Police work wreaks havoc on cruisers

Fleet's mechanics deal with unique challenges

It might be age, hard use or normal wear and tear, but at some point in a vehicle's life, it's going to need a repair.

When it happens to the black-and-gray cruisers Richmond County sheriff's deputies drive, the county's mechanics are ready.

A lot of the work done on police cars is identical to the maintenance required for vehicles with a tamer life: oil changes, tire rotations, fluid replacements. But running a vehicle for 12 consecutive hours does present some unique challenges.

When cruisers need repairs, they come to the Broad Street garage, just west of downtown. It's a wide building with a concrete floor and multiple bays for mechanics to tinker on cars. Conversations are shouted over the whirs and clanks that echo off a metal roof high overhead.

It's here that mechanics address some of the most common complaints, one of which is caused by long periods of idling. Deputies keep their cars running to avoid draining the battery that powers the emergency lights, along with the laptop, dashboard camera and other gadgets in the car.

Those long hours generate tremendous heat under the hood and wreak havoc on the manifold and air-conditioning system, said Matt Bean, the general manager for First Vehicle Services, the contracted company that maintains Richmond County's fleet.

Long hours on the road and chases wear out shock absorbers and destroy the suspension system. Tires are replaced when the tread reaches 4/32 of an inch instead of the legal 2/32 as an extra measure of security.

Less obvious problems are still easily diagnosed, thanks to the dozens of sensors in the cruisers. The sensors connect with the computer-aided dispatch system that deputies monitor through their on-board laptop.

The system gives deputies information about their next call, but the computer also is telling the car whether it should use six or eight engine cylinders and monitoring the brakes for problems. It also monitors speed and can give a mechanical picture of the car's condition right before a crash.

When a deputy brings a car in for strange knocks coming from under the hood, a mechanic plugs into the computer and locates the problem.

It's not a foolproof system, but it's a vast improvement from the old days of sleuthing for problems under the hood, said Jim Slaughter, a shop supervisor who's been working on county cars since 1994.

The average life span of a cruiser is four years or 125,000 miles, thanks in part to the fact that most deputies take home their cars.

When Bean worked for a shop in Wichita, Kan., deputies basically jumped out at the end of their shift and another deputy hopped in. This "hot seat" approach usually killed a car after two years because it never got a break, Bean said.

He said some cruisers have been on the road for as long as nine years because of budget issues. At some point the cost of replacing the car is cheaper than continuing repairs.

"It's a matter of economy," Bean said.

So what's found in between the seats of a cruiser?

Slaughter has found marijuana and a crack pipe pushed deep down between the seats.

The most common items are ID cards tucked away in hopes a deputy might not identify his suspect.

Mechanics rarely find contraband anymore because cruisers now have hard plastic seats in the rear. That not only robs criminals of a hiding place, but it also makes it easier to clean vomit and blood.

Bars reinforcing rear windows are another safety feature for the new generation of cruisers.

"I feel we're real up to date on our equipment," Bean said.