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Bremerton Police have lead foot

A Bremerton police cruiser rolls down Warren Avenue Tuesday afternoon. Bremerton police use twice the fuel per car as Seattle police. - Greg Skinner
A Bremerton police cruiser rolls down Warren Avenue Tuesday afternoon. Bremerton police use twice the fuel per car as Seattle police.
— image credit: Greg Skinner

The Bremerton Police Department has a per-vehicle gas budget nearly double what Seattle spends and $1,500 more per car than the State police budget for their eight districts.

Bremerton police cite inefficient patrol cars while others say errors in officer reporting are possible causes.

The proposed fuel allowance for Bremerton police for 2012 is budgeted at $228,086. With 38 total vehicles in the fleet, that is a yearly average of $6,002 per vehicle.

Washington State Patrol, covering eight districts, budgets about $4,500 per vehicle. The Seattle police spend an average of $3,300 per vehicle in its five precincts.  Cutting down to the state police per-vehicle budget would return $53,789.50 a year to the city's operations budget.

"Of course we'd love to get it down closer to what they do," said Mayor Patty Lent. "We are encouraging officers to become more efficient with gas usage."

Lent sent a 2012 budget to the Bremerton City Council that bounced back and forth as councilmembers pushed city staff to find money to keep employees.

The approved 2012 budget does not list a police department effort to reduce fuel costs along with goals such as upgrading evidence tracking software.

Calculating the yearly gas budget is "outside the hands" of the police department, according to Bremerton police Captain Tom Wolfe.

"I couldn't even begin to guess how they arrive at $6,000 per vehicle. I say, I need cars and I need gasoline to do our mission. As far as what it costs, [the city] estimates it," said Wolfe.

The Public Works & Utilities Department of Bremerton calculates the police fleet's gas budget every year based on the previous year's consumption and projected price of gasoline for the upcoming year, according to Jim Orton, interim public works director.

In 2006, the city briefly considered switching police cars to natural gas, a cleaner burning and more efficient fuel. The plan included setting up a compressor at the Bremerton Wastewater Treatment Plant to convert methane into natural gas.

However, the department balked at the initial costs to set up the compressor and retrofit patrol vehicles.

"The savings against what it would cost to put the infrastructure in, it wasn't economically feasible," said Orton.

The director explained that the project has been sidelined indefinitely until the city can find more revenue for special projects.

Old vehicles

Bremerton police serve a population of 37,000 people with a jurisdiction of 26 square miles. The nature of their work, which is around-the-clock and emergency calls, burns a lot of fuel, according to Wolfe.

In addition, 30 patrol vehicles are shared by officers over multiple shifts. Back-to-back shift work can wear down the engine, decreasing overall fuel economy, Wolf said.

"Our fleet will always have cars in them that are not as gas efficient because of their age and mileage," said Wolfe.

Bremerton police officers wear a car out in about two and half years. According to Orton, two patrol cars are up for replacement in 2012.

The department is looking at three more eco-friendly and fuel efficient models, the Ford Police Ecoboost, which replaces the current Crown Victoria model, the Dodge Charger, and the Chevy Caprice.

All 2012 models offer V6 rather than V8 engines and slightly better city fuel mileage ratings.

Bremerton Police Chief Craig Rogers favors the Chevy Caprice, according to Wolfe.

Orton explained that Bremerton is unlikely to consider any hybrid models because officers have a minimum size requirement for their missions.

"How does the equipment fit into the car, that's the most important thing, and most of our officers are 6 feet tall. Once we put in the prisoner containment system, weapons, radios, hybrids are way too small," said Orton.

Odometer report errors

In addition to fuel inefficient vehicles, the city reported inconsistencies in a recent evaluation of Bremerton police gas mileage odometer readings.

According to Gary Nystul, Bremerton city auditor, gas mileage is reported through a card lock. The officer punches in a code for his vehicle and records the mileage manually from the odometer reading.

"Some folks have difficulty putting in the right numbers," said Nystul. "We are working to encourage those folks to be more accurate."

According to Lent, the mayor's office has seen Nystul's audit of the police department as well as all other Public Works vehicles.

Police, fire, and a few on-call public works vehicles are listed as take-home, but are not to be used for personal applications such as bread and milk runs on the way home.

Lent explained that the office wants to do a complete evaluation of take-home vehicles and "how these cars are being used."

"We've asked operators to be more specific in their reports," said Lent.

Simple efforts

Bremerton police have ruled out changes like switching natural gas or using hybrids. Instead, they are opting for simple efforts toward fuel consciousness such as increasing foot patrols and not leaving cars idling, according to Wolfe.

"If there's time in the officer's day to put the car in park and do a foot beat, we encourage that. Park the car and ride a bike if they are bike certified," Wolfe said.

Seattle police has been steadily increasing their foot and bike patrols for several years resulting in appreciable reductions to their gas budget, according to spokesperson Chris Wiley.

But Lent explained that bicycle patrols can only go so far in Bremerton.

"Our city's 26 square miles is not as condensed as Seattle where they can use bicycles for patrol," said Lent.

Wolfe is also encouraging his officers not to leave cars running when they are on patrol. Updated electrical systems in the cars are helping officers run their work off of battery power rather than fuel.

"Several generations ago, you didn't dare shut the car off because your computer would shut off with it and you would lose everything you were working on," said Wolfe.

However, in the winter months, there are additional safety concerns when it comes to not idling on patrol. For example, cold weather causes the windshield to fog over if the heater is not on. The heater runs on fuel, not battery, he said.

Wolf said if the patrol officer is called on and he has to defrost his window before responding, it could significantly lengthen his response time, which is unacceptable.

Seattle police have just started to install Idle-Right systems into their patrol vehicles for this very reason.

The system allows officers to turn their engines off at the scene and use only battery power. When voltage drops below a certain level, the system automatically restarts the engine and re-charges the battery.

The Seattle Police Department estimated that they have reduced 80 gallons of fuel per patrol vehicle with use of anti-idling technology. Over the whole fleet this is a savings of $60,000.

But change could be a slower process in Bremerton.

"Yes, gas prices are high, we have to do everything to save money, but it doesn't make sense to change a fleet to smart cars or install all new technology," said Wolfe. "With a knee jerk reaction like that, we might look back and think that really wasn't a good idea."

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