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.”

Diverse roles

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.

De-fleet issues?

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.”


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The ambulance sector is an area of focus for Fiat and its LWB Ducato


Cartwright’s Carter says his business doesn’t get involved much in the de-fleet process – “customers’ workshops tend to do this in-house” – but points to decent second-hand options such as the private UK ambulance market, including charities and where the NHS sub-contracts services to private businesses, plus overseas markets too.

He also believes there is no legislation to say who can take blue lights off, but given that, for instance, impersonating a police officer in a police car definitely is governed by serious laws, he hasn’t heard of blue-light de-fleet issues in terms of secondary users abusing the driving privileges that blue lights bestow.     

New trends

In such a well-established and regulated market – both in the detailed tendering that’s required by different services and regions, plus long-standing safety legislation – you might imagine innovation or change is slow or seldom.

But there are emerging trends. As carmakers move to increasing electrification for reasons of environmentally-driven legislation, customer demand and corporate responsibility, so too van makers are investigating the technology, despite current range issues and slightly different business uses and functional needs.

As Fiat Professional UK’s Chamberlain explains: “There is currently interest in electrification. This will need to be very specialised due to range anxiety because of the size and weight of an ambulance and of being able to power the internal systems required for the ambulance to operate at the scene and in transit.”

PSA’s Abbott agrees and adds: “We have already started trials around this area, particularly with an electric van trial for forensic use with one of the UK police forces.”

From a convertor perspective Venson’s Kelly sees different trends, but not necessarily all good ones, as he cautions: “[Some] manufacturers will try and ‘commoditise and standardise’ the conversions for the emergency service sector.

But using a cookie-cutter approach to conversions in this market will put the emergency service fleets into a strait jacket and remove the flexibility of bespoke conversions to suit the real operational needs of the vehicles and the fleet.”

Cartwright’s Carter also sees a trend of developing lighter ambulances for services like patient transfers, partly because it could unlock the use of drivers who don’t have licences to drive heavier (3.5t) vehicles.

Finally, and in a bit of good news for the sector, he reckons the NHS are using vans more where once they used cars, due to changes in response time targets, which involve not just being able to get to patients quickly but also treat them or get them to hospital quickly.

All in all then, there seems to be a lot of skill in the sector, a useful amount of choice as to who can deliver it, and plenty of work to pitch for.