Immediately after the impact of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government began allocating funding to aid in the response and protection of first responders. Early approved items focused on individual protection from chemical, biological and radiological hazards allowing for chemical-resistant protective clothing and breathing apparatuses. The utilization of funds for vehicles was initially denied and later allowed, but with restrictions.
The Knoxville, TN Police and their counterparts in both fire and other law enforcement agencies believed there was a need beyond the protection of individuals entering into areas contaminated with potential hazards. What they felt was needed was a vehicle that could provide the same individual protection, but allow multiple operators to enter into an area, assess the contaminants, and provide a transportation source for rescue workers and victims.
Having worked with both hazardous material teams and explosive ordinance details, the movement of people in fully encapsulated suits, with limited air supplies provided by self-contained breathing apparatuses and those in heavy bomb-protection suits hampered operations. Many times, an operator had used up most of his air supply or was so fatigued by the time he got to the affected area that he would have to leave with little accomplished. Also, with terrorist operations, there was a potential that these same rescuers or responders might be potential targets from long-range sniper fire.
Departmental research began looking at ballistic vehicles that had the ability to enter into such contaminated areas. At first, an attempt was made to secure demilitarized vehicles turned over to law enforcement as surplus, but with the inception of the war effort, most of the vehicles that were requested were pulled back into military service. Private companies were also contacted—from armored car manufacturers to companies focused on conversions of Humvee-type vehicles.
The key to our ability to use Homeland Security funding for the acquisition of a protective vehicle depended on the ability to ensure its CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive) protective capability. The premise of a “sealed” vehicle that ran off of its own self-contained breathing apparatus was discussed, and options considered ranged from large pressurized air tanks with individual “plug-in” hoses to respirators within the vehicle.
Each configuration was explored, and ultimately, it was decided to allow the bid process and manufacturers to propose the best method of meeting this essential equipment. After much discussion, specifications were drafted, and a request for proposal was submitted.
After contacting numerous vendors who expressed interest in providing the desired vehicle, the submitted bids were disappointing. Only one company submitted a bid, and it was more than twice the funds budgeted by our Homeland Security oversight group. We contacted Michigan-based General Purpose Vehicles (GPV), expressed our appreciation for their time and effort, and told representatives that their standard vehicle products would meet our department needs but that we had to decline due to the costs.
GPV later contacted our department’s point of contact following the bid process and advised that they would be interested in working with us on creating a new vehicle that met Homeland Security requirements, provided CBRNE protection for its occupants, and would not be cost-prohibitive for local law enforcement agencies.
This new vehicle, called the “Sergeant,” would be a smaller version of their normal model with fewer “bells and whistles,” but it had the capability of providing basic service and allowing for available options, dependent on an agency’s budget. No one else expressed any desire to make additional contacts or to provide the vehicle requested.
GPV’s contact person and ours developed the specifications for a vehicle that provided Threat Level IV ballistic protection from firearms, mine/fragmentation protection for the undercarriage, adequate ballistic window protections and visibility, and entry/exit points for both driver and occupants from the sides, rear and roof. The hazardous-materials aspect was provided with a positive, over-pressurized compartment where air was supplied through a fan-driven filtered system.
Once again, a request for proposal was presented, and General Purpose Vehicles was again the only vender that submitted a bid. The bid was awarded, and construction began. The company maintained constant communication with the department about the construction process, especially regarding essentials particular to our agency. Radio equipment was provided so as to not require after-delivery installation of external antennas, maintaining ballistic integrity. Provisions were also made for interior electrical equipment such as in-car digital cameras, mobile data terminals and robotics.
It was apparent that GPV wanted to provide a service to the law enforcement community, and rather than just taking the stance that “if you want the vehicle we offer, you pay for it,” the company was more interested in seeing how it could meet a customer’s needs and adapt its own manufacturing abilities to provide a product.
As with many things, it is easy to special order a custom-built, handmade vehicle, but to acquire one on a budget requires sacrifice. Coupled with the customer support and daily contacts with the manufacturer, it became a pleasure to deal with this group over the length of the process.
As the completion date neared, the final particulars were established. Paint and graphics to match our normal patrol vehicles were added at the factory, again not requiring after-delivery installation. Rather than using a decal, as on our cars, the graphic was painted and a sealer overcoat provided. The paint code for the vehicle was taken from our patrol cars so the colors on the striping and graphics matched exactly. The lightbar was ordered to match the existing ones on our vehicles; it was sized according to the scale difference between the two.
