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Upfitting and Ergonomics

Written by Matthew Ayers

Police vehicles are interesting in their diversity. No two agencies seem to agree on what they should look like or how they should be equipped. Much like the uniforms of the agencies that field them, police cars can have unique styles and fits, and come in many shapes and sizes.  Officers, too, come in many shapes and sizes. The puzzle is making the two, officers and cars, fit together.

There are a tremendous number of manufacturers producing the aftermarket equipment for police vehicles. Each has their own take on the best solutions, and some are clearly better executed than others. The hard part for fleet administrators and purchasing agents is deciding on the best solutions for their own particular needs. Unfortunately, these decisions are often hurried, perhaps under-informed, and almost always budget-driven. That said, the wrong decisions on aftermarket products have real consequences for the patrol officer using the vehicle.

The term “mobile office” is frequently used to describe the modern police vehicle. Often the emphasis of the description rests with the amount and variety of specialized equipment inside the police vehicle. But I think it more correctly should be emphasizing that officers do their work inside the car. That is a significant difference and goes to the very heart of the problem—too often the equipment inside our mobile office gets in our way. It actually hinders our ability to do work. Worse yet, it may make our mobile office less safe in a number of situations and affect our long-term health.

It takes only a simple Web search to bring up a number of significant articles and studies discussing police vehicle ergonomics. I found some of the information obvious, some useful, and some to be near fantasy in the likelihood anyone would actually implement it. The latter seemed to be written primarily by physicians. While I am not an expert in the science of ergonomics, I am intimately familiar with the practical application with regards to police vehicles. And I know we need to do better.

To do better, it is necessary to begin with the process of upfitting the police vehicle, including equipment and vehicle platform selection. With the demise of Ford’s Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, we have likely lost the last of the traditional police sedans. The Crown Vic, for all its faults, was easy to upfit and had lots of room for additional equipment. 

As we select replacement vehicles, it is important to strongly consider the specialized law enforcement equipment you want to install in the new vehicles. Despite early claims that the majority of components would transfer from the Crown Vic to the new cars, experience has proven something else. You will at the very least require new brackets, different mounts, and other components to ensure proper fit.

 

Vehicle Ergonomic Rating

Many of you wisely inform your purchasing decisions with the annual police vehicle testing done by the Michigan State Police and Los Angeles County Sheriff. One of the MSP evaluation categories is vehicle ergonomics. Check out these ratings. The neutral and detached evaluation on the mobile office is very helpful.

Keep in mind, these are in-factory vehicles with no upfitted gear. Not just no partitions and no consoles, but no radios, no radar, no e-printers, no laptop and no in-car camera. This can be a significant issue in that much of the space you might seem to have in a vehicle can be rapidly reduced by aftermarket items. A vehicle that gets a low rating with no upfit gear will obviously get a much lower rating fully upfitted.

If your police equipment wasn’t smartly designed for the exact vehicle it’s going into, this encroachment can be even more problematic. My solution is to ask your police vehicle supplier to provide an upfitted sample vehicle for you to evaluate, or check with a neighboring agency or upfit provider to see an actual finished police vehicle. It will be eye-opening. You may find Plans A and B are not going to work, or that you have to spend additional funds to find a new solution.

Unfortunately, it often does come down to money. If I have learned anything from upfitting the new breed of police vehicles, it is that you can only have two of the following three: cheap, correct or quick. It is necessary to budget adequately for the new vehicles and to consult with your upfitter regarding what works and what doesn’t. The hard truth is that just because it worked in the past, it will not always work going forward. 

It is vital to involve your officers in the selection process, including a review of what they like and don’t like about their current setups. After all, the best time to make a small change is when you are already making a big one.

Once the vehicle selection has been made and the aftermarket equipment decided upon, the success and ergonomic viability of your finished police vehicle requires the work of a knowledgeable and experienced upfitter. Literally anyone can install equipment in a vehicle. I have seen everyone from garage mechanic to stereo installer, and off-duty cop to on-duty inmate do the upfit. The end product is usually far less than ideal. The difference a proper upfit makes in the usability of your “mobile office” cannot be overstated.

Given that there are absolute limitations on just how ergonomic we can make a police vehicle, I offer the following guidelines designed to ensure the finished vehicle is practical, user-friendly, and minimally intrusive to the working officer. These are the keys to providing an ergonomically useable police vehicle workspace.

