The days are gone when building a patrol vehicle meant a red gumball, a portable radio and some paint. Today s vehicles are filled with computers, MDTs, GPS sensors, cellular uplinks, WiFi, LoJack, cameras, guns, cages, lights, sirens and other toys that suck power and space.
To find out how to install things the right way, I visited Sierra Electronics in Reno, Nev., a firm that has literally outfitted thousands of patrol vehicles since 1964. I met with Jeff Springer, Sierra s government account specialist. He agreed to share planning and installation considerations, and shared some tips as well. The guide below is broken into specific categories; consider it a brief overview of the many considerations involved in building today s high-tech patrol vehicles.
Just about every officer would love to drive a Corvette as a patrol car, but it just isn t practical. The first thing you need to think about is what you ll use the vehicle for and where you ll use it. If you will use it primarily on the freeway, high-speed stability and aerodynamics should be a consideration. If your agency is in the mountains, how much does it snow? Would a front-wheel-drive (FWD) vehicle meet your needs, or do the demands of the terrain dictate a four-wheel-drive (4WD)? If your officers work in a rural area and must carry a lot of equipment, outfitting them in a small FWD to save money won t serve them well. Conversely, if they work in the inner city where maneuverability is an issue, buying the largest SUV out there will only lead to frustration and a lot of in-service crashes. Another consideration: What equipment is available for the vehicle? Consider the new Chevy Trailblazer. The Trailblazer uses a factory center-console shifter assembly for the transmission, but there are no console boxes manufactured for it. So, while a particular vehicle may function well as a personal vehicle, it may not be ideal as a patrol vehicle simply because the needed parts don t exist for it. So, take the time to drive a potential vehicle in the environment where it will see service before you buy it, and make sure that if you do like it, you can find the parts you ll need for it.
Patrol vehicles carry weapons, often a shotgun and sometimes also a rifle. Consider which exact weapons you will mount in the vehicle, and where you plan to mount them. For example, say you choose a vehicle with space for one weapon to be mounted between the seats. Then you decide you need to mount a second weapon, and the only place is horizontally above the driver s head. Will there be enough room? Will the cage be far enough back to eliminate interference? Will the top of one long gun interfere with the horizontal mounting of another gun? Or should you have chosen a wider, taller vehicle to begin with? While it can be tempting to skimp on vehicle size to save money, it can give you headaches later on. When thinking about weapons, figure out where you want them, how you want to access them and what happens if you have to add more equipment in the future.
When planning how you will communicate from your vehicle, first figure out how many radios you need to install. If you plan on talking only to your dispatch, a single mobile radio head may be enough. In other cases (e.g., a state trooper), you may need space to install another radio system to communicate with rural agencies, as well as a CB radio. Glare is often a big problem with improperly installed radio systems, so make sure your installer test-fits the radios in several locations while you watch so you can see what works best.
Make sure you have a radio strong enough to reach all the areas you work. There are very few things more dangerous and frustrating than an insufficient radio system, so research how powerful a radio you will need. Some agencies use an in-car repeater system that allows the handheld radio to use the power of the in-car radio s range when an officer is out of their vehicle. Also review the type and number of radio repeaters in your area to make sure that whatever you install in the car will be strong enough to reach those repeaters when needed. In short, because your life may be at stake, this is not the place to save money.
If the radio is the heart, the console is the body. Ideally, everything should be controlled from one console unit. This means buying a standard-width console that will properly accept siren control boxes, lighting-control heads, radios, etc. If the console is too long, for example, it may interfere with access to the shotgun, or the seatbelts. If you plan on mounting an MDT to the console, you must buy a unit made of thicker steel to support the weight. Cup holders, map lights, cubby holders, power points and radar-control heads are also considerations. Make sure you have a complete list of what you want to install now, plus what to add later, so that you can have a center console that is efficient and meets your needs.
Mobile Data Terminals
Springer says that most mobile data terminals (MDTs) they install are hard-mounted in three parts: the screen, the keyboard and the CPU. Airbag issues in passenger vehicles need to be addressed, so consider a fixed mount. In certain vehicles, like the Chevrolet Impala, Sierra installs a passenger-airbag disable switch in the dash because of space issues. Other vehicles, such as SUVs and some passenger vehicles, have sensors in the front passenger seat that sense if it s occupied and enable or disable the airbag automatically. Other considerations include making sure the CPU is located where your computer technicians can access it, and mounting the unit so that glare is minimized. There is more flexibility when installing a MDT in a SUV due to the bigger interior, but the same concerns apply.
