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Nobles County Sheriff's Office making shift from squad cars to trucks

Nobles County Deputy Bob Munkel (from left), Sheriff Kent Wilkening and Deputy Markus Murphy stand in front of their Ford F-150 trucks as the newest vehicles in their fleet.

WORTHINGTON -- Some citizens may have noticed lately that the Nobles County Sheriff's Office squad cars cruising past aren't cars at all -- they're trucks.

According to Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening, there are now three four-wheel drive pickups in the office's fleet of vehicles, along with an SUV and five squad cars.

"We put one pickup on the road in 2010, just to see how it would work," he explained. "Up until that time, we had to rely on the SUV to pull the boat or the command trailer or to use in bad weather."

The first worked out well, so the sheriff's office bought two more, which have just been put on the road in the last couple of weeks, Wilkening said.

The trucks are lettered and marked the same as the cars and carry the same equipment -- on-board cameras, computers, light bars. With four doors, the back seat is equipped with a cage, just like a squad car.

With four-wheel drive, the sheriff is hoping his deputies will be safer during inclement weather, especially winter storms.

"With the winters we've been having, this should help them get around better," Wilkening said. "In bad weather, they have trouble getting some places, and I'm not just talking blizzards."

"During spring mud seasons, bad rain storms, those days when there's two inches of slush on the streets -- that can be tough enough in four-wheel drive. Imagine doing it in a front-wheel drive sedan."

Wilkening said he has had to take a squad car into fields and down bad roads more than once in his career, and the trucks will make those areas more accessible. Sitting up higher also makes for better visibility.

"The cars are lower to the ground and the clearance isn't as good, so the trucks are nice," he added.

Trucks are more expensive to purchase, he admitted, but their trade-in value is also higher, which should help even things out. Wilkening purchases vehicles for the fleet through a state website, which takes bids for state contracts. Vehicles in the sheriff's fleet are generally used for about four years, then taken off the road and sold or traded in, Wilkening said. In those four years, an average of 120,000 miles is put on the vehicle.

The trucks are 1/2-ton Ford F-150s, and the mile-per-gallon difference between the Chevrolet Impalas and the Ford trucks isn't as substantial as a person might think.

"It's hard to judge what kind of gas mileage a squad is getting, because of the amount of time they spend idling," Wilkening said. "Traffic stops, accidents, things like that."

A cost-saving benefit to the trucks is that they won't have to change tires twice a year. Currently, the squad cars get a set of winter tires as soon as the weather dictates they are needed, then get a tire change in the spring. The trucks will use the same all-terrain tires year-round.

Nobles County Investigator Lonnie Roloff drove the first truck for a while before being promoted and handing the truck over to another deputy.

"It was roomier, and even prisoners in the back seat had more space," Roloff stated. "In the squads, some of the bigger guys basically had to sit sideways."

Another advantage to using the trucks is the hauling capabilities, Wilkening said. Bigger pieces of evidence and equipment can go in the box.

Wilkening does want the public to understand that even with more ability to maneuver in bad weather, this doesn't mean the pickups are for towing people's vehicles out of ditches during blizzards. Weather advisories should still be followed and travel restricted during blizzards and serious storms.

"We are not a tow company," Wilkening stated.

Currently the deputies assigned trucks live in various areas of the county, and Wilkening tries to keep them spread out. Eventually, if the trucks perform as he hopes, the sheriff will try to have most of his deputies out of cars and into four-wheel drive vehicles.