YUMA, Ariz. — Whenever deputies with the Yuma County Sheriff's Office find themselves in extremely dangerous situations they can call for the agency's Special Response Team (SRT) and its armored tactical assault vehicle for assistance.
“We call it a war wagon,” said Deputy James Waddell, lead sniper on the Special Response Team. “We can put everybody on our team in it and on it, so that is 18 people.”
The vehicle, called a Lenco BearCat, comes equipped with military-grade armor capable of withstanding multiple shots from .50-caliber bullets, bulletproof windows and multiple gun ports along both sides of the vehicle. An armored turret sits on the top of the vehicle, which allows the SRT to deploy a deputy with a rifle.
Designed for urban settings as well as off-road use, the BearCat is also capable of detecting radiation and explosive gas, has 40-inch run flat tires, a wench and a battering ram. Built on a Ford 550 chassis, the vehicle weighs about eight tons and is powered by a massive diesel engine. It has a working range of about 200 miles and is capable of speeds up to 80 mph.
Waddell said the sheriff's office uses the BearCat in high-risk situations such as when there is a barricaded suspect, a dangerous arrest warrant is being served, if a shooter is on the loose or if there is a hostage situation.
“Anytime there is a major incident it will probably be on scene.” Waddell said. “If we are using it, it is for a high-risk situation. We are looking for dangerous people, people who are known to have weapons, or we are doing some type of rescue where someone has been taken hostage.”
Even though all SRT personnel wear protective gear and armor, Waddell said the BearCat provides them with additional safety and allows them to approach a variety of tactical situations without exposing themselves to even greater danger when responding to the scene of an incident.
“If there is a problem, we can get on top of the problem and fire effectively from the vehicle, which is something we couldn't do before,” Waddell said. “We don't need to exit the vehicle if we have to engage a threat. We can do it without getting out of the vehicle. It's good to know if you ever need to.”
Waddell said the BearCat cost $268,000 and the sheriff's office got the money to buy it in 2010 from a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
“It's something, as a local agency, we wouldn't have been able to afford, but because of the grant we were able to get the vehicle,” Waddell said.
The new BearCat replaced a 1960s-era armored personnel carrier known as a Peacekeeper. Waddell said that vehicle, which was built on a modified Dodge 1¼-on four-wheel drive truck chassis, was predominately made for the U.S. Air Force.
Waddell said the sheriff's office has given its old Peacekeeper, which it got in 2008 from the Phoenix Police Department and used for two years, to the San Luis Police Department.
In addition to being heated and air-conditioned, Waddell said the BearCat allows SRT members to take more equipment to a scene then they have in the past. Some of the gear it carries onboard are a water fire extinguisher, a stretcher, first aid kits, gas masks, various hand tools, a bang stick for breaking glass, and a ballistic blanket, which is used to cover windows and other openings so they can't be shot out from.
Waddell said it can also be used as a rolling shield to give SRT members cover as they move in to rescue a wounded deputy or someone who is pinned down and under fire.
“It will stop most anything we run into,” Waddell said.
Because the BearCat is equipped with a public address system, Waddell said it gives negotiators with the sheriff's office a safe place to conduct their negotiations during hostage situations. Robot operators, he added, can also operate their robots from inside the safety of the vehicle.
Unlike the other sheriff office's other special vehicles, which are kept at its maintenance yard, Waddell said the Bearcat is parked at the sheriff's office so it can be deployed anywhere in the Yuma area as quickly as possible.
“Any deputy who needs to use it can get the keys from the dispatcher,” Waddell said.
While the BearCat is occasionally used for public events such as parades, and most recently for delivering toys for Christmas, Waddell said the last time it was used for a mission was back in September of 2012, after a powerful thunderstorm hit the Yuma area.
The storm, which had wind gusts reported up to 66 mph, knocked out power to about 19,000 customers in Yuma, Somerton and the Foothills,
“It has a lot of spotlights, so we did patrolling in it for high visibility,” Waddell said.
Because the sheriff's office sometimes conducts operations out in the desert, Waddell said it chose to have the BearCat painted in a sand color to match the area's environment.
“We wanted something that would be a little more tactical than a high gloss police vehicle,” Waddell said.