Chiefs’ Cars: Professional or Perk?

BY MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO

Many departments issue vehicles to members with chief rank designations, such as deputy chief or assistant chief. Unfortunately, many departments do not because of a lack of political support; the lack of financial resources; or the desire to put their limited financial resources into other, more vital areas. It is not my intention to alienate members of these departments. 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. Most departments in these situations most likely would issue vehicles if they could ultimately fund them without taking financial resources away from other areas.

I am a pro-chief’s vehicle fire department board member. I was actively involved in my department’s discussions to increase our chiefs’ vehicles from two to four. As a board chairman, I wrote our chiefs’ vehicle fleet management and proper use policy. Chiefs’ vehicles can be a blessing and a burden all wrapped up into one, but I cannot envision our department going backward and reducing the number of vehicles we issue to our four chiefs. However, a well-organized purchasing and replacement plan, coupled with appropriate vehicle use policies, can keep your department from any unnecessary fleet management and public image problems associated with these vehicles.

As the economy tightens and gasoline prices continue to remain high, we as department managers and leaders must approach every one of our decisions with a well thought out plan. The policy on chiefs’ vehicles is no exception.

A PERK?

The decision to issue chiefs’ vehicles must be safety- and service-based. However, I also feel that the chief’s vehicle is provided as a perk for taking on the added responsibility of a chief officer. Call it what you want: a thank you, a benefit, a reward, or an incentive. Nonetheless, chief officers deserve it.

The average salary of a paid firefighter holding the rank of chief is probably $35,000 to $100,000 or higher and includes a chief’s vehicle for work and (sometimes) personal use. In today’s world, where we are all busy raising our families and working multiple jobs, community members who step up and perform the chief’s job for free deserve, at least, a car or an SUV; as volunteer fire chiefs, they may not be able to work a second job to improve their family’s financial position. The time is instead put into the fire service; the car eases some of the financial burden created through their community service.

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

What most community members do not understand when they see a chief driving a new SUV is that, in most cases, the chief driving the vehicle is ready for emergency response. We as department or board members or commissioners must educate the citizens of our needs and how the vehicles they see directly benefit them.

I recently wrote a letter to the editor of a local Connecticut newspaper that ran an article about the removal of take-home cars used by the police and the 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 an emergency response’s purpose if you first must drive to the firehouse to get the command vehicle and then drive to the scene. The same can be said for the volunteer chief out on a Saturday with his family. The community should want those vehicles out and visible. A chief should not be “out of service” (OOS) 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 will then be fully OOS with no need for the assigned chief’s rig.

LEASING

Another reason a chief’s vehicle is a good piece of equipment is the large number of people leasing cars today vs. 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 install antennas, radios, lights, and sirens in his car. After his term was complete, the holes left in his car or truck where the emergency equipment was placed were then filled with tub caulk. Today, volunteers who become chiefs cannot turn in a leased vehicle filled with holes and having excess mileage. Our chiefs should not take a financial hit at lease turn-in; issuing department vehicles to them can reduce that problem.

PROFESSIONAL IMAGE

I discussed the issue of proper vehicle usage with one of our former board chairs when I promoted, increasing our chiefs’ vehicles from two to four. I pointed out that our members come from all walks of life, with jobs in business, construction, landscaping, interment, and real estate, to name a few. They drive vehicles that serve their personal needs.

Departments must issue chiefs’ vehicles that serve the department’s needs first and the chiefs’ second. Our community, like many others, is comprised of homes that range from $50,000 to $100,000 and new subdivisions with homes near $500,000. I am not saying people will judge a book by its cover, but I believe that the professional image and the properly organized and ready equipment that come from an issued vehicle are worth their public image weight in gold. Our former board chair feels that the caller will be happy just to see somebody, anybody, arrive in his time of need. You decide what image you want for your department.

TRANSFERRING EQUIPMENT

There are two different types of equipment for you to transfer when moving personal work-related items out of a chief’s car. The first type of equipment is what I call the annual equipment.

