Few fleets meet the fit-for-purpose brief like the Mercedes G300 Professional range, built from the ground up to serve and protect in more ways than one. Tonka, take note.
Let’s get one thing very clear: ignore the blacked out three-pointed start on the grille. This is not the prestige vehicle expected of such a badge in any remotely conceivable
fashion. Fashion doesn’t even enter into it. Nothing exists on a G300 Ultralight Tanker that won’t be used; no heated seats, no electric mirrors, no sunroof. That said, there’s a long list of tricks up its high-vis sleeve with the core purpose of keeping workers in the bush safe.
Hanut Dodd, manager of the 4×4 Fire Fleet Reform, Policy and Integration with Victoria’s Department of Environment Water Land and Planning (DEWLP), has worked on this project since its inception in 2010. The tried and tested LandCruiser has become culturally accepted as the workhorse for non-CFA/MFB fire or forestry authorities like, but it’s been in use for 30 years.
“We got to a point with our existing fleet where it was at the end of its design life. Combined with market changes to the LandCruiser and how we work, it wasn’t going to be suitable,” Hanut said. “We also looked closer at what requirements we had. This isn’t about having fun on the weekend, it’s about doing the job.”
The task was a contradicting one. Replace the maxed-out dog-eared fleet with vehicles better than those which have done such a great job for so long, but they need to be better, safer, tougher – more capable in every way. No fleeting prospect, pardon the pun.
“Ultimately, the focus has to be on safety as the core principle. We had to look at the future. So we took the project out to our fire crews,” he said. “We did a butcher’s paper exercise – what do you like and dislike about the current vehicles. We borrowed all the best ideas from interstate, talking to Tassie, NSW, SA, WA, Queensland crews and equipment. We asked what’s working and what’s not, got them to tell us what challenges they face, men and women, tall or short. We spoke to Parks Victoria and others land management organisations. We even looked at fire tankers and firefighting techniques to give us a broad picture and open our eyes up.”
Collating the data and developing a long list of requirements, Hanut’s next step was tendering to the market. Who’s got the best tool for the job? Not an easy bill to fit given the vast requirements of various crews. Tasmania and Victoria are mountainous, needing off-road and hill-climbing competence, so too NSW with the Blue Mountains but then is hot scrub and virtual desert further inland – two very different landscapes with their own unique characteristics. South and Western Australia are majority similar again, but the distances can be double or triple, so a guzzler is impractical. Then monsoonal rains batter the Sunshine state. Short of contracting hybrid-powered Panzer tanks with a hose reel retrofitted to the gun emplacement, Hanut’s task was tall indeed.
The joint input from interstate was the ace up his sleeve.
“In the back corner of the G300 has a suction pipe. Even though you’re as frugal as possible with 650 litres of water aboard, you’re going to need to reload at some point, possibly in an emergency,” he said. “The permanently connected hose can be thrown into a creek or dam and flicking reverse on the pump reloads the tank. I’m happy to say we stole that idea came from engineers in Tassie.” As fires go, they don’t discriminate based on state borders or flag emblems, so cooperation and teamwork has delivered the best outcome.
NSW crews had a tray exchange system which was also adopted, allowing the interchangeable locking system to remove the firefighting body and replace it with a more conventional ute tray or other apparatus.
“We’re all on the same firefront,” Hanut reminds with a straight face. “If they have a good idea, we’ll borrow it, likewise we’ll help them with our ideas because we’re all in it together.”
One of the seemingly trivial additions to the fleet came from our West, although made it on to what’s been dubbed the ‘Unimog’, an even larger four-seat all-conquering truck with four seats and immense off-road capability.
“WA gave us the simple idea of a fridge. It’s easy to overlook, but eventually your crews need to eat,” he said. “Even in winter you’re still doing work, and it’s about trying to engineer out as much of the laborious task as possible. Making it safer for men and especially women to operate, because we do have women who spoke to us about their requirements like the powered spare wheel arms. I’m not a big guy myself and these wheels weight about 50 kilos, so designing out that lift, together with undertray lighting means the workplace is as safe as we can make it.”
