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Building a Mobile Command Vehicle

Written by Susan Geoghegan

When a police department or municipality decides to invest in a mobile command vehicle (MCV), the individual assigned to research the various options bears a huge responsibility. The average police MCV will cost between $200,000 and $800,000, so it is imperative that the right decisions and judgment calls are made. Mobile command vehicles have become a vital part of the public sector, whether for SWAT and tactical purposes, crime scene investigations or emergency operations.

Choices abound with regard to size, vehicle chassis type and interior and exterior features. Smaller agencies would probably choose an upfitted SUV or Sprinter, while larger departments may require a tractor-trailer, step van, bus or RV body type. The interior of an MCV is generally equipped with an array of telecommunications and computer technology, and can be customized to suit its purpose.

Larry LaGuardia is the sales development manager at LDV, a company that has been building custom mobile command vehicles since 1977. Serving both the private and public sectors, LDV has designed and manufactured more than 20,000 special service vehicles for customers worldwide.

To ensure that his customers end up with the right vehicle for their specific needs, LaGuardia suggests they focus on five critical components of the development and building process. This article details those components and offers valuable feedback from past LDV customers: the Broward County, FL Sheriff’s Office; the Tempe, AZ Police Department; and four Orange County, CA police agencies.

Identify the Scope of the Project

The first crucial step in the process is to define the vehicle mission statement. What type of operation will the vehicle be used for? Identify what features and functions are needed to create an MCV appropriate to the vehicle’s purpose. Involve co-workers and staff to encourage feedback and promote ideas. Police agencies spending the money to build a custom command vehicle naturally expect it to serve the community for many years. Therefore, the project leader must be given the right tools to effectively carry out the mission.

In 2006, four police departments in Orange County, CA received funds to build two identical mobile command vehicles. The Anaheim, CA Police would have exclusive use of one, with the other three police departments (Seal Beach, Cypress and Los Alamitos) sharing the other. The vehicles would be used in various capacities by a number of department divisions, such as SWAT, Emergency Services, Traffic and Homeland Security Bureaus.

To meet the requirements of each, the six-member project team, led by two managers, requested feedback from each one. Sergeant Tom Bruce of the Cypress Police Department served as project manager. He said, “Once we knew what the needs were, we set out to design the floor plan of the vehicle to accommodate all of our collective needs.”

The Tempe, AZ Police have had five mobile command vehicles built by LDV: a Police/Fire Mobile Command Center, a Bomb Squad Command, a Tactical Team Equipment Truck, a Negotiator Command Center and a Mobile DUI Processing Center. Each project team consisted of two people from the departments involved, along with a sergeant that assisted with the design and building process.

Overseeing each project was Commander Ray Hardy of Tempe Police Department’s Homeland Defense Bureau, who was experienced in all the operational areas pertinent to the vehicles. The team sought ideas and feedback from their in-house Fleet Maintenance and ITD staff, as well as the field officer who would ultimately be the one using the vehicle. According to Hardy, “It is extremely important to have people involved who have the operational knowledge (end user) from day one in the process.”

When Florida’s Broward County Sheriff’s Office needed a SWAT Equipment vehicle built, Lieutenant Darin Dowe led the project team. To ensure an end-product that would successfully serve its intended purpose, the team solicited input from all personnel who could provide a unique perspective.

By bouncing ideas back and forth, they could identify which features and equipment were crucial to the project, from electrical and audio/visual needs to adjustable-height shelving. “Once a drawing and specs were finalized, the project was submitted to command staff for final approval and submission,” said Dowe.

Define Budgetary and Time Constraints

Many public sector projects and upgrades are made possible by procurement programs, such as those offered through the GSA, or via state contracts. Project managers should know the guidelines of the purchase money to ensure that the agency is compliant with them. Time and/or budget constraints, if any, should be identified.

The turn-around time to build a mobile command vehicle is generally six to eight months, so this must be considered if it has to be in service by a particular date. Know the approximate dollars budgeted for the project, as this can prevent potential cost overruns that may lead to crucial cutbacks in design.

The Tempe Police worked under time constraints during each build due to grant cycles. The vehicles have all been funded by various sources. The Police/Fire Mobile Command Center came from the City of Tempe’s capital improvement monies. The rest were procured through the grant process and, in some cases, had to be supplemented with additional municipal funds.

Broward County’s SWAT vehicle was paid for with forfeiture monies from the Law Enforcement Trust Fund. While understanding the limitations sometimes inherent in public sector projects, Dowe advises agencies against basing their decisions solely on time and money constraints.

He points out that building a special services vehicle is a long-term investment, and “agencies should plan for a slightly larger or more capable vehicle than they need at that time.” He says overly frugal agencies “will end up spending more money down the road when they have to go back and buy that vehicle they should have purchased in the beginning.”

The Orange County project team knew in advance that grant money was being used to build their vehicles. One of the team’s project managers was responsible for handling all of the paperwork and grant requirements. Because the grant process can be complicated, appointing someone with knowledge and experience in this area is advisable. Although working under a budget, they had the flexibility to approach the governing board for more money when they identified the need for additional equipment. However, Bruce points out most teams do not have that luxury.

Research and Evaluate Companies

LaGuardia strongly advises departments to thoroughly research companies being considered to build the vehicle in question. Find out how many years they have been in business and their annual sales. To keep costs down and warranty issues simple, look for turn-key providers that can do the complete upfit as well as provide the chassis and body. Ask for and contact references of organizations that have purchased from them in the past. Submit a Request for Quote (RFQ) from each company under consideration.

