In today’s world your department should have clearly written policies that outline what is appropriate use of the vehicle. This should include your department or muncipalities’ definition of official business.
I will also make two very clear statements right up front as well. First, you will notice I clearly stated take home vehicles for paid staff. There are many areas of the country who issue or provide full time vehicle access and use to volunteer chiefs, safety officers, squad officers and even EMS providers, however, vehicles assigned to volunteers and vehicles assigned to paid employees, no matter how high the paid employee ranks, are two different issues with their own unique parameters.
I covered volunteer firefighter vehicles in another article which can be read at my website www.respondsmart.com.
Secondly, I do not intend to imply through this article that I think the media runs our operations or that we should second guess every decision we make because the media may have something to say about it. We must be prepared to respond to their reasonable, or even unreasonable requests, because they do control much of how any issue gets presented to the viewing or reading public. Your public.
The press has been out there already
Recently, a major television news station in the Virginia/Maryland area did a multi-week covert study of the use of take home department vehicles operated by a major county fire/emergency department. News reporters and camera persons followed, observed, photographed and filmed department take home vehicles. They coupled this surveillance data with information they obtained through freedom of information requests (FOIL) and had a battery of questions for the senior ranking department leaders.
When interviewed on camera the ranking officer who responding to the questioning did an admirable job of presenting himself as a competent department representative. He did however lack an up-to-date grasp on the details which the news used to make the department’s control and management of take home vehicles appear weak and disorganized, or at the very least lax.
The majority of the general public will support take home cars
The citizens we serve want prompt, skilled and efficient emergency services and they understand the meaning of the word “emergency.” That often means that the successful outcome of an incident, either medical or fire related that can be called a true emergency, depends on the proximity of specialized equipment, including vehicles and the skilled people, and equipment inside said vehicles being promptly deployed.
Members of the public who do not support take home vehicles, or speak out against them, generally harbor their negative feelings for a few reasons. Once we understand the reasons and make sure our organizations are operating properly, we will significantly reduce public scrutiny of this issue.
One of the reasons some members of the general public do not support take home cars is jealously. These individuals may already harbor feelings that public employees already may receive better salary and benefits, or at the very least greater job security than themselves, and feel the take home vehicle is just another slap in their hard working face. After all, John Q. Public has to pay for his wheels and all of the associated expenses to commute to and from work.
These individuals often feel that they are not only funding day to day transportation for a government employee but may also feel they are funding their personal or recreational transportation during those same employees off time. For that reason good public education is important along with running a “tight ship” when it comes to managing your fleet.
Another reason some members of your general public may be hesitant to support take home vehicles despite your ongoing public education efforts surrounding their need and justification, is the age old “Chiefs and Indians” argument. Whether you are from a small town or a large county the question will be yours to answer as to how many individuals in command or support positions are truly needed to respond during those first 15 to 30 minutes of an actual serious incident to warrant having a 24 hour per day take home vehicle.
Clearly there are individuals we have critical need for, however, as budgets get tight and public scrutiny increases, there are going to be individuals in your department hierarchy that may need to respond, but may not have to be on scene right here, right now! If you currently have individuals on your staff who have take home vehicles whose roll at an incident will involve relief crews, clean up, or whose service may not be critical until 60 minutes or more into the incident, and also are not expected to have immediate access to specialized equipment, they may have time to report to a station to pick up a vehicle and then proceed to the scene. Only you can determine how that concept fits your current or future operations.
What are you buying/providing
If your department is going to provide take home vehicles to your staff you should have a clearly written vehicle specification based on department need and type of job the individual who will be using the vehicle does. I have always been a strong supporter of the police interceptor package equipped Ford Crown Victoria as an all around great vehicle for government/fleet service as far as value for the dollar goes. However, many individuals in the fire service have been able to make a strong case for full size SUVs for many emergency responders who work in a command and management situation on a regular basis. Obviously officers who are expected to log many miles in responses, deal with inclement weather or off road situations and carry EMS equipment, air packs and accountability or incident command supplies, probably need a full size SUV. A sedan may work for senior managers who do not routinely respond to incidents, unless they climb to multiple alarms.
Along the same line, mid-size sedans or small SUVs may be perfect for investigators, inspectors or instructors.