Today s LED light bars are a boon to law enforcement in terms of visibility and low power draw. In fact, they re so bright at times they can be a hindrance if you re trying to complete an investigation in close proximity to your vehicle. This doesn t mean LED lights are bad; it just means you need to plan your lighting needs around the type of work you do. If you spend most of your time going from block-to-block in the inner city, you may not need a light bar bright enough to be seen from Mars. Conversely, if you re a state trooper, being lit up like a Christmas tree makes sense. Work with your installer to configure the light box to easily increase or decrease the amount of light you need at a given time. Make sure you try-before-you-buy. Do you need a traffic-advisor arrow bar, or do you rarely find yourself on the scene of a crash? Are the lights visible when mounted on the vehicle you re purchasing? What happens if the trunk is open? What about the rear hatch on a SUV? Will the vehicle remain visible from the rear? What about intersections? Do you need to place an extra priority on that area?
In short, the amount of emergency lighting configurations is staggering, so take time to field-test what you need.
In an emergency situation, all functions in the vehicle must be controlled from one location. The biggest consideration with selecting a siren box is making sure it has enough switch options to meet your needs. Example: Will you need switches for takedowns, shotgun and rifle releases, less-lethal weaponry, blackout lights, etc? Do you have an idle control switch for when you are out of the vehicle? What if you plan on having a K-9? Will you need a door-release button? As you compile your list, you can narrow down the choices you have to make. In all cases, the goal remains one central control unit.
The advantages of clean-up, durability, leg room and security make the installation of plastic seats a no-brainer. When installing a prisoner cage, make sure you look at the leg room. In numerous cases, improper cage installation, coupled with the use of bolstered factory cloth seats, has made it nearly impossible to maneuver a prisoner into the back seat due to no leg room. As for cage configuration, there are all-metal, all-Plexiglas and split configurations available. Some considerations might include whether or not you plan on talking to your prisoner, and how far back from the cage the prisoner will be seated. If you have an all-Plexiglas cage, will glare be an issue? What about scratching? As for all metal cages, do you want to be protected from potential blood-borne pathogens? What about smell? Do you have an issue with prisoners regularly damaging door panels and windows? Will you need to install side bars and smooth door panels? Do you transport prisoners daily, or only a few times a month? Ultimately, your goal is to be safe when transporting prisoners, so answering the above will help you determine what best fits your needs.
The good news: There are many cool products for modern patrol vehicles to help you do your job. The bad news: All that cool stuff takes up a lot of space. With electronics, the use of a rear system-tray in the trunk can significantly improve access and durability of installed electronics. The tray, which slides in and out, centralizes the electronic hardware as well as protects it. Oftentimes, electronic equipment is installed wherever in the trunk of your car, which is inefficient and almost guarantees it will be covered up with other equipment, thereby increasing the chance it will overheat or suffer damage. The trunk tray used by Sierra mounts under the rear parcel shelf, allowing the bulk of the trunk to be used for equipment. For officers who need a full-size spare, try a half trunk tray. For SUVs, numerous storage options with command centers, roll-out trays and other configurations exist. Ultimately, your equipment is no good to you if you can t get to it in a quick manner, so line up all your gear and locate options that will properly and safely store it.
All of these new electronic goodies suck power, and sometimes suck a lot of power. The utilization of LED light bars has significantly reduced amperage draws, but computers, camera systems, spotlights and the like still draw energy. Throw in 105-degree F heat and long idle times with air conditioners running full-blast, and the equation grows more complex.
Talk with your install shop to determine if the total amperage draw of your desired equipment list will exceed the system s ability to meet it. If so, will you need to install a second battery or upgraded alternator? What if one component fails, or if you need to run all of your accessories at once? Install numerous circuit breakers and fuses when installing electrical components so that failure of one unit won t damage the entire system. It s also important to have a buffer so that you aren t always stressing the electrical system to its limit. If that s the case and you can t upgrade the amperage, consider eliminating or changing some items on your equipment list.
Temperature is always a problem with electronic devices. This becomes even more critical when mounting those devices in a trunk that can routinely reach temperatures of more than 160 degrees F in the summer, and well below zero in the winter. When considering equipment, consider where you work. Do you work in Nevada where it is 117 degrees F in the summer, or in Fargo where the temperature reaches double-digits below zero in the winter? Make sure all of your equipment is rated for the weather you work in.
Another consideration: where the equipment will be mounted. Will there be air circulation, or will the item be covered by equipment? Will it be mounted in the trunk, or in the interior of the vehicle? Will it be mounted on the roof, or in the grill? In all cases, you can t get around Mother Nature and her devious plans for your electronics. But you can take the time to review the Farmer s Almanac to see just what weather you can expect your equipment to have to properly function in.
The reality of government service means that purse strings can be drawn tight, and wish lists can be dramatically shortened. Utilize proper planning strategies like those outlined above to save money and go a long way toward making the front seat of your patrol vehicle a happy place to call home.
690 E. Glendale Ave, #9B
PO Box 1545
Sparks, NV 89432|