The blue-light conversion business is a complex and mature one affected by shifting customer demands, as well as legal and political pressures. Guy Bird takes its temperature.
When your customers are the police, fire brigade and ambulance service your product and service has to be on-point.
“Woulda, shoulda, coulda” excuses really won’t wash when the quality of your vehicles and their conversions make the difference between whether people live or die.
All of which suggests that those who get involved in this side of the business really know what they’re talking about.
“These vehicles need to be robust and reliable enough to withstand the rigours of frontline operational use for the emergency services,” says Richard Abbott, head of national specialist fleets for PSA Group. “The vehicles must measure up.”
And if they do, of course there’s kudos and business pedigree for the brands and convertors in their work beyond that sector too, as Richard Chamberlain, country manager for Fiat Professional UK, concurs:“If the NHS trusts are happy using Fiat Professional product in critical life-and-death situations this must surely give peace of mind to corporate and fleet customers about the capability of the brand.”
Fiat Professional currently focuses mainly on the ambulance sector with long-wheelbase Ducato and Ducato chassis vehicles, as Chamberlain explains: “The Ducato is preferred due to its class-leading payload and non-AdBlue engines, but also due to its straight sides, allowing more room internally for the paramedics to work more freely. We are also coming to market with a lightweight box-body conversion built on our chassis that gives even more internal space for the paramedics to work and enables them to carry more specialised equipment.”
PSA supplies vehicles across police, fire and ambulance services. For the police it’s mainly medium-to-large vans, from cell vans (Peugeot Expert), to dog vehicles (Peugeot Partner, Expert and Boxer), scene-of-crime and forensic vans (Partner and Expert) and protected personnel carriers or PPCs (generally over 4.5t GVW large vans).
Despite all being for the same public service, and starting as essentially small, medium and large vans, their vehicular roles once converted are pretty diverse.
Cell vans include a two-prisoner containment cell in the rear (fully crash-tested), additional seating for police officers, storage solutions for equipment, emergency lighting and sirens, police communications equipment and livery.
Equally, PPCs, which can ferry up to 10 officers around, make regular minivans for regular passengers seem fairly basic, as Toby Carter, sales manager for police, NHS and custodial markets at Cartwright Conversions, explains to What Van?: “PPCs need anti-bandit capability, so that can include polycarbonate windscreens, wcab doors and side windows, flip-down guard grilles, racking for riot shields and kitbags, usually one cell and a high-impact-resistant polycarbonate interior lining.”
According to Carter, the 1980s miners’ strikes caused the latter change in protective depth when javelins and other sharp items started to get hurled at PPCs. Extra steel work is sometimes added to support these additional elements too.
Carter says Cartwright Conversions works a lot with the Mercedes Sprinter for this type of role and that such conversions can easily double the original price of the van. Beyond blue-light conversions, Cartwright’s wide conversion experience has also seen the firm doing a mobile eye examination suite for Vision Express and an animal treatment vehicle for a vet.
Whatever the conversion, there’s potentially a lot of cost and kit to lose value on when it comes to de-fleeting unless the correct steps are taken down the right avenues.
There are other issues too, such as what kind of markets there are for secondhand blue-light vehicles (and where), who’s allowed to use a blue-light vehicle, and whether they can be economically converted back to regular vans or not. Gil Kelly, operations director at Venson Automotive Solutions, which offers a whole host of vehicle solutions including fleet management and conversions, says there are more options than you might expect.
“Similar to other commercial fleets at de-fleet time there is always the possibility of recycling some of the equipment for fitting to replacement vehicles,” he reasons.
“Obviously, there is a need to ensure the equipment is still fit-for-purpose and will meet required regulations and legislation. There is a second-hand market for the vehicles, both in the UK and abroad, and some auction houses will host specific sales for the vehicles.”