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How to Rebuild a Peacekeeper

Written by Jim Weiss

The idea of obtaining armored vehicles for the Pinellas County, FL Sheriff’s Office began in response to several needs. The sheriff’s office wanted an armored vehicle option available to rescue downed deputies, officers, and citizens. The vehicle would offer protection for the SWAT team. And two critical incidents had recently taken place: the North Hollywood shootout in California and civil unrest in St. Petersburg. Having an armored vehicle in the agency’s tactical toolbox would be important.

Due to budgeting concerns, purchasing a new armored vehicle was simply out of the question. In researching the availability of used vehicles, the sheriff’s office discovered that some surplus government Peacekeeper armored vehicles were available in North Dakota. The federal government would lend law enforcement agencies these vehicles at no charge. This meant that the sheriff’s office would never own title, but the vehicles would essentially be theirs.

Pinellas County taxpayers had to furnish transportation from North Dakota. The sheriff’s office decided to get two Peacekeepers. A third Peacekeeper that had been in a fire was later obtained with the idea of using it for parts. A private motor transportation company agreed to do the job of flat-bedding the first two vehicles, with payment determined by weight. The agency decided to take the two vehicles sight-unseen.

When the two rust-crusted, non-operational armored vehicles arrived in Florida, they were in skeletonized, vintage scrap yard shape, with iron gumbo engine components tossed inside of one. Some people doubted the ability of the sheriff’s office fleet mechanics to ever transform these two items into anything useful. However, the mechanics knew that even though the job would be tough, restoring the Peacekeepers could be done.

Peacekeepers

The Peacekeeper was originally developed for the US military in the mid-1970s by Cadillac Gage Textron, which later merged with Textron Marine Systems to form Textron Marine & Land Systems. The Air Force wanted a vehicle that could be used for both police and security-armored response and as a convoy vehicle, something that could carry personnel and equipment at highway speeds as well as as an off-road vehicle.

Originally designated the “Ranger,” it was renamed the “Peacekeeper” by the Air Force. Eventually, 708 of these armored vehicles were delivered to US military or foreign customers at an original cost of around $250,000 each. With the end of the Cold War, the USAF stopped buying these vehicles and eventually retired them, making some surplus ones available to police agencies. Those obtained by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office had previously supplied Cold War missile silo security.

One of the two Peacekeepers rebuilt by the sheriff’s office had the model year of 1980 and the other of 1981, with both having been refurbished by the Air Force around 1989. The basic characteristics of these vehicles when they were manufactured included slanted, 1/4 inch CADLOY — a hardened steel — armor protection and a front grille designed to deflect bullets (tested against 7.62 NATO ball ammunition from the M-14 rifle and M-60 machine gun), a ballistic windshield, seven gun ports and a turreted roof configuration, all mounted on a truck chassis.

Each vehicle was powered by a gasoline-fueled V-8 engine, with a three-speed, automatic transmission, four-wheel drive capabilities, air-conditioning, and Run Flat Tire Inserts designed to allow the vehicle to be driven at up to 70 mph some distance without air in one or more tires because of the large rubber donut mounted on the metal rim inside the individual tires. All terrain treads were standard.

In the Hands of the Sheriff’s Mechanics

Restoration obstacles greeted the sheriff’s Vehicle Maintenance Division’s mechanics almost immediately. Both vehicles had previously been scavenged for parts. One of the Peacekeeper’s engines had been hoisted out, stripped of parts, and set in the back of the vehicle upside down. The other had no engine at all. A steering column was missing and there was one set of wheels between them. There were not enough parts left in the two vehicles to put together even one Peacekeeper.

A Peacekeeper manual could not be found, but work got underway anyway. As far as the mechanics knew, the rebuilding of such bone yard-condition Peacekeepers had never been done before, and they would be the first to do so in this part of Florida. They heard about a working Peacekeeper in Manatee County, FL and drove there to study it and see what an operational one was actually supposed to look like. After the first armored vehicle had been rebuilt, the Florida Highway Patrol found and loaned the sheriff’s office a Peacekeeper part number list manual to copy.

The sheriff’s office gave them the open door to do as they saw fit to reconstruct the vehicles and make them road safe, although they did not receive any special Peacekeeper mechanics training. The olive drab bodies were first lifted off their frames for restoration, then sandblasted and painted. Some windows were missing and bulletproof replacements needed to be made, but few companies were willing to take the responsibility due to liability issues.