Unlike the scores of trade vehicles hammering around on Australian roads with poorly loaded, overloaded and dangerously unsafe weights to handle, which somehow manage to avoid a canary sticker, Hanut’s new fleet will pull its own weight, and more, legally.
“I can’t send vehicles out the gate over their GVM, it’s as simple as that,” he states of the 4,490kg gross vehicle mass and 6,700kg gross combination mass (GCM), far greater than its predecessor, and operable on a standard car license.
“All the trays are interchangeable and all lock into place. You don’t have to drill holes in anything, it’s one size fits all, designed so the weight expressions across the front and rear axles are well within acceptable limits. You can have a 5th percentile female to 95th percentile male operate them from the ground. They’re incredibly ergonomic, and a very big change,” he said.
Under the bonnet is a three-litre V6 turbo diesel engine with what seems like a measly 135kW although it’s available at 3800rpm, and a ‘that’s more like it’ 400Nm of torque between 1600 and 1200rpm. All while meeting Euro 5 emissions regulations.
The gearbox is a five-speed automatic with manual selection – no manual is available because it’s one less function that needs to be performed to make operating it easier. There’s a whopping 96-litre fuel tank which sits in a sweet spot between a long-range tank and the standard capacity tank on its 70 series LandCruiser predecessor.
The Ultralight Tanker comes with rigid axles with torsional flexing and as you would expect, a high- and low-range transfer case for superior off-road capability thanks to three locking differentials at the front, centre and rear. Electronic Stability Control and EBD keep the monster in check, while ABS and chunky disc brakes (drums rear) will pull it up.
“We did two and a half thousand G Wagen Professionals, many of which were six-wheeler vehicles built specifically for the ADF – they didn’t actually exist before,” said Mercedes Benz Australia’s head of product and corporate communications, David McCarthy.
“Other military around the world, they’ve bought a few, but the factory in Gratz ramped up to full capacity when the Australian contract, including parts and service, came through about five or six years ago,” McCarthy said.
The Australian military is still running a number of MB ‘Unimogs’ which are purpose-built machines designed to go and do literally anything, and they’re even bigger than the G Wagens. The G-Series vehicles take days longer to build than the regular production line.
“We did a major excursion along the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia with the Professional. We had some issues with the original AMG shocks, But with heavy duty dampers on the single cab ute it amazed us what the thing could do, clambering up vertical sand dunes, carrying two tonnes and enduring the heat,” McCarthy said. The Canning Stock Route is regarded as one of the most trecharous and punishing off-road courses in Australia, leaving many 4WDs broken and battered.
“We also decided to add a second airbag for safety, although didn’t need to in order to meet ADR rules as a light truck. The market is niche and you can’t buy one outside of a fleet because it’s so specialised. The re-sale value and cost of ownership makes it a strong product, and we can back it up with data to say it’s got 10-15 years’ work ahead of it.”
You need not worry about who’s behind the wheel either, as Hanut says quite firmly; you don’t get touse the new equipment unless you’re qualified. There’s no P1 and P2 with a G300 tanker, only training, and lots of it.
“Substantial training,” Hanut says emphatically. “We’ve put every effort into making sure operators are very capable. Three-day training courses allowing crew members to become operators, so we have confidence they can use itefficiently and safely, as well as operate the pumps and other features.”
“There’s a lot to learn like vehicle characteristics, on-road and off-road, getting water in and out, plus previous experience from general firefighter training is expected,”
he continued. “There’s a much bigger operation that happens before you even get into the vehicle operating program. It’s a separate G-Wagen program if your depot has them in their fleet. Eventually we’ll phase out the LandCruisers and all operators will use the G-Wagen.”
