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Police Vehicle Ergonomics & Upfit Safety

Written by Brad Brewer

It has been three years since Ford ended production of the CVPI but many in the law enforcement community still continue to squeeze every last mile out of their existing Crown Vics. Why is this? To paraphrase Captain Matt Ayers of the Sevierville, Tenn. Police, “We in the law enforcement community continue to live with a Crown Vic mindset. We want all-new vehicles to give us everything the CVPI had but in a newer, smaller package.”

With the NextGen police vehicles, it is remarkable how far we have come with regard to safety, technology, performance, and handling improvements. Unfortunately, all three police vehicle manufacturers face other pressures from government with EPA, FMVSS, NHTSA, and CART to name a few. As the pressure mounts to continuously improve mileage and safety standards so changes the design of all vehicles, including police vehicle platforms.

The manufacturers have little choice but to increase structural integrity through larger steel A and B pillars. Decrease side window glass in order to improve side impact and rollover survivability. Raise the back end of the vehicle to reduce wind drag and improve fuel efficiency.

Inside the CVPI, interior space was somewhat expansive, to the point we could install almost anything, anywhere. Integration wasn’t something that posed a risk to officer safety. Today, things are different with the smaller, high-tech vehicles. The Big 3 make really safe, high-tech vehicles. However, upfitters must pack more inside and not compromise officer safety.

It is a balance that many agencies and upfitters must consider when looking to upgrade existing or deploy new technology to the front-line officers. Safety, ergonomics, and efficiency should always be the primary reasons to upgrade or deploy new systems. How do we put more technology in a smaller space and still maintain correct ergonomics with officer safety as the priority?

Respect Airbag Zones

First, airbag compliance is non-negotiable. Every one of the police vehicle offerings has specific equipment-free “airbag zones” that must be maintained. Often we may encroach on these zones but to completely disregard them could be catastrophic in a collision. Airbags come from the steering wheel and dash; the roof rails; the side of the seats. Soon airbags will come from the knee area and the center console side of the front seat.

It is incumbent upon fleet managers and upfitters to ensure they know where these zones are and how they integrate with their specific setup. Several of the large agencies across North America have this research already done and it’s worthwhile taking the time to review it. All three manufacturers provide this info online with their Modifier Guides.

Second, outward visibility is critical. The new vehicles all come with larger A and B pillars, smaller side window glass, and lower windshield rake. This becomes an issue when we add interior visor lightbars, cameras, and radar units all around the glass. This is where recycling equipment from older units can compromise new vehicle safety.

Everyone is struggling with budgets; getting the funding to purchase new units often doesn’t come with funding for all new equipment. For years, most agencies had the luxury of getting one to two vehicle cycles out of some equipment. Lightbars, consoles, and laptop docking stations could transition from one CVPI to another with little or no modifications. This clearly is no longer safe to do; nor is it ever recommended.

Fleet managers must be very careful when transitioning new equipment from older generation vehicles to the new ones because these new ones are very equipment-specific and the technology inside is not as forgiving as the older CVPI was. Case in point, in the CVPI an upfitter could mount a console to the transmission hump between the seats, often times using the seat bolts as anchors. Or they could install a radio microphone clip pretty much anywhere.

Those days are gone with center mounting baseplates now supplied by all three manufacturers because the seats can’t be touched without throwing a DTC. The center console areas in these new cars often have airbag modules or sensors that, if drilled into, not only throw DTCs but can possibly injure the installer.

Re-Think the Re-Use

These new vehicles may not allow for all of the older CVPI equipment to transition over and install safely. Can it be done? Of course, anything can be bolted in, but can it be done safely and within the manufacturer’s upfitting requirements? The center equipment console in a CVPI does not sit properly in any of the new vehicles. Even so, some agencies have had to carry over old equipment; the risk of doing this must be accessed, and if it is being done, then clearly safety is not the primary concern.

The term “fully integrated” is often thrown around but is it really followed? When planning the best ergonomically correct mobile office, are you looking at which manufacturers’ equipment will integrate with another? This is where single sourcing sometimes works to the advantage of an agency. Not just for pricing but for ergonomic harmony. If one vendor supplies your console, laptop docking station, long gun rack, and prisoner partition system, the advantages are significant.

All three OEMs have gone to great lengths to ensure the aftermarket equipment providers have had access to the OEM requirements for attaching equipment in their vehicles. This includes specific structural anchor points for specific pieces of equipment.

