It's hardly intimidating to see cops gliding along at 12.5 mph -- tops -- patrolling city streets on a Segway Personal Transporter. It looks more like a high-tech kids' toy than a law enforcement vehicle. But that's part of the allure.
More than 80 police departments nationwide are using the Segway because it gives them more mobility than a bike, saves gas, it's community-friendly and beats walking.
"They're very public-oriented," said Jerome Armijo, patrolman first class for the Albuquerque, N.M., police department. "People love to stop you and talk to you about it. It's a good public relations tool."
Armijo used to patrol downtown Albuquerque on foot and would be exhausted midway through his 10-hour shift on most days. The Segway lets him respond to calls all over the downtown area easily and more quickly without getting tired.
"The area I cover is big, and being on foot all the time and going from one side of downtown to the other, you get worn out," he said. "With the Segway, during peak hours you can respond to calls on both sides of downtown and not get as tired."
In Virginia, the Arlington County Sheriff's Department delivers 25 to 30 documents -- including subpoenas, motions and writs -- for the county courthouse every day.
Subpoenas in particular take a lot of time and energy to deliver. Two deputies had to drive the subpoenas to each address, exit the car, enter the building and deliver the document. Now the deputies take a different approach -- they simply attach the Segway to the back of the patrol car, go to a general area where subpoenas need to be delivered, hop on the Segway and deliver all the documents.
The Segway gets recharged once each night, and can cover about 25 miles a day.
Not Just for Cops
Police officers aren't the only ones getting on the Segway bandwagon.
In Chicago, weekly events fill the streets with as many as 1 million people, which made it tough for medics, hauling their equipment, to reach injured citizens. The Segway lets paramedics with the Chicago Fire Department maneuver around throngs of people more easily than with an ambulance.
The department successfully tried a few machines and decided to create specialized Advanced Life Support (ALS) teams for the city. ALS teams now patrol downtown streets every day and monitor radio frequencies for fire and emergency medical services, knowing they can get there before an ambulance or fire truck.
Oftentimes the ALS team -- two paramedics riding Segways with a full array of equipment -- arrives on the scene before the ambulance or other first responders. In summer 2006, a man suffered a heart attack in downtown Chicago during a difficult time of day for an ambulance to get in and out of the area. However, a Segway team made it to the man in a few minutes. They found him unresponsive, but resuscitated him with a defibrillator and stabilized him before an ambulance arrived.
For both the Chicago paramedics and the Albuquerque police, the Segway offers quick and easy access through crowded areas. Unlike a bike, which requires the rider to hunch over, the Segway lets the driver stand eight inches taller to get a better view of crowds, down streets and into businesses. The driver merely leans forward to make the Segway go forward, and to one side or the other to make it turn. Leaning slightly backward will stop the Segway.
"On the Segway, the paramedics are higher than the crowd," said Mark Linse, deputy chief paramedic for the Chicago Fire Department. "They are actually above the crowd and can see through the crowd better."
In addition, police on college campuses -- such as Duke in North Carolina, Drexel in Pennsylvania, Santa Clara in California, and others in Maryland -- also employ the Segway.
It's also found its use in airports like Baltimore-Washington International, and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where what started three years ago as an experiment ended with a large contract with the city. This spring, Chicago announced a new $580,000 contract with Segway that will add as many as 100 new machines to the 50 already in use in the city. It's the largest municipal contract since Segway launched in 2001.
Other Segway customers include Seattle, which uses the vehicles to go door to door and read residential gas meters, and to retrieve coins from parking meters.
The Segway is powered by noncombustible lithium ion batteries and controlled by computer software. "It's a marriage between a computer and a transportation device," said Klee Kleber, vice president of marketing at Segway Inc.
The "brains" of the Segway include five gyroscopic tilt sensors and two accelerometers that work like an inner ear to feel things such as the driver leaning, the slope of a hill and the machine's speed. As the driver's center of gravity shifts, the gyroscopes process this information about 100 times a second and convert it to wheel motion.
The newer machines launched in August 2006 come with LeanSteer handlebars -- a new structure that moves to the left or right as the machine turns.
In addition, the Segway has an alarm that lets law enforcement officers or paramedics park the machine to tend to business, without worrying about someone taking it for a joy ride.
The Segway's InfoKey controller -- a device that looks like a digital watch -- lets the driver control the vehicle, turn it on and off, and activate the alarm.
When the Segway alarm is triggered, the wheels lock and an audible alarm is sounded; the vehicle also vibrates, making it uncomfortable to ride if tampered with.
A safety mechanism shuts down the machine if something goes wrong. Armijo and Linse have both experienced the inexplicable shut down of a Segway while on patrol. "It did a little shrug, and the red light came on, and it shut down," Armijo remembered. "I couldn't restart it."
In both cases, the Segway had to be sent to the manufacturer for repair. Armijo was disappointed that it took six weeks to get it back. Software problems prompted a recent recall of all Segways after six of the machines malfunctioned and caused minor injuries to the operators. Kleber said software upgrades to all machines took care of the problem.
Armijo was just glad to get his back.
"It's a really good tool," he said. "Fortunately we have three of them but one is a backup, and the captain likes to come and ride with us so we need all three of them."
One advantage of the Segway is it can go anywhere. "We're much more mobile with the Segways," Linse said. "Because the Segway has nonmarking tires and produces no emissions, they're able to actually enter the downtown buildings, ride on the elevator and go right up to the patient's side."
The ALS team works every day, even during the winter when they patrol Chicago's Pedway System -- an underground walkway that covers about a 40-block area. They can easily pop up from the Pedway System to tend to anyone needing assistance in the downtown area.
The fire department customized the ALS Segways to include a defibrillator, diagnostic equipment, intravenous solutions, obstetrical kits and pharmaceuticals. Segway also puts out a police package that includes a handlebar bag for gear, accessory bar for lights and siren, an LED taillight and cargo frames. The regular model is about $4,500 and the police package retails for $5,495.
Linse said he and the ALS teams have used the Segway for about a year now, and they are sold. "I'd get more if I could."