From Wisconsin's Ground... Up

A man drives hundreds of miles and parks his tractor in a pond. Soon he starts shouting in demonstration and threatens with explosives; an unusual occurrence law enforcement typically wouldn't expect. It sounds like something from Hollywood but in reality, occurred on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

The episode warranted a fast and comprehensive solution. The event jammed traffic, and forced first responders to send video to the forward operating area with an out-of-date reconditioned vehicle. This created inefficient communications for law enforcement at and away from the scene.

A custom vehicle's purpose can be found by the situations it deploys for and the specifications it was manufactured to. The adaptability of a custom vehicle helps keep its usefulness maximized.

Many times, a custom vehicle is built from a restored or renovated vehicle. This restoration can be pricey and may only offer service for a few years until repair costs overtake the expense of purchasing a new vehicle.

In certain circumstances, like a possibly armed tractor driver parked in a pond, the renovated and restored vehicle will not be sufficient.

The situation may require specific tools, since communications may be hindered by out-of-date equipment or the terrain too rough to traverse for the renovated and or restored vehicle.

Listening to the customer
What can a law enforcement agency do if a converted or renovated vehicle can't fulfill its requirements?

The answer: build one. A custom vehicle begins from a tough chassis built for law enforcement; the vehicle's interior can be customized to achieve many roles.

Supervisory Special Agent, Michael Klopp of the FBI's Washington Field Office, in response to the changing world of terrorist threat preparation, began searching for a more extensive solution to the situations his agency handles.

"A lot of other vehicles we viewed typically held a lifespan of about six to nine years," says Klopp. "If the FBI is going to pay $1 million for a vehicle we need to spend it on something that's going to last."

From the front-end standpoint, a department will pay more but save in the long-run, he explains.

A custom vehicle offers top-of-the-line features to warrant the hefty purchase. Klopp, along with others from his technical operations squad, worked with two Wisconsin-based custom vehicle manufacturers: LDV Inc. of Burlington, and Pierce Manufacturing Inc. of Appleton.

"I could tell that it was a well thought-out, well designed product, head-and-shoulders above anything I had seen before," remembers Klopp.

Custom vehicles can be constructed for a variety of situations: mobile command and/or communications; SWAT and tactical; bomb/EOD trucks; dive, rescue and other emergency response; mobile laboratories; medical response/triage; decontamination; office/training; or a multi-purpose, equipment transport vehicle.

The process begins by listening to the customer and understanding their needs and the capability requirements of the custom vehicle, says Larry Grassl, senior manager at Pierce.

Once the components are agreed upon, a complete set of detailed specifications is generated; the customer can then use or modify them if required.

"LDV scrutinizes every aspect of what goes into our vehicles," says Marty Organ, the company's director of marketing. "After all, a mobile command center is only as good as its weakest link."

Knowing the high mileage law enforcement puts on its vehicles each year, everything — from the chassis to the technology to the floor plan — is customized to enhance the performance and ruggedness of a custom vehicle.

"Built from the ground up," notes Grassl, "all our vehicles are custom designed and engineered specifically for each application."

Custom made
As each situation is different, the response needs to be just as unique. The response to 9/11 definitely differed than of a tractor-in-pond demonstration. The variable life of a law enforcement vehicle requires it to adapt to each situation's geographical and technological needs. To answer this call, vehicles become customized at inception.

A custom vehicle starts with a body and a chassis engineered to individual specifications. For example, the FBI's New York and Los Angeles field offices received similar, but different, vehicles as the FBI's Washington Field Office Mobile Command Center.

"As they [New York and Los Angeles] took control and defined requirements, their custom vehicles were built to their specific needs based on a number of features," comments Klopp. "New York built two smaller vehicles. It can be difficult to transit through major cities; a custom vehicle can be massive in height, length and weight."

Depending on size and style, the interior of custom vehicles are generally divided into three sections: a forward communications center, central access galley and rear command/conference room. For example, the communications area can feature a variety of interoperable communication systems while the central galley may feature basic amenities and small appliances. Meanwhile, the rear command area often resembles a conference room, explains Organ.

The interior equipment can be modified or substituted to include a range of technologies.

"Everything is very specialized from what type of engine to the numbers of doors you want in your cab and into the rear of the actual vehicle," says Ann Stawski, director of marketing for Pierce.

Common equipment in a high-tech communications suite include weather stations, DVD players and recorders, color video printers, and multi-channel voice logging systems. Generally, internal and external workstations are tied to a central computer network. The rear command "conference room" may feature flat screen monitors and/or an electronic writing board that interfaces with the central computer network.

A custom vehicle can also offer an exterior work station with access to telephone, radio and audio/video technology. If so chosen, a telescoping mast can feature closed-circuit video to survey an incident and can also include thermal imaging or infra-red camera options. Local television and satellite send and receive capabilities can be accessed via a satellite dish.

Based on budgets and specific requirements, floor plans can be modified to accommodate the needs of the individual department. Custom vehicles can vary in size with room for as little as two to 20 or more people.

Custom vehicles are available on either a commercial or custom chassis. Imagine the interior of an equipment-devoid fire truck, using the space for a workspace but with the benefit of the tough and rugged fire truck chassis' structure.

Safety features, such as built-in side roll protection and longer seat belts are some examples of options available.

Much like constructing a building, the choices available for the law enforcement agency interested in a custom vehicle can be overwhelming. Officials, however, won't be left to stray in the decision making process. "Customers can choose to build from the ground up, or use an existing plan to start," says Organ.

To ensure a vehicle will meet its need, manufacturers work with customers to guarantee the right components are configured in the right way, says Organ. "Customers commonly come up a list of requirements to incorporate," he adds.

"At Pierce, we are staffed with professionals offering recommendations for anything on the vehicle from the chassis to body, all the way to the complex command and communications electronics systems," says Grassl.

"Together we review what is available and how it best fits in to the overall layout of the vehicle and how the customer expects to use the vehicle."

Law enforcement professionals have many demands placed upon them to maintain public safety. The ingenuity of custom vehicle manufacturers provide important benefits to fulfill those demands.

"Law enforcement agencies have a better opportunity to obtain information or maintain control with a custom vehicle," says Organ.

A custom vehicle enhances law enforcement's ability to coordinate efforts among various emergency response professionals, provides incident response adaptability and increases safety.

Custom vehicle manufacturers provide law enforcement a service to create a vehicle for a quick, efficient and hassle-free response to any situation, large or small — common or unusual.