Regardless of what you purchase and assign, you must have a written vehicle specification and stick to it year after year. You should also have a clear and concise replacement policy as well. Vehicles should never be replaced simply because an officer wanted a new vehicle or because somebody new got hired. Vehicles should not be replaced based on emotions and should only be replaced when it is time based on age, mileage, condition or calendar. By calendar, I mean a policy similar to a fire department I consult for where they budget and plan for the purchase of a new full size SUV every one and a one-half years. They have a total of four take home vehicles assigned to staffers. By purchasing one every one and one-half years, the oldest of the four vehicles never gets older than six years old and the department is able to budget properly for the purchases. Their policy states that the vehicles get handed down in order by rank every one and one-half years. This is mechanical and takes all of the emotions and personalities out of the process.
Have a written use policy and follow it
There was a time in the government sector when the use of take home cars could model the business world where basically the vehicle was an employee benefit, or a perk that the executive negotiated into his salary and benefits package or “deal,” so to speak. Often this “deal” provided 24-hour-per-day use of the vehicle for personal and business without question.
In today’s world your department should have clearly written policies that outline what is appropriate use of the vehicle. This should include your department or municipalities’ definition of official business. It should include clear direction on who should be allowed to ride in the vehicle and locations that the vehicle should not be seen parked, at that would be deemed inappropriate or not in the best interest of the public image of your municipality.
When developing your use policy your organization should be developing a written criteria to also justify who in your organization gets a take home vehicle and why. The policy should identify individuals by title and not by name who would receive vehicles. This means that as a staffer moves through the ranks, or changes positions, the statement, “well John has always had a car as long as I can remember,” isn’t used as the only criteria for the assignment of a vehicle to John. This way when a fictional “John,” for the sake of this article, loses his take home car he can be clearly, and without any “personal” issue, told that while he had a take home car as Deputy Chief the Chief of the Training Division does not receive a take home car. This clear policy can also help your staffers in the event changes occur in senior management or elected officials. If a take home vehicle by policy is assigned to the Deputy Chief it should be harder for a newly elected official or new “boss” to strip “Deputy Chief Joe Smith” of his take home car because of a grudge or petty politics.
Your assignment policy should be subject to annual review by you or a group of key staffers to make sure the needs of your department have not changed thereby changing the need for the amount of take home cars. As a department, you should also have a policy to deal with staffers who have the benefit of a take home car “by title,” but who choose to live a considerable distance from your department. If you have a member with a daily roundtrip commute of 75 miles or more, the validity of an actual “emergency” response can really come under “fire” due to the distance of travel to get to an emergency from his/her home combined with the overall cost to the taxpayers of the extensive daily commute. It might be best for staffers who in that case would be eligible for the take home car to pass on it voluntarily or by policy and make their extended commute in their personal auto and then use their department vehicle while at work.
Also, in the rare occurrence where two senior staffers may be married or living together every step should be taken to address through policy, car pooling whenever possible to prevent two official take home cars from being parked at the same residence over night and then making the identical daily commute at taxpayer expense.
Lastly, your department may be far better served by operating a number of pool cars that are signed out by staff when needed vs. having a large fleet of take home cars on the road. Regardless of whether you have pool cars or issue take home cars, daily log books or sheets MUST be completed and should be reviewed weekly for accuracy. There is nothing more embarrassing when a reporter files for those records under the freedom of information laws and gets a stack of log sheets that are almost blank, have only a starting or ending mileage or unreadable data.
Entries like “official business” or “personal use” are meaningless. The date, driver’s name, starting and ending mileage and starting and ending time along with a description such as “city hall meeting” or “inspection at Engine #2 quarters,” or “lunch at Wendy’s on 1st avenue” are appropriate.
In closing, please take these final points. into consideration. If your department or municipality is going to provide take home cars, make sure those who have them are required to properly care for the car. While I do not mean using their own money for oil changes or maintenance, I do believe drivers who benefit from the convenience of having the vehicle should be responsible for washing the vehicle regularly, keeping it smoke or tobacco free and reasonably clean inside so that anybody in street clothing should be able to sit in the vehicle without getting very dirty. Show the people both your employer and their citizens who provide the vehicle to you that you value it and that you appreciate the benefit.
Make sure your department’s priorities and the priorities of your senior management are correct. If you are closing firehouses, laying off firefighters, delaying tool and/or equipment purchases or holding rigs together with duct tape, you might really want to evaluate your take home vehicle policy.
Examine future purchases to replace aging take home vehicles, or at the very least keep the take vehicles another year to make sure your staff has the equipment they need to do the job and keep the community safe. Of course, command and management staff is vital to a safe, coordinated fireground effort, however, four brand new SUVs at a scene with a pumper than cannot even hold water in its tank is a problem.