15 March 2017

The thin blue line

Thousands of police, fire and ambulance vehicles are kitted out at Vauxhall's Luton plant. Adam Offord walks the beat with Dick Ellam to see the production challenges and asks if UK manufacturers should be on high alert to this market.

Most of us have seen a police car with its sirens and lights on, or watched drama television, such as The Sweeney, where several cars pursue a suspect. But very few people will have pandered where these panda cars and police vans are rolling off the production line.

Vauxhall claims that its Luton plant is the largest police car factory in Europe. Formerly used as stores for tyres, the ‘blue light factory’ consist of a single production line and began running at the end of last year after production was moved in-house from Millbrook, Bedfordshire.

“The bulk of our business is police, lesser volume is fire, and because ambulance is specialised we have a joint venture,” explains Dick Ellam, Vauxhall’s manager of special vehicles. “We pull the vehicles in from other General Motors (GM) manufacturing plants. They arrive here, are checked, and then called in, in sequence, to go down the production line.”

The move has created 50 new jobs and it is expected that 2,500 vehicles will be converted to order each year, including Corsas, Astras, Mokkas, and CVs, such as the Combo, Movano, and the Luton-built Vivaro vans. Customers already include Thames Valley Police and Northumbria Police.

“When the vehicles come in they are warmed up, we apply livery and they begin their journey down the production line,” Ellam says. The livery, which is high-visibility markings on the outside of emergency vehicles, can go on afterwards but Vauxhall tries to do everything in sequence.

“There is a standard UK recommendation for reflectiveness of the livery,” Ellam adds. “However, there are different suppliers in industry and the police have different tenders. There are slightly different tints of colours but they must all have the same reflectiveness.”

The vehicles then move onto the 12 stage production line. Stages one to three involves stripping the standard vehicle down, and the rest involves making the conversions based on specification from the buyer, which could include blue bar lights and data recorders.

“Whatever we take off the vehicle we put back on the same vehicle.” Ellam says. “We don’t want to mix up parts as they go down the line. Every component will have some kind of traceability.”

Around 80% of Vauxhall’s components that go into the ‘blue light conversions’ are sourced within the UK. Local firms include Border Engineering in Luton who make brackets and AV Engineering in Royston who make fascia mouldings. The operators on the production line, at minimum, must have an accredited auto industry apprenticeship with a bias to electrical. They also receive additional training.

“We do have a small number of suppliers on the continent – we get them with GMs buying power,” Ellam says. Vauxhall works on a three to four-week lead time depending on complexity. A small conversion is usually three weeks, while a “fully blown” conversion is four weeks (inbound one week from a UK storage compound or from Europe, on sight two weeks, and one week to deliver). Customers will visit to sign off the first of type and then inspect each vehicle on delivery.

Ellam explains Vauxhall was providing around 33 police forces in 2010-12 with vehicles before the then 52 forces came down to 48 after Scotland consolidated. “Obviously some of those vehicles are still in service so we are still providing parts to those vehicles, [but] today we are providing product vehicles to around 24 police forces that we won a tender for.

“And then there is obviously fire services we provide vehicles too and the NHS trusts. The latest one we provided vehicles for was the East of England. They wanted a 4x4 ambulance that they use around Newmarket race course for the jockeys.”

Explaining how the tender process works between Vauxhall and the emergency services, Ellam adds: “If you go back originally when there were 52 police forces, each manager had the ability to pick and choose based on a selected criterion to save budget and reduce costs.

“Then they went to the regions, and now the police have consolidated their buying powers down to four regions. So you have a north, south, the Metropolitan Police Service, and police service Northern Ireland. Periodically they will issue a tender, we submit our best offer, and we are now midway through a four-year tender to provide police vehicles to 24 authorities.”

In order to find the components for the emergency vehicles, Vauxhall will tender through the GM purchasing department. “That supplier will sign terms and conditions and depending on contract they will keep supplying. But the procurement will also periodically do benchmarking to make sure it is cost effective, or at the end of the anniversary of the tender we will go to tender again. We have around 90 suppliers for the blue light equipment.”

Supply chain opportunities

Vehicles aren’t the only piece of equipment in emergency services. Firefighters, police officers and paramedics rely on in-vehicle and on-hand equipment, and clothing. So, are UK manufacturers playing a role in the wider emergency services field too?
London Ambulance Service vehicles are procured against national contracts and involve the purchase of a base vehicle and conversion by a different provider. Medical equipment is purchased from different local and national sources, such as bulk distributors, or direct from the manufacturer for items such as stretcher trolleys. Uniform is purchased under a national framework National Ambulance Group.

“Ambulance Trusts collaborate where appropriate, although there are regional differences [for example] vehicle layouts and uniform design,” a London Ambulance Service spokeswoman says.

The current vehicle procurement programme is for 140 converted ambulances, spread over a couple of years, which involve a Mercedes Sprinter cab and chassis, with the ambulance converted by Wilker UK in Ireland and Cheshire.