“In the end, these vehicles are all about professionalism. A tool of trade we wantto use for the next 15 years, so the cost of ownership figures we worked on were
compelling,” Hanut said. “But it means the emphasis is on never getting yourself or your crew in an emergency situation, because it’s all about protecting people so that they can move on to the next job and the next site, keeping the asset in one piece, because it has more work to do tomorrow. It’s not about being a hero, it’s about just doing the job well and doing it safely.”
At 4.2-metres high, including 245mm for ground clearance, you lord over in surprising comfort in the truck-like G300. Calling it a truck is not unfounded. Its 3428mm wheelbase alone is over 300mm longer than a current Nissan Patrol at 3075mm. But quite cleverly it’s 40mm narrower than one, at just 1555mm, meanin g better access in tight bushland and along narrow fire trails.
A Falling Object Protection System (FOPS) is worn like a hard hat over the tanker’s cabin to shield operators from heavy debris that by chance could kill or injure in lesser vehicles. High-visibility LED lamps flash around the edge of the FOPS in red/blue, or yellow which Hanut explained is often easier to see in smoke haze.
“You can literally have two metres of visibility in front of you, and with other crews operating around you the bright LEDs are much safer than the old revolving reflectors,” he said.
Electric hose winches, easy-open storage compartments and reachable equipment all illustrate the suitability of the vehicle and reinforce the need for collaboration in the design. Vehicle repairs on the ground are easy enough thanks to excellent ride height, to the point yours truly could roll under the vehicle to photograph underbody components like shock absorbers and steering components which you could envisage being damaged in unusual circumstances. The seats are wrapped in a washable and hard-wearing military-feel canvas, and are surprisingly comfortable to sit in. The dash isn’t littered with soft brushed-plastic buttons, but robust switchgear you’d expect to find on a Hercules – one square ALERT button glows red, begging to be pressed. The doors take some effort to close, but are not laborious by any means, and come with the latest in manual window-winding technology.
A four-tonne front-mounted Warn winch, mounted to a custom-designed bull bar with brush bars as thick as Barry Hall’s forearm, will haul the beast to freedom. Bright red tow points up front make their presence known so one avoids bashing their knees up front, while providing additional rescue capability, with shackles at the rear for snatch strap rescues. Crawling under the rear a heavy duty tow bar awaits use beneath a high-res reversing camera and LED worklight. Steel storage bins behind the rear arches are angled to keep the 36-degree departure angle, with 43-degrees of approach affront.
Chassis rails, differential casing, axles and steering arms all look like they belong on some form of military vehicle. That’s because the G300 debuted in Australia as the
weapon of choice for the Australian Defense Force, and its formidable competence is now reaching down the line to emergency and essential services like DEWLP.
The project started about a year after Black Saturday, and with the resources tipped into protecting fire-prone communities across Victoria and Australia in general, it’s a personally pleasing outcome for Hanut, whose kids, he says, could quite possibly follow him into the firefighting game. It’s one of the personal philosophies driving him to protect the next generation of communities.
“My teenagers don’t think what I do is cool, but my three-year-old thinks everything I do is cool,” he chuckles. “Recruiting only stopped today, preparing for this summer. It’s all well having half a life’s worth of experience, but we lots of younger people wanting to contribute and do their part over
their summer breaks. Our job is to mentor, teach them and keep them as safe as possible so they can use their training. We’re using engineering to help keep them safe and this is the best vehicles we can get to do the job.”
It’s a listening exercise. Hearing what those in the field need to do their job, male, female, tall, short, fit or less-than. From sirens and winches, to a locker for dry clothes or something as simple and discreet as a rubbish bin, the Mercedes G300 is the ultimate expression of a fit-for-purpose tool-of-trade.
Lucky too, that someone like Hanut Dodd has been proactive, leading on safety to provide a workhorse that will go the distance, serve and protect, in comfort, with competence and in confidence, no matter what the weather brings.