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ROCKFORD — The Winnebago County Sheriff's Department wants a new fleet of SUVs that are fully loaded and packing a lot of heat.

Not just heat as in weapons, but heat as in Fahrenheit temperatures hot enough to kill COVID-19 on contact.

"Ford makes software for these SUVs that you can run this self-cleaning mode that kills COVID and makes these cars safe for anybody to use them," said Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Rick Ciganek.

According to Ford, the sanitizing software program uses the vehicle's powertrain and climate control systems to elevate the interior of the vehicles to temperatures beyond 133 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes — long enough to neutralize the deadly virus.

Ford touts the high heat also has the ability to disinfect hard-to-reach areas that may be missed by chemical disinfectants when the vehicle is only cleaned by hand.

"It's pretty cool technology," Ciganek said.

Because the vehicles come equipped with the COVID-fighting software, Ciganek said they are eligible to be purchased with federal dollars received by the county from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The American Rescue Plan, also known as the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11 to speed up the country's economic recovery from the pandemic. The bill included direct payments to families, child tax credits and $130 billion in funding for local governments across the nation.

Winnebago County was allocated $54.8 million, half of which was received June 1. The other half is expected June 1, 2022.

In July, the County Board approved an ordinance that outlined how $20 million in ARP funding would be spent. The plan included allocating $3 million to the Sheriff's Department.

The county's Chief Financial Officer Dave Rickert said the mass vehicle purchase still has to undergo a "compliance review" by Baker Tilly, a private auditing firm, to make sure it qualifies for the American Rescue Plan dollars.

Meanwhile, Ciganek said the Sheriff's Department's fleet of 2015 and 2016 vehicles are approaching 100,000 miles.

"We have about 35 cars in the fleet," he said. "So, we're replacing half the cars right now, and we'll replace the other half next year."

Going forward, Ciganek said the goal will be to rotate aging vehicles out of the fleet on a more regular basis, such as replacing them eight at a time instead of the entire fleet.

Once the new vehicles have arrived and are ready for use, the current fleet of vehicles will be sold at auction. Whatever money comes back will go into the county's general fund.

"We're being told by Ford that there is at least a 20-week back order. So, it's going to be a while," Ciganek said. "I would guess we probably won't roll these cars out until early next year."

This article originally ran on pantagraph.com.

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