“[Uniform and other equipment] varies depending on the product, for example body armour is manufactured in Germany.” Medical equipment is purchased from UK-based medical consumable distributors but manufacture depends on product, equipment such as defibrillators are US-manufactured, while products that are UK-manufactured include equipment bags and major incident PPE.
Collaboration among forces seems key. A Kent Police spokeswoman says the force will tender on its own, as well as on behalf of other forces. Mark Atkinson, deputy head of procurement at the London Fire Brigade (LFB), states that, depending on what is being bought, collaboration with other local authorities and government organisations is often a key factor in delivering value for money procurements. LFB collaborate with Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police under the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) collaborative procurement initiative. Other examples of collaboration include procurements undertaken with other fire and rescue services under the Chief Fire Officers Association’s (CFOA) collaborative procurement programme, and with the London Ambulance Service.

“Collaborative opportunities with other organisations does depend on what it is being bought and whether requirements can be sensibly aggregated” he says. “LFB have a wide variety of contracts in place, some of them very small and some much bigger – and some are 20 year-plus contracts."

He explains that in terms of the provision and maintenance of vehicles and operational equipment such as ladders and thermal image cameras, LFB has a 21-year contract with Babcock Critical Services. “The capital replacements of these items are included in the contract, which means Babcock buy these items on behalf of LFB,” he says. “Babcock source vehicles and equipment both from abroad and in the UK.”

In terms of PPE, LFB currently has a contract with Bristol Uniforms Limited, who supply all fire gear such as tunics, trousers, helmets and visor. “Generally speaking, on the uniform front, the procurement strategy we have adopted over the years is to establish a managed service contract. This means that we aren’t just buying a piece of kit, but rather we are buying a fully managed service which involves the delivery, collection, maintenance, laundry and life replacement of the kit as well as various performance standards,” he says.

Atkinson adds that there are a number of ways UK manufacturers can make themselves known to the emergency services sector, including shows and events to showcase products, and getting in touch with companies who already have contracts such as Babcock. There are also opportunities to bid for contracts which are advertised in Contracts Finder (gov.uk/contracts-finder).

“Contracts above the EU threshold (currently £164,000 for goods or services) are advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) and the Contracts Finder, regardless as to whether it is a collaborative contract or not,” he explains. “Such contracts are procured in accordance with the EU Procurement Directives, which means certain legal processes must be followed, but for contracts which are less than the EU threshold, we have a blue light tendering system which firms can access.”

Strategic push for the UK

UK manufacturers that are already providing for emergency services are clearly playing a vital part in operations and safety. The government’s recently published Industrial Strategy explicitly focuses on procurement as a key area.

A government spokesperson, says: “Public sector procurers are required to seek value for money through fair and open competition and in line with our current international obligations. The government wants UK companies delivering emergency services to be successful in public procurement.

“The best way to bring this about is for those companies to offer the goods and services we need at quality levels and whole-life costs representing value for money. To this end the government is seeking to ensure the huge purchasing power of government supports the task of boosting growth, and enables us to actively shape the UK market for the long term.”

UK manufacturers will always have the opportunity to be a key player within emergency services. This niche market has been adapted and taken on by some UK suppliers – whether they are making straight to service goods, or goods that form a bigger picture. The government says it wants UK companies delivering emergency services to be successful, and as highlighted by Atkinson, there are a number of ways firms can break the barrier into this unique field.

So you want to supply to the police or emergency services? Here are six tips for securing a procurement contracts

Be prepared to tender and gather the necessary documentation

2) Start small by identifying the contracts you’re most likely to successfully bid for

3) Understand your market place by revising and establish if it’s worth bidding for

4) Demonstrate your strengths with evidence

5) Meet the scope of the brief

6) Get feedback if you are unsuccessful so you can improve

Ordered to spec

Vauxhall’s blue light facility makes simple and complex conversions. It was converting vehicles for different services in February, including:

Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service who had requested that a vehicle include a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, and mud flaps. The most technical change that the service asked for was a 68mph speed limiter. Vauxhall was also asked to register the vehicle on behalf of the customer. “That is a light conversion as far as we are concerned,” says Ellam. “It is trim removal and trim refit basically, and engine management.”

Thames Valley Police had asked for a more “complex build” by choosing a number of options on an Astra. They requested that the vehicle be fitted with livery, a blue light bar, and a data recorder (like a blackbox) so that the vehicle can be monitored when active, and that the headlights flash when the blue lights go on. They also wanted a communications device fitted and non-removable head restraints so they can’t be used as a weapon.

Ellam also explained how the force wanted a “one lock” system for the vehicle, which comes in handy at the scene of an incident. This enables the officer to keep the blue bar lights flashing, while the vehicles is stationary, without getting a flat battery, and allowing the officer to lock the car and walk away with the keys.

“If it is a car that comes from Ellesmere Port, like this one, and we know it is coming here we don’t fit the entertainment system – so it is left with a blank panel and then we put a separate panel in for the comms,” Ellam adds.

Safety in the cell
Once vehicles have gone down the production line they may require more work. One example of this is a police cell van. “A cell van will go into our area next door where they will fit the cells,” Ellam says. “We bring them [the cells] in but under contract to us so we went out to tender and we selected a provider.”

The cells which Vauxhall get manufactured for the vans have also been crash tested to ensure they meet certain regulations. Ellam says that Vauxhall is “confident” that if a cell van was involved in a 30mph accident with a detainee in the back then that person will walk away from that incident. “We as vehicle manufacturers are offering a different level of conversion, but also as a manufacturer we have all liability to ensure anyone in that vehicle is safe,” he says.

Chris Beck

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