment, an air pack, fire extinguisher, AED, thermal imager, gas detector, etc. This stuff takes up a great deal of space in a personally owned auto and is often dumped on the garage floor when the car is to be used for the family. In a department vehicle these items are all properly stored and mounted and generally do not have to be unnecessarily moved around to accommodate other passengers. This saves wear and tear on the department owned and issued equipment.
Who should have them? In most cases I fully support any officer who holds the rank of Chief of Department, Deputy Chief or Assistant Chief having a department issued vehicle. I know that there are many departments who retain old or retired chief’s vehicles that are in reasonable condition and make them available to safety officers, EMS supervisors or fly cars, or provide them to members attending training schools or community events. This is clearly an individual department decision and should be made based on your needs and the condition of the retired vehicle. Nobody needs to keep a money pit around.
Type of vehicle and purchasing
The type of vehicle your department purchases should be determined by the board and not by the chief officers. This is the departments vehicle not theirs. A standard vehicle type should be adopted by your department. Boards need to take the emotions out of purchasing chiefs vehicles. While you may say it could never happen, you don’t want an outgoing chief sticking a midsize car to the new chief when the outgoing one drove a full size SUV.
While I have always personally been a Crown Victoria kind of guy, the SUV configurations are far better suited for what we do. In the days when the chief arrived and grabbed a rubber coat and a portable out of the trunk and lit a cigar to watch “the guys” work the fire, the Vic or a Dodge Polara was probably all that. But for working chiefs who need communications and laptops, the SUV is the right fit. Chief’s vehicles in most suburban departments should last six years. Therefore in a department of four chiefs you should budget and purchase a vehicle every 1.5 years. The chief of department should always drive the newest vehicle. The remaining vehicles should be handed down by rank, period. The purpose of this is to keep personalities out of this process. This process keeps a chief, who may not personally like an assistant, from sticking him with the oldest rig all the time. The lowest chief on the pole always has the oldest vehicle. Any questions? This “hand me down” concept also keeps individual chiefs from developing the “my vehicle” complex. Also, in the event you have a chief who happens to put a great deal of miles on their assigned vehicle the hand me down process insures that they will only have the vehicle in their possession for 1.5 years and most likely it will then move on to the next officer who may drive less miles.
As far as purchasing goes, your department should make every reasonable effort to get a “best buy” for the people who funded the vehicle — your citizens. In most cases you should prepare a bid that can be sent to many auto dealers to insure competition. In some parts of our country departments may be able to take advantage of a state or government bid which can sometimes save your department thousands of dollars off the sticker price. Purchasing used vehicles from departments that may change vehicles more frequently than yours may be an option, but buyer beware. Most departments are getting rid of the vehicle because their fleet management plan dictates that it has seen better days. You may be buying the vehicle just in time to do tires and brakes or majors such as transmission or transfer cases. Whenever possible buy new, and strongly consider extended warranties that cover major mechanicals at the time of purchase.
As far as options go, I have no problem providing chiefs with a comfortable modern vehicle with a few extras, but try to avoid luxury editions, gold packages or (sorry) no Navigators or Escalades.
Policies for use
Regarding proper use of the vehicles, I must say up front that if you are issuing a chief a vehicle please allow him to do his job. If he is entrusted with properly managing your entire department, for goodness sake don’t micromanage the chief’s vehicle to death. Let the person use the vehicle. Obviously they are expected to be at calls and a great deal of them. If you are providing the wheels, the fuel and the insurance, there should be nothing holding the person who has received the car back from responding to calls. Chiefs should basically have unrestricted use of the vehicles in a six or seven county area and should be able to go out of town for fire department business. If the chief’s line of work could cause undue damage to the vehicle, the chief should leave it at home. However, in most cases the vehicle should be allowed to travel to and from the employment of the chiefs. In the event the chief will be out of town for an extended vacation or for business, the vehicle should be temporarily placed in the hands of the individual who will be responding in said chief’s absence. Also, I never feel that a department issued chief’s vehicle should be seen towing the personal RV or boat of the chief. There is a limit to what the community will tolerate.
The chief’s vehicle can be a form of advertisement like a bill board or sign. The operator should think about where the vehicle is parked. People do take notice of the vehicles parked everyday in front of a tavern at happy hour or even worse in the parking lot of an adult book store or massage parlor.
A department chief’s vehicle is a tool to enable chief officers to do their jobs better, safer and more efficiently. This tool and perk should be treated with respect and great appreciation. The vehicle should always be clean and set the right example for the department, while in and out of the public eye. Drive it with pride, you earned it. I hope this article serves as a tool for healthy debate about chief’s vehicles in your department.