 

Partition Design

If you typically operate single-officer vehicles, select one of the newer partition designs that offers full driver seat adjustment while cheating the front passenger seat of a bit of rearward travel. These designs should be considered carefully if you run two-officer cars. They may not offer enough space for all passenger officers, particularly if you are using computer mounts that intrude on the passenger side. 

Also consider the newer single-cell partitions that offer full recline for the driver seat and provide storage space behind the driver. It is known that front seat backs are designed to collapse rearward in collisions to help absorb impact forces. Solid wall, full-size partitions don’t accommodate that safety feature.

 

Console Size

Consoles should be as small as possible and not unnecessarily encroach on the driver’s hip space.  Today’s consoles are very rugged and constructed of heavy sheet metal. They mount solidly—one has 11 mounting points—and they can pose a crush hazard in serious crashes. Make certain your choice is designed specifically for your application for best results.

 

Armrests and Cupholders

Provide armrests for the officer’s comfort. Use folding or pivoting designs where possible.  Consider the strong possibility the officer may have to lay down to escape incoming fire or have to egress on the passenger side in the event of an emergency. Look at your console solution and see if that’s even possible.

Cup holders are easy to overlook, but a needed accessory for folks who spend the majority of their time in a car. If you don’t provide them, they will. And their solution might be unsafe, unsightly or unworkable. Spilled drinks can damage expensive electronics and make for a nasty “office.”

 

Power and USB Ports

Along the same lines, consider adding several DC power ports and at least one USB port for the officer’s use. If you don’t, officers will install splitters and junk outlets that will blow fuses and add clutter. An iPod stereo interface jack is nice for long shifts and drives, too. Forget the CD players—they are already a thing of the past.

 

Microphone Location

The biggest frustration I encounter when upfitting is finding a place to mount microphones. The small mounting clips are not intrusive, but there is seldom an obvious home for them in today’s vehicles. The dash arrays are jammed with electronic displays and switches, while the consoles lack real estate. There is always a make-do solution, but few are easy to access or use under stress. Radio mics need to be eyes-free and PA mics need to be easy to access under the stress of a high-risk traffic stop. Look at dedicated brackets, overhead mounting, or magnetic mounting solutions. This is a problem with no universal solutions. 

 

Flashlight Mounts

Flashlights, too, need to be easily accessible yet out of the way. Honestly, the old, full-sized metal flashlights are also a thing of the past. Today’s smaller LED lights are far brighter, have a lower life-cycle cost, and are easy to locate in a vehicle. They also are more power efficient, able to last an entire shift on a single charge. My advice is to consider trunk mounting the charger and carrying the light on the belt. Provide an AC charger for the officer to use off-duty, and they will find they seldom use the DC one.

 

Interior Lights

Interior lighting can enhance the officer’s workspace. Most police vehicles offer a dual-color (white/red) dome light option and I recommend them. In addition, a variety of LED interior lighting options are available from the major lighting manufacturers and they can be a great addition for enhancing interior lighting for paperwork, computing, prisoner observation, and digging around in the trunk.

 

Computer Mounts

Computer mounts must be selected carefully and with strong consideration for how and how often the officer will use the terminal. Are they simply running tags and making brief data entries? Or are they completing all reports from the vehicle? Can the mount be easily adjusted and rapidly stowed? Will it interfere with easy access to emergency equipment controls and radio mics? Is the mounting solution airbag friendly and secure enough to contain the computer in a crash? 

Keep in mind that there is currently no way to allow an officer to achieve ideal ergonomic computing posture inside their “mobile office.” However, the better mounting solutions offer substantial improvements in this direction. Some of the companies that make mounts have mobile computing ergonomic guidelines on their website.

 

Power Seats

Purchase upgraded seating options, i.e., power seats. These provide much more multi-axis adjustments for the driver seat. The improvement in adjustment over manual standard seats is tremendous and can be the difference when accommodating your largest and smallest officers and especially for obtaining a comfortable computing position.

 

Control Switches

Siren and lighting control switches should be placed forward in the console where they can be easily accessed and visually scanned for status. Use tactile switching for lighting and siren, including a three-position slide switch for primary warning lights and a rotating knob for primary siren functions. The vehicle’s horn button, the largest button in any police car, should be interfaced with the siren to allow for easy tone changes.

