SPANISH FORK — As Utah County sheriff's deputies closed in on an armed, suicidal man by Utah Lake one day last fall, they had more than bulletproof vests protecting them. They had an armored van unlike any other.
And when Millard County sheriff's deputy Josie Greathouse Fox was fatally shot in January, those same deputies coordinated the statewide manhunt for her killer on the fly from a state-of-the-art mobile communications center.
These two new specialized vehicles are helping the Utah County Sheriff's Office do things that were never possible before, and, officials believe, tipping the scales in favor of law enforcement in the most dangerous situations they face.
Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy believes his men were purposely drawn in by Todd Hainsworth, 50, of Orem, on Nov. 3 when he called 911 from Lincoln Beach, at the south end of Utah Lake.
Hainsworth, who was distraught over his pending divorce, fired several shots and left the phone line open, making it appear he had killed himself. But when deputies arrived, he rammed multiple vehicles, including the Active Shooter Response Vehicle.
But it's pretty hard to put a dent in the ASRV, a tank-like structure built over a Ford E-350 van chassis. It's a prototype designed by Spanish Fork resident Dave Acosta, a former Las Vegas area SWAT commander.
The ASRV has thick glass windows, an attachable bulletproof apron to protect officers' feet and ankles, and gun ports on the side. A 14-foot door ram can be hooked to the front, allowing officers to actually penetrate a building where a shooting occurs — whether a school or a mall like Trolley Square — and go straight to where people need to be rescued or evacuated.
"We hope we never have a Columbine, but we have to be prepared for that," Tracy said.
Acosta said he was inspired to design the vehicle by one incident in particular where a man shot his wife and left her bleeding in the driveway while he pointed a high-powered rifle out an upstairs window. The woman died before officers could reach her.
Sgt. Shaun Bufton, commander of the Utah County Metro SWAT Team, said his men can be out of the ASRV and back in with a victim in just eight seconds, all while using the vehicle as a shield.
"(Before), paramedics had to wait back until the scene was secured," Bufton said. "We've eliminated all exposure on moving up to the threat area. It's added protection for citizens and for our team."
Tracy touts the van as an example of working closely with the community, while Acosta says he designed it with his neighbors in mind.
"This is where I live, these are my neighbors, my friends," Acosta said. "Heaven forbid, if something happens in Spanish Fork High School or in Orem or Mountain View, that vehicle is coming through the hallways and getting kids out. No more waiting around."
The ASRV is not just for extraordinary situations but has also helped officers deal with high-risk warrants and barricaded or suicidal people. They have deployed it 30 times in its first year of use, often using its loudspeaker to try to defuse an incident.
"We can drive right up and talk to them almost face to face," Bufton said. "It's shifting the paradigm on armed response."
As they closed in on Hainsworth, officers were forced to shoot from behind a door and through one of the gun ports, killing him. Without the ASRV, the loss of life could have included one of them.
Utah County's other new vehicle, a 45-foot Multi-Agency Communications Center (MACC), was deployed during the standoff to pass information between the deputies who located Hainsworth by air and those who were approaching him on the ground.
And in the hours after Fox's shooting in Millard County, the MACC and the ASRV hit the road to assist in the statewide search for Roberto Miramontes Roman and Ruben Chavez-Reyes, the men captured in Beaver and charged in connection with the killing.
Instead of working out of the back of their vehicles, officers wrote search warrant affidavits in the conference room in the back of the MACC while others worked the radios and computers set up at four stations in the main cabin.
The $323,000 vehicle — paid for with a federal homeland security grant — has also seen action at hazmat situations like a recent spill at a Lindon landfill, as well as in the aftermath of a house explosion in Pleasant Grove. Besides acting as a communications hub, it gives first responders a secure space to share information and plan operations.
During an emergency, the conference room's white boards quickly fill up with lists and plans.Comment on this story
"It gives us a place to put in black and white what our resources are and what resources are needed," said Sgt. Tom Hodgson, who oversees use of the vehicle.
Officials stress it will continue to be available for use in all Utah County communities and in surrounding counties.
"When we have a major event … we need the command structure to go out next to where we need it at the time," said Tracy.