The GPV Sergeant vehicle’s ballistic protection is provided by a combination of a high hard steel body, and protective glass fully enclosing the engine and occupant areas. The operator compartment allows for both a driver and a passenger, using air-assisted seats to provide proper height. The passenger compartment has fold-down seats for 10 occupants. Compartments underneath the seats allow for either weapon or equipment storage.
Handrails on both the roof and sides enhance the retractable running boards. Ultra-bright floodlights are maneuverable front and rear, and fixed spotlights on the front enhance the normal vehicle headlights. Interior lights may be switched from normal white to red, decreasing night vision loss. The red interior lights also increase the psychological effect on suspects when operated at night.
The GPV/Knoxville Police Department Sergeant “Hot Zone” vehicle was delivered in May from the manufacture’s home operation in New Haven, MI. Hauled by a flatbed to the city limits, it was then driven to the Knoxville headquarters by Dale Romeo and Bill Gilbert, the company’s points of contact, and presented to the chief of police, Sterling Owen IV.
Training on the GPV Sergeant vehicle started the next day, with factory representatives providing tactical suggestions and an overview of the vehicle’s capabilities to KPD’s Special Operation Squad. Mechanical manuals and maintenance requirements were presented to the city of Knoxville’s Fleet Services. The emphasis on the two days of training was to leave the new operators comfortable with their new protective vehicle with no question unanswered.
A portion of the training dealt with the filtered air system providing the required NBC protection. It’s essential that all ports, roof hatch, and the auxiliary heater/air conditioner evaporator drain valve be closed when the system is activated. An LED panel indicates to occupants if the pressure in the vehicle has dropped below safe conditions, mandating the occupants to don their protective masks or that self-contained breathing apparatuses and/or protective clothing may be needed.
As a side note, the Knoxville Police Department’s Special Operations Squad (SWAT) was one of the first in the country to become certified in Level 1 Hazardous Material Suits, and it remains one of the few teams in the country to continue its recertification. Working in such an environment is not unfamiliar to the members, and they eagerly accepted the potential capability of the GPV Sergeant vehicle’s air system.
Because of the vehicles positive pressured air system and the ballistic protected undercarriage, the vehicle is able to operate in water depths of about 3 feet. The only requirement would be to try to keep the vehicle on hard surfaces, because even with 4-wheel drive, the weight could cause it to mire in soft mud or sand.
The GPV Sergeant vehicle incorporates “run flat” tires, allowing the vehicle to maintain highway speeds when it is called into service. Its diesel engine allows it to operate for long periods of time, and even though the fuel tank is protected, the less-flammable diesel fuel poses less of a risk than that of a gasoline-powered engine.
Since the acquisition of the Sergeant “Hot Zone” vehicle, Special Operation Squad members have begun incorporating its potential into scenario-based training. The inclusion of other local first responders (Explosive Ordinance Details, Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team, Emergency Management officials) as well as responders from other local, state, and federal agencies, adds to the unlimited response capability for our region.
Training has been patterned from real-life events taken from the local news. It has included entry into sniper or hostile work environments, similar to those faced by law enforcement responders in the New Orleans community after Hurricane Katrina evacuations. It has allowed EOD and HazMat teams to ride on the step rails, which are equipped both side and rear, increasing personnel response into areas and expediting their removal as their air supplies diminish or the situation dictates.
Raid activities have given the members familiarity with the roof access hatch and the folding steps mounted adjacent to the rear doors. Training also reinforces quick egress for either the side or rear doors of the passenger compartment of the vehicle.
Because the funding of the vehicle originated from federal Homeland Security funds, it was offered for both regional and statewide response. While the Knoxville Police Department continues to respond at the request of adjacent local and county law enforcement, the potential of this vehicle widens that responsibility. We hope it will never be called into service, but should such a situation occur, this GPV Sergeant “Hot Zone” vehicle will provide its occupants extensive protection from a wide range of threats.
Deputy Chief Don Green has been with the Knoxville Police Department since 1979 and currently serves as the Support Services Division commander. He previously was assigned to the office of the chief of police working on special projects and Homeland Security/WMD issues. He has completed the FBI’s Leadership Fellows Program and National Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.