To serve and protect: Elkhart County’s pricey command vehicle

BY LAURA SCHLABACH AND CHASE SNYDER

Ten of Indiana’s counties received money from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security after Sept. 11, 2001, to purchase incident command vehicles that could be used to coordinate communication between fire, police and medical officials in times of crisis.  The money spent on these vehicles in Indiana totaled over $2 million, and as yet, the vehicles have been used only a few times.

Elkhart County spent $400,000 on its vehicle, formally known as the Elkhart County Mobile Command Center. The Department of Homeland Security provided $356,000; the remaining funds came from grants and donations.

Other counties with command vehicles are Allen, Dearborn, Madison, Porter, Putnam, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe and Vanderburgh, each of which received at least $140,000 to spend on this item.

Putnam County received $395,479.75 from the Department of Homeland Security for a  command vehicle. According to Kim Hyten, emergency management director for Putnam County, the vehicle has been used five times: twice for large fires, twice for hostage situations and once to coordinate security for a mass group event.

Elkhart County’s vehicle was approved for use in November of 2009 after a series of setbacks.  The company that won the bid to build the vehicle, Matman, went bankrupt after they were paid by Elkhart County but before completing the vehicle.

According to Jen Tobey, the Elkhart County emergency management director, Matman used Elkhart County’s down payment funds to complete a different vehicle. When Matman went out of business, the vehicle for Elkhart sat in a lot in California and even served as a target for parts thieves.

“There was a $15,000 generator that never came home with it,” said Tobey. She added that approximately $65,000 in radio equipment went missing, but was later found.  When the vehicle finally made it home to Elkhart County, a Goshen-based company, Supreme, finished constructing it.

“We would have used a local company originally, but Supreme didn’t bid,” said Tobey. “They did a good job helping us out in the end.”

Tobey also said that she received a lot of complaints from citizens about the acquisition of the vehicle; she pointed out that the decision to acquire it was made under the previous emergency management director, Warren Allendar.

Under Indiana law, a purchase made with grant money must be retained for four years before it becomes the property of the county. When Tobey came into office, the four-year deadline for Elkhart’s mobile command unit was coming up.

“I went to everybody who was above me and said ‘What do you want to do with this?’” said Tobey.

The response she got was mixed, but positive, and the decision was made to keep the vehicle, she said.

The Elkhart County Mobile Command Center has four certified drivers, the two primary drivers being Tobey and her deputy, Mike Pennington. The vehicle has most recently been used to transport 122 patients from the old St. Joseph Regional Medical Center to new facilities in Mishawaka.

In addition to the cost of buying these vehicles, the counties that received them, one in each homeland security district of Indiana, take on the responsibility of maintaining the vehicles, which includes paying for insurance and auto maintenance costs.

In Putnam, Hyten says that the county now pays to have the oil changed and the tires rotated on their vehicle, and it has been added onto the large vehicle insurance plan that already covers the county’s firefighting equipment, which costs about $2,000 per month.

Written by Alysha Landis

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