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How to...Buy a Mobile Command Unit

Build a vehicle that meets all of your agency’s needs, and it should serve your community for years to come.

August 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

Vet the Company

Mobile command units vary greatly. The OBS vehicle, which is based on an RV, can be driven on its own.

It’s also a good idea to thoroughly evaluate the companies you’re looking to purchase vehicles from, not just the vehicles themselves.

LaGuardia suggests asking questions about the service available, whether a company has a history of on-time deliveries, and whether it is willing to offer a payment plan as opposed to money upfront.

If a company lets you make monthly payments it is probably on strong financial footing. Also, it’s often easier for your department to make payments over a longer period of time.

Make sure to get a list of references from each company you’re interested in using and actually call people and ask them all of these questions to find out how the company treats its customers before, during, and after completion of a project.

Budgets and Bids

The bid process for a specialty vehicle works pretty much like the process used to buy any other major piece of equipment for your agency.

Many agencies start working with a couple of companies to find out what they can get for the money they have to spend. Most companies will even help you develop the specifications for your vehicle.

Before and after the bid process, make sure you know what you want and don’t be afraid to communicate that to the company that’s building your vehicle.

Plan for the future. Building in extra wiring and room for a couple extra people could save you time and money in the long run when technology improves—-as it constantly does—-or when your team expands. You can even have the company install the wiring and support systems for hardware you don’t have the money for now but you know you’ll want to install later.

OBS’ Trenta says that no matter what stage of the process you’re at, knowing how much money you’re dealing with is important. “Once you get the budget established you can get down to the nitty-gritty of writing a specification that specifically addresses the chassis and body and upfitting requirements.

“The process for a large command vehicle takes a year from the time we get the order. Half of that year the bus manufacturer is building the custom shell. I’ve had these things turn around really fast. Sometimes it’s approved in a few weeks. But more typically, it’s three years prior to bid that you should start talking about it.”

Building the Perfect Vehicle

The Mohawk Ltd. trailer must be towed. The trailer’s enclosed design keeps officers inside completely concealed from view as well as out of the elements.

Most specialty vehicle makers want police departments to view their vehicle in various stages of the building process. You can see the different stages of completion in person or via e-mail with digital images sent weekly. These companies want to make sure that you get what you want.

To make sure that the vehicle was absolutely right, DFW Airport’s fire and police departments visited their unit eight times during the building process. Based on what they saw, they made some changes. “Most of it was cosmetic or functional,” says Chief Black. “We ended up turning the desks a different way and we wanted tables and radios in different locations because they weren’t functional.”

There are certain stages at which changes can be made. LDV tells agencies up front that there are five different stages and explains which changes can be made at which steps of the process. You can make radical changes at later stages, but it will cost you a whole lot more money.

And that’s true industrywide. “After we start installing the cabinets, we don’t usually make changes. It gets expensive,” says OBS’s Trenta. “You can have new cabinets if you change your mind after that point, but you’ll also have to pay for removal of the original cabinets and making and installing the new ones.”

OBS actually draws the layout of each piece of furniture and equipment onto the floor of the vehicle shell once it has been built and delivered to the company’s shop. This way, an agency can get a feel for how much room its officers will have to move around in the space.

Again, it bears repeating: If it’s necessary to alter the original plans, make sure it’s done as early as possible. This will save you time and money.

Delivery and Maintenance

Most companies have drivers/trainers who will drive your vehicle to your agency and then train whoever will be driving and operating it in the same trip. Don’t worry. The mileage logged to get your vehicle from the company to your agency won’t be counted toward your vehicle’s warranty.

Some companies even suggest recording the training session the company’s driver gives so that everyone can receive training even if they’re not there in person. You don’t want to have the company drive or fly to your agency every time someone else needs to be trained. That can get expensive.

Most companies will train as many people as you like at once when they are there, or you can opt to have the instructor train only one person who can act as the trainer for other members of your agency. But when the people who received the initial instruction move on to other assignments, they most likely won’t have the time to constantly train newcomers. And once the people who were trained retire, you need some way to teach new people to operate your mobile command vehicle.

That’s the advantage of recording the training. Newbies will be able to receive the same training by watching a recording, even if it’s 15 years down the line. Some of the technology might have changed by that time, but the basic operation of the vehicle will remain the same.

Some agencies worry about the company being near them so they can take the vehicle in for maintenance. But larger agencies will probably conduct their own maintenance, and for smaller agencies that don’t have their own repair shop or for items that an in-agency shop cannot repair, the company will direct you to the nearest authorized repair shop for whatever needs to be fixed.

Refurbishing mobile command units can be a worthwhile investment down the line. Most agencies will upgrade their vehicles gradually with new computers every two to three years and new radios every five to six years as the need arises, so drastic remodeling probably won’t be necessary for 20 years. At that point, you’ll have to consider whether the shell is still sturdy enough, whether it will fit all of your people still, and whether the internal layout needs to be changed.

Whether you decide to refurbish your mobile command center after 20 years or buy a brand-new one, it most likely will last you a very long time.

AK Specialty Vehicles
Braun Northwest Inc.
First Responder (Raytheon Co.)
Mattman Specialty Vehicles
Mohawk Ltd.
Universal Specialty Vehicles

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