They were finally able to find someone who would construct the 2-1/2” thick laminated windows. New radiators were purchased and rebuilt. Getting parts and home-building others turned into a major undertaking. The belly pan that protected the undersides of one vehicle was missing, as was a carburetor. They rebuilt the transmission for one Peacekeeper and bought one for the other.

Currently, Textron Marine and Land Systems operates a website that will help obtain parts that are no longer made, and can manufacture replacement hatches and doors as well as supply some other components. Photographs of Peacekeepers refurbished by other law enforcement agencies and emergency services in the US can be seen on this website: www.peacekeeper2.com.

The third Peacekeeper obtained from the federal government arrived in burned-out condition. It was to be used for parts such as door hinges. Unfortunately, as tests on the armor plating proved, the fire weakened it so that it no longer stopped bullets. Another Florida county took it over and later disposed of it.

As work progressed on first one and then the other Peacekeeper, no structural changes were made due to possible liability considerations; the agency also did not add additional ballistic material except for replacing missing pieces. After all, at one time, the US government had spent money on engineering and testing to make sure the structure of the Peacekeeper was sound.

Peacekeepers were built on one-ton Dodge Ram Charger 4x4 truck chassis, with a short 104” wheelbase and drivetrains (shortened by Textron). Each of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Peacekeepers is equipped with heavy-duty Dana axles with a 4.88 gear ratio and powered by rebuilt 5.9 liter (360 cubic inch) Dodge V-8 engine with a four-barrel carburetor, rated at 200 horsepower. When starting the engine cold, it is necessary to pump the accelerator pedal several times to set the choke, like in the old days. These vehicles each weigh over 8,500 pounds and can achieve speeds of 45 to 55 miles per hour.

The two finished Peacekeepers are equipped with dual batteries, power steering, power brakes, air-conditioning, ceramic ignition resistors and voltage regulators, and innovative redundant ignition system modules, so that if there is a problem with one ignition system, the driver just needs to unplug it and switch over to the other system. This can be done safely from inside the vehicle, a definite benefit in a dangerous situation.

The specialized gas tanks are safer because the stainless steel used inside them keeps them from exploding should a bullet hit them. An extra cover protects oil and transmission pans. The 25-year-old Peacekeepers are now known to overheat, which the mechanics solved by installing aluminum intake manifolds with heat dissipaters, electrical fans, and aluminum radiators. Both vehicles were totally rewired and new gauges installed.

With an empty weight of 2000 pounds, the 32 gallon fuel tank of each Peacekeeper is made of the same CADLOY steel as the body. The sheriff’s office equipped each vehicle with a 12,000-pound electrical winch. Rear step bumpers, folding running boards and mounted grab bars were added for outside riding by the SWAT team. The rebuilding of each Peacekeeper took about three months.

Surplus Armored Vehicle Issues

Some law enforcement agencies reportedly have added gun ports to their military surplus vehicles, but Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office did not see a need for additional gun ports. Other makes of armored vehicles used by law enforcement agencies have escape/rescue hatches in the floor, allowing such vehicles to drive up, center over a downed person, and lift the person in through the floor hatch. Peacekeepers do not have escape hatches other than the turret and rear and side doors.

Reportedly, a moving bad guy can be seen easily from the Peacekeepers’ front vision blocks and be tracked through the associated pistol port. However, tracking a person is more difficult from the side ports because the vision blocks are rather small. There is always some risk of a bullet entering a pistol port, but to date no rounds have entered either of Pinellas County’s Peacekeepers.

The painting of armored vehicles is often an issue because some see paint schemes, such as battleship gray, black, and olive drab, as being too military or too aggressively intimidating, especially since the role of the vehicles is to get downed deputies and officers out of live fire situations while not making civilians feel threatened. After sandblasting the bodies inside and out, the county’s Peacekeepers were painted in the same white with gold and green scheme as the Sheriff’s Office patrol cars.

Driver and road safety issues for these top-heavy and restricted-visibility vehicles are addressed by having all SWAT members qualify as drivers by taking an eight-hour Peacekeeper driving course. The course includes four hours on the same driving track the patrol cars use (but at a slower speed) doing such maneuverability exercises as the serpentine and star (backing using mirrors), in addition to four hours on the road.

It also addresses such issues as using four-wheel drive and using the winch to pull themselves out if stuck in loose terrain (they go to a beachfront park where the vehicles are purposely stuck in the sand), and driving without lights and sirens while on public roadways. The sheriff’s office was also able to practice maneuverability training when it had the opportunity to drive its Peacekeepers inside a closed shopping mall that was going to be torn down.

