No off-the-shelf wire cages for the four-legged officers that serve North Carolina’s Craven County Sheriff’s Office. Their canine transport units offer comfort and boast a little individual style.
Custom-built kennels give the dogs the full length and width of the vehicles’ back seat sections to travel in comfort, window panels to protect them, air handling that kicks in if it gets too hot, and decorative kennel details that personalize each unit with an outline of the breed and police dog’s name.
Chris Frye, licensed general contractor, on-call officer, and owner of First Light Custom Builders in New Bern, N.C., takes time from his construction business to design and build the canine units. These mobile kennels are part of his shop’s custom fabrication offerings that include wrought iron handrails, artistic driveway gates, ranch and farm signs, staircases, and just about anything that can be made of metal.
Frye is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Mashpee, Mass. The Native American tribe is known as the People of the First Light.
Design Plus Art
“The sheriff’s office approached me about building the kennels because it is big on supporting local businesses, and I have a reputation as a metal artist,” Frye said. “They knew what they wanted, so we sat down to determine exactly what was needed. Then I worked out the basic design.”
Considerations for the units start with the comfort and safety of the dogs and goes on from there, ending with customization to fit each unit securely in the specific vehicle.
Frye typically hand-draws his designs, transfers them to a CAD program, then produces the panels using CNC cutting equipment and press brakes. Heavy-gauge aluminum is used to avoid adding too much weight to the vehicles. Some kennels are powder-coated to match the cruisers.
Vehicles Change, Kennels Change
“Designing for these kennels can get complicated because car manufacturers change their basic designs and dimensions every five years or so. It can take me countless hours to rework the transport unit designs when they make a change,” Frye said.
As an example, he pointed to the many places that vehicle manufacturers put vents. Some vehicles like SUVs have vents in the ceiling, and other vehicles have vents behind or under the seats that help circulate air. Frye has to cut holes in the kennel that precisely match up with those vents. When automakers change the vent placement, Frye has to rework the kennel vent cutaways.
“This has made me quite familiar with the specifics of vehicle models. For example, measurements of 2015 through 2020 Chargers are the same. That means a kennel can be switched from one model to another. Just reassemble the panels back in the opposite order of how they came out,” he said.
“To get the fit right, I need to have the vehicle available. Back-seat interiors have a lot of angles and radii that require measurement. There can be a lot of trial and error. An initial design for a new model recently took more than 80 hours. But once the first one fits, we can turn out several kennels a day for that same model vehicle.”
Along with a pattern of air holes and names of the vehicle’s agency and department, an exchangeable plate for the canine’s name is part of the front panel design. One side window panel is decorated with a silhouette of the dog’s breed posed in front of an American flag. A fan that automatically kicks on when the vehicle gets too hot for the dog can be built into the panel for the other side window.
Other options are available. Vaults can be incorporated into the units to house dog bite suits, ammunition, or weapons. In some cases, the front panels have been modified to serve as dividers for prisoner transport vehicles.
What started as a project to satisfy a request from a local law enforcement office has expanded into domestic and international market opportunities. Frye has provided estimates for canine transport units to law enforcement organizations in several states and has had interest from their counterparts in Germany, Belgium, Malaysia, and France. He has also been called on to provide custom kennels for residences and non-law enforcement companies.
“Interest in these transport units is quickly growing. I’m getting feedback from around the world. That means a lot to me,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with off-the-shelf products, but I like to be innovative with all my projects and include an element of artistic design.”