A company’s strength and experience can be determined by a number of factors: How many mechanical and electrical engineers do they have on staff? Are there in-house craftsmen skilled in metal fabrication, electronics, woodworking and upholstery? Ask if they are able to provide all the equipment and installation.

Look for companies that are innovative and can offer specialized expertise in technology and communications systems. There are numerous decisions to make during the process, from floor plan layout to safety equipment options, so find a company with a solid design and support team.

Before having its first MCV built, the Tempe Police Department researched a number of companies. They did in-person interviews with the vendors, and they visited an out-of-state agency to get firsthand knowledge of what to consider for the build. The agency had an LDV-built command center that had been in service for about one year, so it was a great learning experience for the Tempe team. They made the decision to have LDV build not only its first MCV, but all subsequent vehicles.

Hardy says they made the right choice for several reasons. First, all the other companies they initially researched are no longer in business. Second, by having one company build all its command centers, each truck can be built with similar systems and components. This not only streamlines the learning curve for the drivers and operators, it also makes vehicle maintenance easier as parts and equipment are consistent throughout.

Because the Orange County departments did not have a travel budget, they could only set up on-site visits for vendors within the state. They did, however, meet with LDV at COPSWest, a West Coast police show. This gave them the opportunity to see the vehicles and speak with knowledgeable salespeople. After weighing the pros and cons of six different vendors, they made the decision to go with LDV. Like Hardy, Bruce points out that a number of the companies they considered are now out of business.

Dowe advocates doing extensive research and soliciting input from other agencies to determine the reliability and reputation of the vendor. He suggests obtaining photos and references, and confirming that the company can realistically meet your agency’s specific needs.

Understand the Vehicle Components

Each component in the chassis and body must be carefully considered when building a special services vehicle. It is imperative that the chassis is specifically selected for the needed application. By designing the vehicle first and knowing the weight of the interior, you can then consider your chassis options. Once a vehicle is built, the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) cannot be increased. An over-weighted command vehicle has the potential to become a liability if involved in an accident. Load and weight distribution calculations should be performed during the design phase to ensure overall stability.

As with the chassis, it is crucial to maintain the structural integrity of the body. Aluminum bodies are the most common due to weight, strength and corrosion issues. The popular tread plate aluminum roof provides a slip-resistant surface and allows easy welding of roof attachments, such as satellite dishes and antennas. Heavily reinforced flooring and sound wall structure are required to bear the weight of cabinets, shelving and other components.

The interior of a mobile command vehicle requires special attention as it will be put to the test repeatedly in the field. It must be durable and have a layout that will allow the team to function efficiently. Potential layouts can include work stations, bathrooms, galleys and conference rooms. Wiring and electronics should be easily accessible (with removable panels, raceways and conduit runs) in case equipment has to be upgraded or repaired.

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office built its SWAT vehicle on a standard Freightliner chassis with a custom body designed to meet its needs. The Orange County and Tempe Police Department’s vehicles were also custom-built on a Freightliner chassis. Bruce says that with the Freightliner M2 chassis, “We had greater weight capability than the others, and only LDV identified this as a potential problem based on our total package and storage capacity.”

According to Hardy, the project team and LDV’s technical staff exchanged ideas via extensive phone calls and e-mails. Once each design component was completed, they made in-person trips to fine-tune each step of the process. This allowed them to make additional changes to increase the functionality of the trucks. “These were all items that you could only catch when you got the salesman, designer, engineer and end user together in the same room,” Hardy explains.

Assess the Company’s Service Level

Companies that build mobile command vehicles frequently do not offer repair service. For example, a police department in upstate New York that purchased its MCV from a company located in South Florida obviously cannot be serviced by them. However, some companies offer “Over the Road” (OTR) service. Find one that does, and ask how many service technicians are on staff.

According to LaGuardia, the need for servicing is usually due to operator error or component failure. Therefore, he recommends finding a local, reliable parts supplier that has ample parts in inventory to ensure quick replacement. Some companies that build command vehicles offer to facilitate with the purchase of parts from suppliers. Also, many RV centers are equipped to handle MCV repairs and servicing.

With the Broward County SWAT vehicle, Dowe says all parts related to the chassis and body are easily replaced through LDV and the companies that helped to build it. “It is important to buy a chassis that can be serviced locally and, in some instances, by the agency’s Fleet Services department,” Dowe said.

Bruce points out that the parts and equipment are easily replaced and repaired. As the person that works on the vehicles the most, Bruce states, “LDV does have a great customer service and parts department that has helped me through many issues.” Hardy also praises LDV’s attention to detail and exceptional customer service. It is “what sets their staff and their products apart from the rest of the industry.”

Conclusion

Project teams assigned to purchasing a special services vehicle can gain much insight into the process by focusing on these five components. With 30-plus years of experience working with customers to achieve the ideal vehicle for their specific needs, LaGuardia is an invaluable source of information on this subject.

Identify the project and define time and budget constraints. Research companies under consideration and assess their experience and service level. Understand what goes into building a mobile command center. Seek advice from other agencies and former customers. Solicit feedback from all personnel involved in the project. As articulated by the three project leaders covered in this article, building a mobile command vehicle is a costly proposition. As such, it is imperative to “get it right” the first time.

Susan Geoghegan is a freelance writer living in Naples, FL. She can be reached at sgeofl@embarqmail.com.

Photos courtesy of www.fema.gov.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2009

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