An instructor reported that there are no mobility issues and that the Peacekeepers have a perfect turning radius, better than patrol cars. In addition to SWAT team members taking the agency’s driving course, several garage mechanics and deputies in community policing and crime prevention roles also train as drivers so they can take the vehicles to parades and shows to use as positive examples of where the county’s tax dollar goes.

Instructors do not recommend driving the Peacekeepers over 40 mph. Due to their weight, maintaining brakes on armored vehicles can often become a budget concern, especially in hilly locations. Flat Pinellas County has experienced no real brake wear troubles with the Peacekeepers. Over the years there has been one master cylinder problem, which may have been due to a faulty product, and one shock failure. One Peacekeeper has been driven 5,300 miles and the other 4,980 since entering county service. Brake pads have been replaced once, in 1997. It is agency SOP to inspect shocks and brake fluid as well as lights during in-service inspections.

Crowding inside a Peacekeeper can be a problem. The vehicle can hold eight: a driver, a vehicle commander, and six riding in the back with all of their weapons and gear. The bench seats double as storage benches. Even though the vehicles are air-conditioned, not much heat relief is offered to those geared-up SWAT team members riding in the back. Often the doors will remain open for ventilation until the vehicle arrives near the scene where it will be used.

In Service

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Peacekeepers usually are called out for live tactical situations two to three times a year. These call outs have included aiding another Gulf Coast county in 1998 when a wanted felon and escaped prisoner killed two Tampa Police Department detectives and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, and then took a service station clerk hostage. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office was the only nearby agency with armored vehicles at the time, so one Peacekeeper was driven to the hostage scene and the other flatbedded to it.

Peacekeepers were also called out for a deputy down situation where the bad guy was armed and actively using a .30-30 rifle and the deputy was severely wounded. The deputy was rescued, and the only damage to the vehicle was a bullet through the center of the rooftop light bar, something that isn’t bulletproof.

Another situation involved going to a standoff where a Palm Harbor man armed with an AK rifle had murdered his wife. And most recently, they were utilized during a 24 hour standoff in St. Petersburg, where Tampa PD’s armored vehicle was also called in later, when those attempting to serve a county search warrant were opposed by a bad guy with heavy weapons and special preparations against law enforcement.

Cost Effective

The county spent less on rebuilding one Peacekeeper than it would have spent buying a cruiser. One Peacekeeper cost $23,730 to rebuild and the other $17,893, not including labor, which the sheriff’s office considered a good deal. According to mechanics Earl Bucko and Johnny Walker who rebuilt the Peacekeepers, there have been no real down time issues with the vehicles and they have not been out of commission for more than half a day.

One of the advantages of having two is that one is always available. They feel the vehicle’s selling points are 1) low maintenance time and costs, 2) the machines have proven themselves for their intended use since the county could never have afforded the costs of a new armored vehicle and 3) the vehicles are highly four-wheel drive maneuverable, and practical for various situations such as driving into yards and between houses.

Peacekeeper II

In the spring of 2003, Textron Marine and Land Systems/Cadillac Gage introduced a new armored Peacekeeper designed specifically for law enforcement use, built for an eight-person team with full gear. The Peacekeeper II has improved ½’ thick steel armor (to protect against newer weapons), eight direct-view vision blocks, and larger ballistic windshields. It is available with either a 340 hp gas or 300 hp diesel engine, an automatic transmission, and off-road four-wheel drive. Power steering and brakes are standard. In designing the Peacekeeper II, the developers conferred with law enforcement agencies to ensure tactical concerns were met.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office feels that its two Peacekeepers have been well worth the money. With their versatility on the road and off, the safety they afford to deputies and SWAT responding to a scene, and their reliability due to their newer engines and redundant systems, the armored vehicles are an asset to the agency. As a mechanic said, “Considering their size and weight, they are amazing vehicles.” They have saved lives of officers and civilians in the past, and will continue to do so in the future because when a Peacekeeper pulls up, most assailants give up.

For further information contact Robert Helmick, Fleet Manager, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, (727) 582-6217; Email: rhelmick@co.pinellas.fl.us.

Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, OH, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER.
Mickey Davis is a Florida-based journalist. They may be reached at JWEISS2109@aol.com and MDavisFLA@aol.com.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Jan/Feb 2006

Rating : 9.9


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