New iron giants

Two new towering armored vehicles capable of deflecting bullets, traveling in flooded areas, and detecting the presence of gas and chemicals are ready for deployment by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

The Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Trucks-or BearCats for short-will replace the office’s current 36-year-old armored vehicle and will offer more technology and features to help keep officers and the public safe, said WCSO Major Brian Schuck.

“(The BearCats) clearly have a lot more room for equipment, personnel or people we’d have to remove from dangerous situations,” he said.

A half dozen cramped officers can possibly fit in the BearCats’ predecessor, a PeaceKeeper armored vehicle built on the chassis of a 1978 Dodge truck, said Schuck.

Multiple seats and benches provide room for 10 to 15 officers to fit inside the new eight-ton vehicles.

Because the PeaceKeeper is small and unreliable-it stalls frequently-members of the department’s 16-person Special Response Team typically use their individual cruisers to get to emergency situations, noted Schuck.

The BearCat, made by Massachusetts-based Lenco Industries, is also better armored rated than the PeaceKeeper, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

“You’re talking about a (1978) Dodge truck that was armor plated. What it will stop is not giving anywhere near the protection of these (BearCats),” he said.

According to Lenco, the vehicle is rated for .50 caliber armor protection. Widely used by law enforcement agencies throughout the United States, there are several instances of the vehicles taking dozens of rounds of high-powered ammunition without being penetrated, said Schuck.

With a turret and gun ports, the BearCat will also make it easier for deputies to engage in dangerous scenarios within the safety of the vehicle, he said.

Perhaps most noticeably different about the new vehicles is the technology with which they are equipped, said Schuck.

“It has computer capabilities-on-board computers that we can get a steady flow of information from,” he said.

The computers enable the truck to be used as a mobile command center for crisis situations. It is equipped with a public address system for addressing people in a standoff or hostage situation, and it is equipped with sensors that can detect gas and chemicals, said Schuck.

The technology would come in handy in an industrial crisis, such as an explosion at a local plant, or even in the event that an area gas line is ruptured and the danger needs to be assessed, he said.

The BearCat will be a huge asset to the county, said Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers.

“As far as technology, the county does not have anything that is even close to that (vehicle),” said Feathers.

The Washington County Commissioners approved the acceptance of a $199,000 grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the purchase of the newer BearCat-a 2014 model.

The grant covered approximately half of the cost of the $398,431 spent on the vehicles. The other BearCat, a refurbished model with a brand new engine, had been ordered before the sheriff’s office realized it had been awarded the grant for the new vehicle.

After a story published in The Marietta Times about the acceptance of a grant for one of the two BearCat vehicles, several readers questioned the necessity of such advanced vehicles for a small community.

But Schuck pointed to several instances in which the PeaceKeeper has been used and has directly helped officer safety, such as a recent barricaded shooter event in Marietta.

When 53-year-old William B. Ransom Jr. allegedly barricaded himself inside his Spring Street home and began firing shots at responding officers on Dec. 12, the PeaceKeeper was used as a means to communicate with Ransom, said Schuck, who acts as a crisis negotiator for the sheriff’s office.

“We rolled up to the front of the house with that vehicle,” he said.

Before it was used in the Marietta standoff, the PeaceKeeper was previously used in 2013 for mutual aid in a standoff situation in Meigs and Athens counties.

In Marietta, some of the buckshot from shotgun shells fired during the standoff hit the top of the armored vehicle, he said.

While the PeaceKeeper did its job and kept the shrapnel out, it is unreliable and impractical in many ways. For starters, it stalled during the confrontation, said Schuck.

It was also too small to be used to assist with the evacuation of neighbors, he said.

“These (BearCats) can be easily used to transport citizens from the area in an event like that,” said Schuck.

The fact that there are two of them mean they can be used to protect the entire Special Response Team and then some. It also means they can provide full coverage of a house such as Ransom’s.

“In a situation like that we could park one at each of opposite corners and have all four sides of the house covered,” said Schuck.

Because the officers’ vehicles are unarmored, many took shelter behind trees and other stationary objects during the Ransom standoff, he said.

The cold air and elements meant that perimeter teams were switched out hourly, he added.

Five SRT members are already trained on the vehicles’ use and it will be a part of the team’s monthly training sessions, said Mincks.

While the BearCats can be used in a variety of situations, they will only be deployed as necessary under the authorization of Mincks.

“We’re not going to be sending this BearCat out there for a group of protesters…We have a continuum of force and you don’t send a BearCat out to arrest a drunk,” he said.