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Motoring The Extremes: The Floating Backcountry-Capable SUSV

Posted in Features on December 16, 2016
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“If you’re unsure how deep the water is, you back the backend in,” said Captain Sean Grande, of the Butte Fire Department, as he maneuvered the articulating rear cab of the 10,000-pound tracked vehicle off a steep bank into the Knik River, in Palmer, Alaska. We had joined Grande and Assistant Chief Louis LaRousse for a test drive of this Small Unit Support Vehicle (SUSV), the Hagglunds BV206, to learn how the amphibious model with a fiberglass tub and exceptional off-road capability performs in the backcountry. Grande’s skill at the wheel showed as he stabilized the two-cab vehicle. Soon, we were afloat and headed across the swirling waterway in a drainage area that is open to motorized and non-motorized activities.

It was Butte Fire Chief Eric VanDusen that helped the department secure the easy-to-maintain, highly reliable SUSV developed for the punishing Arctic cold. “We are the only fire department with a SUSV in the borough, which is the size of West Virginia and has 500 employees in emergency services,” said the fourth-generation firefighter, who won the Medal of Valor and Medal of Courage for a firefighting feat in 2012 when he drove his fire department pickup into a fire that had overtaken a fire engine to rescue three of its four-man crew. (The fourth made it out safely on foot.) He was also nominated as state of Alaska Firefighter of the Year in 2013.

“We got this last April from the Alaska State Troopers of the Mat-Su Borough, who are responsible for 25,258 square miles. We have been using ATV’s, personal pickups, and an Argo for off-road rescue,” explained VanDusen, who had been pursuing the acquisition of an SUSV for the fire department through the military and the state troopers and the annual National Guard auctions.

Testing the wildly capable amphibious SUSV rescue vehicle in the Knik River Drainage, a rugged and remote region north of Anchorage. The area has a number of off-road trails that make it a popular destination for not only 4WD enthusiasts but also for hunting, fishing, trapping, target shooting, boating, and camping.

Once secured, VanDusen charged Grande with the task of developing a training program on the SUSV for the search and rescue (SAR) team. “The Knik River area has a lot of accidents, especially over Memorial Day and the 4th of July, with four-wheeling enthusiasts in particular. We had a recent call to help someone who rolled a pickup at Jim Creek—there was a wheelchair-bound person in the truck.”

Using the military driver’s manual, Grande created a curriculum for familiarization and light-duty maintenance on the SUSV for SAR personnel who must be minimally trained as a rescue technician, fire-trained, paramedic, EMT, or Emergency Trauma Technician.

Development of the BV206 Hagglunds model, which was also produced by the Army, began in 1974, with Bandvagn’s trial vehicles that were delivered between 1976 and 1978. The first production models were sent to the Swedish Defense Administration in 1980.

The unique tracked SUSV makes its home at the Butte Fire Department for use by its firefighters and search and rescue (SAR) team. The tracked cargo carrier is made up of two plastic reinforced, fiberglass compartments, each mounted on a chassis with twin driven solid rubber tracks. An articulated steering joint joins the cabs.
Captain Sean Grande has developed a curriculum and training program on the SUSV. Grande is checking the inner workings of the easy-to-maintain, highly reliable vehicle with Mercedes and Daimler-Benz running gear.

“This vehicle is for getting there and getting out, rescuing people that need it,” explained LaRousse, as we motored along old logging trails and over alluvial gravel bars and winding braids of the river, with the high-elevation Chugach Mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. “We have the confidence that we can help people who break down and get them out of the weather. We have a stretcher, medical equipment, and a seat in the rear car, plus a portable jaws of life,” said the firefighter that was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 2003, who now works at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) as a Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter. He has also been fighting borough fires for 18 years. “The SUSV helps us find and stabilize patients; the rear compartment is set up with Stokes baskets, C-spine, backboard, head chocks, straps, blankets, thermal bags, medical bags, and oxygen. We can also clear a helipad to assist LifeMed Alaska for its helicopter transport of injured patients,” he said.

After our backcountry test-drive in the SUSV, we could see why this fully articulated, tracked vehicle is invaluable for rescue over trackless terrain, such as rock, boulders, bog, marsh, and water. We also grew to appreciate the dedication, training, and excellence of the fire fighting and SAR personnel at Palmer’s Butte Fire Department and the great team they make when paired with the SUSV.

Command Central of the SUSV made for the Arctic cold and tropical heat that is capable of traversing bogs, extreme side slopes, and water. It has a top speed of 30 mph and can navigate a side slope of 22 degrees.
Chief Eric VanDusen was bullish on the vehicle that had been used by the U.S. and Alaska National Guards in bogs and other difficult and unnavigable terrain. He knew that its extreme capabilities could help save lives by making rescues in hard-to-reach locales and that it could also carry emergency equipment to provide treatment to victims with life-threatening injuries.

At a Glance

Vehicle: Small Unit Support Vehicle (SUSV); 2-cab amphibious tracked vehicle; Hagglunds BV206
Owned by: Butte Fire Department, Palmer, Alaska
Stomping Grounds, Mat-Su Borough; Knik Public Use Access Area
Engine: Mercedes 6-cyl turbodiesel
Horsepower @ rpm (hp): 135 @ 4,600
Transmission: Daimler Benz Model W4A-018 automatic
Transfer case(s): 2-spd
Steering: Rear hydraulic steering
Fuel capacity (gal): 21.5 (2)
Length (in): 279
Width (in): 74
Height (in): 97
Weight (lb): 10,000
Ground Clearance (in): 14
Tires: None, tracks (1.7 lbs. per square inch)
Winch: 24V severe duty Warn winch
Cool Stuff: Fiberglass tub, articulating rear cab set up as ambulance with life support equipment

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