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Saving Green by Going Green

Law enforcement agencies nationwide are attempting to stretch their budgets with new resource-saving technologies.

October 14, 2009  |  by Ronnie Garrett


City and county governments nationwide are still under pressure to cut their police expenses as they finalize their fiscal 2010 budgets.

Consider Linton, Ind. Its police department may see cuts of nearly $50,000. The proposed budget trims money from the department's fuel allowance and freezes equipment and vehicle purchases.

The Oakland (Calif.) Police Department fares little better. On the verge of closing an $83 million budget shortfall, members of Oakland City Council have proposed slashing the police department's personnel budget by 10 percent.

The Tallahassee (Fla.) Police Department faces a similar predicament. Its city officials recently released a proposed 2010 budget that eliminates 11 positions from the city police force.

With budget cuts of this magnitude in their sights, many police agencies are finding that changing their methods and procedures to make them more environmentally green can save another kind of green: dollars.

Spending Money to Save Money

"We are all looking to reduce future costs," says Chief Robert Stewart of the Cotati (Calif.) Police Department, whose department sought to save money by reducing its energy use with a new police facility. While green features added $700,000 to the project's final tab, Stewart expects a rapid return on the investment in reduced energy costs.

Stewart says the police budget foots the bill for the building's ongoing operational costs, so any energy savings impacts what the department can do in terms of employees, and equipment and vehicle purchases. "If I had to pay for building maintenance without a green building, it would cost substantially more," Stewart says. "Having green features lessens the impact on our budget."

The bad news is that not every department has the means to build a green structure to save money, both now and in the future. The good news is there are many smaller environmental initiatives that can help almost any department save money now. Green IT purchases, hybrid vehicles, squad car propane conversions, and other green innovations are now being viewed as investments that pay for themselves quickly then add more cash to the bottom line.

While the cash saved through these initiatives may land back in city coffers, the savings puts departments in a prime position to ask for more money and get it. "They can certainly say, 'We just saved you a half million dollars, can we at least hire three more officers?'" says Kevin Smith, spokesman for Chicago's Public Building Commission (PBC).

The argument against going green often comes round to the misconception that being environmentally friendly costs more, says Houston Taylor, deputy assistant commissioner for acquisition management of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), a governmental organization helping to put law enforcement agencies in control of managing their green initiatives.

"It may cost more to buy something upfront," Taylor admits. "But if you look at the whole life cycle of an item, good, or service, you'll see the savings in the end. And as we get smarter and technology advances, those upfront costs will be reduced."

The truth is that going green doesn't have to cost more. As departments face cash flow problems, the following agencies have unearthed ways to embrace the green movement and save more than $110,000 as a result.

Propane Conversions

Last year as gasoline prices soared to an average of $4.11 per gallon, Sheriff Stan Evans of Jackson County, Ga., found himself with two problems: gasoline was hard to find; and when it was available it was expensive. The department needed an alternative fuel source.

With the help of Georgia Gas Distributors, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department outfitted four patrol vehicles with propane conversion kits from American Alternative Fuel of Coxsackie, N.Y.

After what Evans describes as extremely positive results, the department used confiscated drug money to pay Force 911 of Pendergrass, Ga., to outfit another 30 vehicles. The fleet's remaining 30 squads will be retrofitted by year's end, possibly with federal grant funds.

The savings, with just half of the fleet converted, has been substantial, says Evans. With propane costing less than half that of gasoline ($1.21 per gallon versus $2.59 a gallon) and a federal tax credit reimbursing the department 50 cents on every gallon of propane used, the savings quickly add up. "We burn around 120,000 gallons of fuel a year," Evans says. "By year's end, we'll save close to $100,000, and it's all due to using propane."

Evans' savings estimate is on fuel price alone, but there are other benefits to propane conversions. According to the National Propane Gas Association, propane offers the longest driving range of all clean burning fuel alternatives and fleets report two to three times longer service life. In fact, the Jackson County Sheriff's Office now stretches oil changes to every 6,000 miles instead of every 3,000 because propane burns cleaner, a critical factor as the department's patrol cars' odometers spin up pretty fast serving a population of nearly 60,000 spread across 343 square miles.

Conversions are fairly simple, adds Wayne Abbs, president of Force 911. The installation equips vehicles with a separate propane system designed to operate in conjunction with gasoline. According to Abbs, the propane system includes its own tank (installed behind the vehicle's rear seat) and injector system, allowing the vehicle to run off gasoline when propane levels are low. "It switches to gas automatically and you don't even know it," he says.

While the average retrofit costs about $5,800, Evans notes converting so many vehicles at one time drove the cost down to just $3,500. "Because we used confiscated drug money to do this, it has been at no cost to the taxpayer," he adds, noting the expenditure will be recouped by year's end. This money in turn will offset the cost of adding a propane fueling station at the county's gasoline refueling site.

Saving money with alternative fuels just makes good sense, says Abbs. "With police agencies doing the amount of driving they do and the economy the way it is, the money saved with these conversions can be used to replace or keep employees or save the taxpayer money," he says.

Hybrid Vehicles

In May, Chief Leonard Wetherbee of the Concord (Mass.) Police Department announced plans to add another hybrid vehicle to its fleet after he estimated the department's hybrid Ford Escape saved $5,000 a year in fuel costs compared to the Ford Explorer it replaced. Plans are to replace aging vehicles with hybrids in the future, with hopes of eventually cutting the department fuel bills by half.

This potential for fuel savings has departments across the country shelling out the extra $3,000 to $5,000 for hybrids vs. traditional squads. And grant funding is available from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for those agencies willing to give hybrids a try.