Online Modifier’s Guide

For example, the prisoner partition anchor points inside the newer vehicles are clearly defined in their respective Modifier Guides. Key to this information is the fact that all the new vehicles have side curtain airbags, which cannot be disabled under Federal Law. To ignore these requirements so you can transfer over a modified and refurbished CVPI partition would be putting yourself and your agency at significant risk.

Some of the console designs now have anchor points on the rear of the console baseplate for gun racks. To go one further, some of the prisoner partition designs now have recessed areas between the two front seats to except their proprietary long gun racks. This is the integration that enhances safety and facilitates better ergonomics.

Best idea would be to use your front-line officers for feedback on your prototype and then with their buy-in, create some test vehicles. Those test vehicles should go out in the field and get field tested by those who will be using these vehicles. Design and implementation of a new generation police vehicle without front-line officer input is doomed for failure.

Cops are way less likely to push back against something they had a hand in from the beginning. When selecting test officers, perhaps a senior officer with two years left until retirement who still uses a flip phone isn’t the best source of feedback. The officer with five years of service who has grown up with technology and has the ability to adapt to new technology is probably more likely to give constructive feedback.

Remember what works on a desk in a warm, dry garage or office doesn’t necessarily work in a moving vehicle in all weather and low-light conditions. In the mobile environment, vibrations, temperature, moisture, or dust can destroy computers. Improper layout can block HVAC controls, block trunk access, obscure vision, or simply be unsafe in a collision. Something as simple as hinge strength on a laptop can be overlooked; while bouncing around in a police unit, the clamshell notebook hinge can lose its strength and need replacement.

By purchasing a ruggedized mobile solution to military specifications, you are buying a purpose-built tool to perform a specific task where access to information is critical. Bottom line, a consumer-grade laptop has no place in a law-enforcement mobile application. In a collision, one airbag deployment that snaps the weak hinge and sends the screen on a consumer-grade laptop into an officer will make you regret buying the cheaper option.

Equipment Consoles & Docking Stations

No matter what the solution, mounting and docking systems are not all alike. Try some different setups and then ensure they are put out in the field for “real” testing. You want something specifically designed for the type and brand of police vehicle your agency uses. Using a generic or ‘one fits all’ console, platform, pedestal, and docking station good for all vehicles is not the best option.

Be careful not to mix and match vendors’ products that are not designed or engineered for each other. It’s always best to use a single vendor’s complete package for the console, baseplate, pedestal, and docking station. Consider the weight of a sheet-metal docking station causing potential torque forces. In a side impact collision, the laptop weight plus the docking-station top plate weight transfers the torque force to the connection between the pedestal and the top plate.

One critical issue that’s often overlooked is the invisible Radio Frequency (RF) waves all these electronics give off. Don’t let your IT people tell you an internal antenna inside the police vehicle is good enough for signal strength as it will save you time and money running a coax to a rooftop antenna. Docking station RF pass-through to an external rooftop antenna is a must in any mobile computing solution. Officers don’t need exposure to all the RF floating around the vehicle’s interior. Getting that RF outside the vehicle is not only safer but allows higher speeds and much better reception.

Mobile Video

The major vendors in the mobile video market make some pretty decent products nowadays. The big decision for fleet managers is which one is the best fit for their specific requirements. All of the vendors have HD quality video, high quality camera optics and customizable storage options but in the end the system has to integrate with your configuration.

Should you install a video system that has its own interior viewing screen or can you get one that integrates into your existing laptop? Why have a second screen hanging somewhere inside the vehicle? Isn’t space already at a premium in these new vehicles?

Interfacing with your existing laptop would be the best choice, and camera size and mounting considerations should be of primary concern also. These new vehicles have smaller glass outward visibility, lower windshield rake, larger A and B pillars, so before you install anything, know that the officer is already dealing with reduced visibility. Then you further restrict that by installing interior emergency lighting, computers, radar, and mobile video.

Consider looking at what the OEMs are doing with forward mounted cameras for their proprietary “Lane Departure or Lane Keep” systems. These are almost always mounted above and behind the rear view mirror on the windshield in an area outside the officer’s viewing range. Why can’t police systems replicate this positioning? After all, the OEMs have to crash test theirs. You should want yours to withstand the same impacts.

Mobile video is real evidence and as such, it should be treated no differently than a firearm at a crime scene. Integrity in the Chain of Evidence is what all cops live by for court, so don’t install a system that allows the officer to handle or interfere with chain of evidence.

The best practice is to have a system that completely removes the officer from the video recording, transferring, and storage process. Typically, this type of system means wireless data uploads at predefined hotspots or through 4G cellular. No CDs, DVDs, or USB drives for the officer to touch, alleviating any potential suggestion of evidence tampering.

