By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Rather, he said, it’s a rescue vehicle that will protect law enforcement officers from gunfire and other attacks during situations that can turn deadly almost immediately. The CIRT team, composed of about 20 highly-trained police personnel from all parts of the county, along with four negotiators, responds to high-risk search warrants, hostage situations and terrorism threats. Initiated in 2005, the team has been called out to 16 incidents so far this year, Hartman said.
The team is part of the Pennsylvania Region 13 All Hazards and Counterterrorism Task Force and the new Lenco Bearcat is one of four in a 13-county area, according to Frank Janetti, Mercer County’s Emergency Management director. Money to purchase the vehicle came from grants through the Department of Homeland Security.
Bearcat is an acronym for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck. The vehicle, made in Massachusetts, is built from the chassis of a Ford F-550. It has .5-inch steel armored bodywork, complete with .50-caliber-rated ballistic glass capable of withstanding hits from multiple weapons, blast-resistant floors, specially designed gunports and a roof hatch.
Hartman, commander of the CIRT team, said the vehicle also has radiologic warning capabilities and a specially designed thermal imaging camera, optimal for helping search heavily wooded areas for suspects, as well as a detector to warn occupants if they are in an explosive gas situation, such as a methamphetamine lab.
By purchasing the vehicle, police now have a tactical advantage they lacked before, when they used standard issue police cruisers.
“We had to approach the scene and walk, maybe for blocks, to the area where there is a hostage or a shooter, making us targets. With this, we can drive right up to where we need to be,” he said.
Hartman stressed it’s for the safety of not only police, but residents too who may be caught up in a deadly hostage situation. While CIRT is a multi-jurisdictional operation, the vehicle can also be called to areas outside the county, if necessary, according to Janetti.
The vehicle arrived in October and was put into use almost immediately. Detailing and decals were recently added and Hartman held a press conference Wednesday morning to officially roll it out. Also at the event were police chiefs Riley Smoot of Southwest Mercer County Regional, Brian Blair of Hermitage, Denny Stevens of Greenville and Dean Osborne of Grove City. All serve on the board of directors for the CIRT team.
Hartman said he plans to take the Bearcat out in the community so people can become familiar with it.
“We’ll be in the holiday light parade in Hermitage to start,” he said.