SERT's military-style armored vehicle is making appearances around county

Members of the Lancaster County Special Emergency Response Team train on the Bearcat, a $226,000 armored vehicle purchased in 2009 with Homeland Security funds. (Richard Hertzler/LNP)

OK, so it doesn't fly. It doesn't turn into a submarine. And it doesn't fire missiles.

But the Lenco BearCat can knock down a wall, pull down a fence, withstand small-arms fire and deliver a dozen heavily armed police officers to a tense emergency scene.

Or so the leaders of Lancaster County's Special Emergency Response Team believe.

"The need hasn't been there, which has been a good thing, but we are very confident of what it can do," county Detective Jim Zahm said of the SERT team's armored vehicle.

The BearCat has mostly stayed in a garage at the county's Public Safety Training Center on Champ Boulevard, East Hempfield Township, since it was purchased a year and a half ago with a $226,224 grant from the U.S. Homeland Security department.

Zahm, head of the county SERT team, said the vehicle has been out 11 times in the first five months of the year and 12 times last year.

Typically, the BearCat is used for barricade situations, when an armed suspect refuses to surrender. It also can be used to help free a hostage, or to safely transport dignitaries in an emergency.

It was brought out last week and placed on standby a half block from the Lancaster County Convention Center when former President George W. Bush spoke to members of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

It would definitely be used for more extreme situations, such as a terrorist attack, said Zahm.

"It's a psychological advantage. We've had people look out their door and see that monster and surrender," he said.

The vehicle, with its olive-green paint, appears similar to the now-familiar Humvees that have been used extensively by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Zahm, however, said looks can be deceiving.

"It's a fully armored rescue vehicle. It's more heavily armored than a Hummer," he said.

The BearCat sports a Ford diesel engine and a chassis encased in ballistic steel by Lenco Armored Vehicles of Pittsfield, Mass.

That gives it the ability to withstand all small-caliber ammunition. He declined to say what size shells could penetrate the steel. "Run-flat" tires allow the BearCat to keep moving even after they have been deflated.

SERT team members have not had the opportunity to find out. In nearly two years, it has not been fired upon, he said.

The vehicle has two large speakers to enable crisis negotiators to negotiate from the safety of the vehicle.

It also has two large, revolving LED spotlights that allow officers to train light on a house or other barricade location.

Detectors on the vehicle alert the officers to the presence of chemical or radiological weapons.

Although not armed, the vehicle can be used for a more forceful response.

A ram on the front of the 17,500-pound vehicle can be used to knock down doors or walls.

A 3,500-pound winch attached to hooks on the front of the BearCat can be used to pull down fences or pull bars from windows or doors.

A turret atop the vehicle allows an officer to provide covering fire while as many as a dozen other officers exit the vehicle from the back. Another half-dozen officers can stand on the running board and hold handrails to be transported short distances.

Zahm said the BearCat is surprisingly easy to drive.

"It's like driving a regular truck," he said.

The county SERT team is composed of 72 personnel. The majority, 40, are police officers from the county's various departments assigned to the special unit on a part-time basis. There also are 13 crisis negotiators, 10 paramedics, three medical doctors, a chaplain and five members of the command staff, Zahm said.

The county SERT team has been in place since 2002. A Lancaster city police team performed a similar function from 1983 through 2001.

The BearCat replaced an older armored car that was donated to the county by an armored car company about 10 years ago. That vehicle has since been passed to the county sheriff's office. It is used for serving warrants to potentially dangerous suspects.

The grant for the vehicle was secured by the SouthCentral Regional Task Force, Zahm said. It is considered a "regional asset," meaning that if needed, it could be sent to any of the seven other counties in the region - York, Adams, Cumberland, Perry, Dauphin, Franklin and Lebanon.

City Police Sgt. Jarred Berkihiser, a SERT team supervisor, said they haven't really put the vehicle to the test, even in training.

"We've kind of babied it," he said.

Zahm is certain it will be called upon to perform hazardous tasks in a dangerous situation.

"It's not a matter of if it will happen. It's a question of when," he said.

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