The West Dundee (Ill.) Police Department joined 11 agencies across the state opting for a grant to experiment with hybrid cars for less speed-intensive tasks. It used its $19,000 DOJ grant and $4,000 of department funds to purchase a hybrid Toyota Camry for investigations and surveillance use. To receive the funds, the police department agreed to participate in a yearlong study and report its findings back to the DOJ.

West Dundee PD Chief Dave Sawyer says he hopes the hybrid, which switches back and forth between a gas engine and an electric motor, will help trim the department's $42,000 fuel budget. West Dundee PD's Ford Crown Vics average 18 to 20 miles per gallon, while the hybrid averages 33 to 34 miles per gallon. "If we use it in our downtown area where the speed limit is below 30 mph, the battery kicks in and we don't use as much gas or any gas at all," Sawyer says. "If we go out and drive faster than 30 to 35 mph, we're going to spend less on fuel than we would for a regular car."

Because hybrids are smaller and lack the trunk room of traditional police vehicles, and can't currently attain high speeds, West Dundee-at least initially-will not use its hybrid for traffic patrol, unless it proves worthy of the task. However, Sawyer states he's willing to give the hybrid a fair shake. "I think we owe it to the public and my village officials to give it a shot," he says. "If we can cut back on costs, that's what we should do, especially in this economy."

While the promise of hybrids in terms of cost savings seems attractive, hybrid vehicles for police use remains in its infancy. There are some roadblocks that are keeping departments from adding these lean, green, crime-fighting machines. Among the issues yet to be resolved:

  • Higher cost. Hybrids cost $2,000 to $5,000 more than traditional vehicles.
  • Increased weight from battery packs.
  • Less acceleration.
  • Lower top speed.
  • High battery replacement costs. While battery packs should last the life of the vehicle, with the number of miles departments pack on, batteries may need replacing. And the price tag for battery replacement is approximately $3,000.
  • The need for police packages. A police package with a stiffer suspension for high-speed maneuvers and a larger battery to power more sophisticated equipment is needed.
  • Officer skepticism. "We have many old-timers who are totally against their use," Sawyer admits. "But I've asked them to at least give it a try. We owe it to the people in our community; they pay our bill."

Saving Trees

The Hammonton (N.J.) Police Department, like many departments across the country, had a paper problem. Every national and local broadcast message coming into its dispatch center from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) terminal printed out separately on a single sheet of paper.

Over the course of a year, this amounted to approximately 90,000 sheets of paper (18 cases at a cost of $595) and nine toner cartridges (a cost of $990). Because the printouts contained sensitive information, the department also had to shred each document. The drain on its aging laser printer took its toll, and the department sought to replace it at a cost of $1,200, but decided on a different approach instead.

Hammonton purchased LawSoft Inc.'s NCIC Green software, which eliminates the need for continuous printing and instead publishes to a secure database that creates a pop up message on a dispatcher's workstation for viewing.

The federal NCIC sets the parameters for the nation's crime information system, says Nick DeStefano, head of the City of Hammonton IT department. "We are required to receive these messages and view them, but 90 percent of them are not actionable from our police department's standpoint," he says.

While the NCIC system is well designed, DeStefano says it creates volumes of paper waste that with today's emphasis on saving trees and saving money simply doesn't make sense. Consider this: Every time a missing person gets entered into NCIC, every agency gets copied on it. The average agency may receive 75 to 100 messages for that one entry. Multiply that by 500 notices and the number gets quite large. "And every jurisdiction that operates a 911 terminal has this problem," says DeStefano.

NCIC Green eliminates this waste by simplifying the viewing of NCIC messages without printing, says Sgt. Ron Frost, founder of LawSoft and a member of the Bloomingdale (N.J.) Police Department. The software interprets and codes messages as they come in, then sends them to dispatcher workstations. Dispatchers receive an alert when the message arrives and can read it immediately if it's an emergency pertaining directly to the jurisdiction, or a short time later when they have a free moment if it's less urgent.

"Before it sat on a printer, where they might have missed it or forgot about it," says Frost. "Now they can't miss it or forget about it because it keeps popping up on their computer screen and toning until they look at it. It ensures these messages are read."

The software, which carries a $2,700 price tag, also incorporates a search feature, which allows agencies to search by keyword, missing person, stolen vehicle, and so on. "You don't have to know much about a particular message, except for a keyword, and the software can pull relevant messages for you," Frost says.

In addition, departments can use agency identifiers, or ORIs, to categorize incoming messages, so that notifications from neighboring ORIs receive priority. "Our system allows a department to set priorities, not only on what the state says are priorities but on what each locality considers a priority," says Frost. "It is just another way to ensure the information gets the utmost attention from dispatchers."

The addition of LawSoft fits well into Hammonton's efforts to become more green. "Every department has been asked to make green a viable alternative, and this was an easy fit," says DeStefano. "While we did have to spend more than we would have to replace our aging printer, we're going to break even within the year by saving on paper, toner, and time."

Going paperless, recycling battery radios, adding energy efficient computer systems, and adding alternative fuel vehicles to police fleets can reduce pollution and save resources. And as the departments in this article have found, many times this choice leads to money savings at a time when departments really need it. 

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Wisconsin. She can be contacted at editor@policemag.com.

For More Information

American Alternative Fuel

Force 911

Lawsoft

Tags: Alternative Fuel Vehicles, Hybrid Vehicles, Managing a Police Fleet, Purchasing Vehicles, Fuel Costs


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