In most cases, chiefs are elected every year and sometimes every two years. In departments where the officers do not stay, the boards, and ultimately the taxpayers, end up paying for annual removal and reinstallation of radios, lights, and other items from the ex-chiefs’ and incoming chiefs’ personal autos, sometimes costing a few thousand dollars per vehicle. There is something to be said for cleaning out these work-related 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 second type of equipment is the department-issued equipment chiefs are expected to have, such as incident command items, EMS equipment, an SCBA, a fire extinguisher, an automated external defibrillator, a thermal imaging camera, and a gas detector. These items take up a great deal of space in a personally owned auto and are often dumped on the garage floor when the car is used for family outings. 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 VEHICLES?

In most cases, I fully support any department chief, deputy chief, or assistant chief being issued a department vehicle. Many departments retain and make available old or retired chiefs’ vehicles in reasonable condition to safety officers or EMS supervisors or to members attending training schools or community events. This is clearly an individual department decision and must be made based on your needs and the retired vehicle’s condition. Nobody needs to keep a money pit around.

TYPE OF VEHICLE AND PURCHASING

The board, not the chief officer, should determine the type of vehicle your department purchases. This is the department’s vehicle, not the chief’s. Your department must adopt a standard vehicle type. Boards must take the emotions out of purchasing chiefs’ vehicles. You don’t want an outgoing chief assigning a midsize car to the new chief when the outgoing chief drove a full-size SUV; 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 radio out of the trunk and lit a cigar to watch “the guys” work the fire, a full-size car was sufficient. But for current working chiefs who need communications and laptops, the SUV is the right fit.

Chiefs’ vehicles in most suburban departments should last six years. Therefore, a four-chief department should budget for and purchase a vehicle every 1½ years. The department chief always drives the newest vehicle. Hand the remaining vehicles down by rank. This keeps personalities out of the process and stops a chief who may not personally like an assistant from consistently sticking him with the oldest rig. The lowest chief in rank always has the oldest vehicle.

This “hand me down” concept also keeps individual chiefs from developing the “my vehicle” complex. If a chief puts a lot of miles on his assigned vehicle, this process ensures that he will possess the vehicle only for 1½ years, and most likely it will then move on to an officer who may drive it less.

Your department must do everything to get a “best buy” for the people who funded the vehicle: your citizens. Prepare and send a bid to many auto dealers to ensure competition (check to see what the purchasing policy is in your jurisdiction or department). In some parts of the country, departments can take advantage of a state or government bid, which can save your department thousands of dollars off the vehicle’s sticker price.

Purchasing used vehicles from departments that change vehicles more frequently is an option, but buyer beware. Most departments get rid of the vehicle because their fleet management standards dictate that it has seen better days. You may buy the vehicle just in time to do tires and brakes or other major repairs, such as a transmission or transfers. Whenever possible, buy new, and strongly consider at the time of purchase extended warranties that cover major mechanical repairs.

Regarding options, I have no problem providing chiefs with a comfortable modern vehicle with a few extras, but try to avoid luxury editions or gold packages.

POLICIES FOR USE

If you issue a vehicle to a chief, let him do his job. If the chief is entrusted with properly managing your entire department, don’t micromanage his vehicle. Obviously, chiefs are expected to be at many calls. If you provide the wheels, the fuel, and the insurance, nothing should hold back the car’s recipient from responding to calls. Chiefs should have unrestricted vehicle use in a six- or seven-county area and for out-of-town fire department business. If the chief’s line of work could cause undue vehicle damage, the chief should leave it at home. If the chief is out of town for an extended vacation or for business, he should give the vehicle to the individual who will respond in his absence. I also feel that a department-issued chief’s vehicle should never be seen towing the chief’s personal RV or boat; there is a limit to what the community will tolerate.

The chief’s vehicle is a form of advertisement, like a billboard or sign. The operator must think about where the vehicle is parked. People notice vehicles parked every day in front of a tavern at happy hour or, worse, in any unseemly place. These rigs stand out.

A department chief’s vehicle is a tool to enable chief officers to perform their jobs better, more safely, and more efficiently. Treat this tool and perk with respect and great appreciation. Keep the vehicle clean, and set the right example for the department, both in and out of the public eye. Drive it with pride; you’ve earned it.

MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO is a 24-year volunteer firefighter and chairman of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company board of directors. He has instructed at FDIC and is a trainer for the fire service, the public transportation industry, and certified commercial vehicle drivers.

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