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Gas Pains

Agencies nationwide are hurting as the price of fuel for their fleets strains budgets to the breaking point.

July 01, 2008  |  by Mike Scott

When law enforcement agencies were putting together their fiscal year budgets for 2008, few municipal or county administrators could have forecast the impact of skyrocketing gas prices.

But the impact has been significant. Many departments have seen their fuel prices increase by 20 to 30 percent compared with what they budgeted for the year. That has resulted in departments developing a number of formal and informal solutions to helping reduce their fuel costs without scrimping on the necessary community services.

Departments across the country have come up with a variety of strategies to help reduce fuel and other fleet-related costs. The list ranges from added bicycle patrols to more alternative fueled vehicle options to sharing patrol cars. They have also mandated changes in the ways that officers operate their vehicles such as reducing idling, eliminating the warm-up of vehicles in the morning, and restricting take-home vehicle usage.

No Warming Up

Bay County (Mich.) Sheriff's Department deputies are parking and turning off their cars for 10 minutes each hour, setting up in a strategic location to monitor traffic. The policy has been in place since early May says Sheriff John Miller.

Another option might be to add new substations across the county to cut down on fuel bills. However the upfront cost for building those substations can be prohibitive.

Such informal fuel-saving measures have also been put into place for the Bowling Green (Ken.) Police Department. The city had budgeted spending around $25,000 per month on fuel for its 127 vehicles, which include 85 patrol cars, 27 administrative Chevrolet Impala sedans, and a handful of trucks, trailers, and parking enforcement vehicles. As gas prices have been rising, monthly costs now top $30,000 per month for law enforcement vehicles alone.

Some of the informal measures that have been recommended by the department's administration include not warming up vehicles in the morning, increasing bike patrols and reducing idling time as conditions permit says Jon Lewis, fleet manager for the city of Bowling Green, which oversees the police department's fleet.

"Some informal recommendations have gone out but as prices rise some of them may become more formal and more emphasized," Lewis says. "The jump in gas prices has been significant and somewhat unexpected over the past four months."

Lewis expects the department to save $1,000 to $2,000 by reducing idling times and not warming up vehicles in the mornings. There are bicycle racks on the backs of all police cruisers and that strategy could save an extra few hundred dollars per month he added.

Take-Home Cars

Bowling Green has also had a successful take-home vehicle program over the years, and rising gas prices are not expected to greatly impact that policy. Officers take home their vehicles each night and that is seen as a significant advantage by residents of the city, which measures 36.5 square miles.

"There are too many benefits at this point for (the department) to reconsider the take-home vehicle program," Lewis says. "The ability to respond to an incident directly from their homes and the benefits of having that visible law enforcement presence in neighborhoods is worth the extra few hundred dollars a month."

The Alachua (Fla.) County Sheriff's Department also has a long established take-home vehicle program that involves part of its fleet of more than 400 law enforcement vehicles. But in April, the cost of the department's fuel was more than $90,000—the highest monthly fuel cost in the department's history—and something needed to be done, according to public information officer Art Forge.

So a formal declaration was made that take-home vehicles could no longer be used for anything other than trips to work or a fitness center for exercise. Forge says this measure is expected to save the department a few thousand dollars each month.

"If that doesn't cut the costs as much as we need to, I'm sure that the concept of our take-home vehicle program will be revisited or there may be some other changes made," Forge says. "We're seeing how big of an impact this will have on our bottom-line."

The bottom line is staring the Redlands (Calif.) Police Department in the face even as the department has significantly reduced its gas consumption. The Redlands PD has cut back its take-home program from 78 to 50 vehicles based on the location of where officers live and their rank and position says Gary Van Dorst, the department's quality of life director.

The take-home vehicle cutback could help the Redlands PD reduce the number of gallons consumed by as much as 20,000 gallons this year for a total of 60,000 gallons, compared with the 82,131 gallons of gas consumed in 2007. However with gas prices $1 or more higher than the average $2.90 the city paid for gas last year, the actual money spent on gas could still rise.

"And we don't know how much farther the price of gas will rise this year," Van Dorst says. "It's conceivable that we could hit $5 a gallon."

Taking Away Cars

The Alachua County Sheriff's Department has also eliminated vehicle use for some law enforcement positions such as sworn or unsworn bureau chiefs and some corrections officers and employees. Any non-essential department vehicle use will also be eliminated or closely monitored. Forge says this will help reduce not only fuel costs but other maintenance costs associated with added department vehicle use.

"We have to look at other ways to cut our (fleet-related) vehicle costs across the board to help offset rising gas prices," Forge says, "even if these strategies aren't directly tied to the use of fuel."

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