Gun Racks

There has never been more mounting options for long gun racks with overhead, partition, standalone, universal, floor, and trunk all able to except single or dual long guns, both shotguns and carbine automatic style. Clearly this is a piece of equipment that needs to be user defined and specific to what your agency uses.

Keep in mind not all officers in the same agency use the same long guns, same optics, same ammo, or same type. Again, front-line user input is mandatory; don’t go generic one-size-fits-all because it doesn’t. Check with range or firearms staff; is there potential for your agency to go to a new long gun or scope in the near future?

The dual, vertical mount between the two front seats seems to be the norm today. The officer doesn’t have to exit the vehicle to get at the long gun, and it also allows for quicker deployment.

Consideration to vendors who package their racks with their partitions and consoles should be given priority for ergonomics. Issues like recesses or cutouts in prisoner partitions for vertical racks make for a more ergonomically correct setup. The last thing you need is the officer’s complaining that every time they sit in the vehicle, their right elbow smashes into the rifle’s 30-round extended magazine.

The locking mechanisms on these gun racks all need a switch that can be activated quickly and under stress when the officer’s fine motor skills are diminishing. This is often a subject for debate: Do you use the siren light controller to designate an unused switch to unlock the gun rack? Is that switch ignition powered or all the time? There is a compelling argument for a hidden switch that only officers know about.

If a suspect was able to break the window and get inside your police vehicle, does he/she only need to rip out a positive wire and connect it to the console-mounted gun lock switch to get that long gun out? While not impossible to get at, you still need to take some proactive steps to at least slow any unauthorized person with the intention to removing the long gun.

Timeouts on these switches is another way to reduce vulnerability but ultimately hidden, covert switch location is best practice. Lastly, if you have an idle management system that will auto start the police vehicle when battery amperage drops, does this allow someone to activate the gun lock switch?

Prisoner Partitions

Next-generation police vehicles deserve next-generation equipment, and prisoner partitions are no exception. Since these new vehicles have side curtain airbags, which are not conducive to prisoner partitions, trying to create the solid barrier across these new vehicles while still allowing room for side-curtain airbag deployment is no easy task. All the big suppliers have done an excellent job in this area, and most ensure their systems match up to the OEM’s recommended structural anchor points.

What makes one better than the other? Consider the modular approach to upfitting: If you bought the partition, long gun rack, and console from the same vendor, would the system be plug-and-play? A few of the partition vendors make recesses in their partitions in order to accept their proprietary vertical dual long gun rack between the front seats without compromising officer ergonomics. Make sure when the long guns are mounted with standard 30-round magazines, they are not going to be in the way of the driver’s right elbow.

Bolt-in, quick and easy installation is great, but what about officer safety and the integrity of the partition? Quality materials must be used to ensure a suspect, handcuffed or not, cannot injure the officer. Again, the weak point in these new vehicles is the gap between the partition and the B pillar.

Ingress-egress to the back seat is of paramount concern, and while front driver comfort and maximum seat travel should be a consideration, how far back from the B pillar does the partition start? Narrowing the rear door opening with an oversized partition makes transporting violent suspects that more difficult.

The back seats are another concern, the OEMs are not allowed under federal law to sell a vehicle without a back seat, so you are getting the rear seat anyways. It has also got to be a certain height for side-impact passenger hip contact points, so a rear partition with the OEM seat isn’t the best solution.

Look at some of the aftermarket seats that are lowered and complement the partition you install. It goes without saying a molded one piece floor, seat, seat back insert is the best solution both for ingress/egress but also to reduce the available areas for evidence or weapon concealment.

With the “right sizing” of fleets these days, no one has spare vehicles sitting around and downtime is very costly. A modular or plug-and-play component-based equipment approach to upfitting ergonomic police vehicles is the way of the future. No one can afford to have a vehicle out of service for any length of time.

Pre-made component trays with siren controllers, CPUs, Video HDDs, LMRs readily available to swap and go makes life a lot easier for you, the fleet manager. Purchasing the correct components and getting those components installed in the safest, most ergonomically correct manner will only help to provide your officers with the best possible solution.

Sergeant Brad Brewer is a 26-year member of the Vancouver Police Department. He sits on the Ford Police Advisory Board and regularly gives presentations at law enforcement conferences on mobile computing, wireless technology and police vehicle ergonomics. He can be reached at sgt1411@gmail.com.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, May/Jun 2014

Rating : 10.0


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