Generally, organize all controls and equipment based on a priority of use. Decide what is used routinely and what is used under stress. Make the routine items comfortable to use and the items used under stress rapidly accessible. Both should be convenient.

 

Radar

Radar is getting smaller and most allow for further footprint reduction by separating the display from the signal processing unit. Place displays on the dash but don’t get fancy. Ideal dash-mounting location in my experience is just offset from center, slightly angled to the driver.  Proper location allows officers to glance from straight ahead to the display quickly without having to squint or re-focus and keeping the roadway in their peripheral vision. 

Make sure officers can reach the controls easily when seated and wearing duty gear. Mount antennas in accordance with manufacturers’ guidelines and in the lower or upper-most portions of the windshield, as to not interfere with the officers’ vision.

 

In-Car Video

Video system components should also be reduced where possible, such as eliminating the monitor by using the computer as a display. Today’s digital systems are decreasing in size, so consider upgrading your new vehicle. In some cases, the recording unit can be mounted in the trunk or on the partition wall to help reduce console and workspace clutter.

 

Gun Racks

Gun racks should be mounted upright, between the seats, on the partition in almost all current police vehicles. Overhead racks may not be compatible with side curtain airbags except where the weapons are extremely compact registered short-barrel rifles or shotguns. Weapons should be front mounted, not trunk-relegated, as officers may not have the spare seconds to access the trunk in a crisis. Release buttons need to be hidden, yet accessible.

 

Interior-Mounted Warning Lights

Interior-mounted warning lights are very popular and effective, but be certain they will not reduce driver vision too much. Select application-specific products to ensure the best fit and eliminate flashback. Be mindful of how interior light mounts can interfere with the preferred mounting locations for your video system.

Educate your officers on keeping their workspace uncluttered. I often see mounds of files, loose objects, so-called organizers full of junk, and other flotsam and jetsam occupying space inside the police vehicle. These things can interfere with proper equipment use, limit mount articulation, damage components, and become missiles in a crash. My favorite was a seat organizer with 12 pocket knives clipped to the outside. These acquired blades would make a roll-over crash a real adventure. Loose gear should be minimized.

The above recommendations are not all inclusive or universal. They are based on my experiences as an officer, an emergency vehicle operations instructor, a supervisor, an administrator, and an upfitter. Lots of research is available to assist you in determining where your efforts to improve the ergonomics of your police vehicles should focus. A systems-based approach should be used and I typically build the upfit around the mobile computer, as it takes up the most space and affects all other upfit decisions.

The NextGen police vehicles represent significant improvements to legacy vehicles with regards to performance, handling, and technology. Even so, the majority of the new vehicles, particularly the sedans, pose substantial challenges with regards to mounting space for after-market equipment. 

Police vehicle upfitting may seem simple and, really, it used to be—just install item A in car B and you were done. But we have continued to add more and more varied equipment as our needs and missions grew. How that equipment enhances or detracts from the mission and its effects on your officers’ health and productivity can be mitigated by diligent preparation for and execution of your total vehicle upfit. The new vehicles require new thinking and new solutions.

 

Matthew Ayers is a Captain with the Sevierville, Tenn. Police Department and the owner of Command & Control Installations. He may be reached at mayers@seviervilletn.org or C2installs@gmail.com.Text Box: From the United States Department of Labor, OSHA:
“Ergonomics is the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population. Effective and successful "fits" assure high productivity, avoidance of illness and injury risks, and increased satisfaction among the workforce. Although the scope of ergonomics is much broader, the term here refers to assessing those work-related factors that may pose a risk of musculoskeletal disorders and recommendations to alleviate them. Common examples of ergonomic risk factors are found in jobs requiring repetitive, forceful, or prolonged exertions of the hands; frequent or heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying of heavy objects; and prolonged awkward postures. Vibration and cold may add risk to these work conditions. Jobs or working conditions presenting multiple risk factors will have a higher probability of causing a musculoskeletal problem. The level of risk depends on the intensity, frequency, and duration of the exposure to these conditions. Environmental work conditions that affect risk include intensity, frequency and duration of activities.”
www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/


Published in Police Fleet Manager, May/Jun 2013

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