Squashed and sweating in protective clothing for 10 hours at the scene of an emergency was the final straw for Bob Jones. He demanded a refuge – a van he could call his own

Bob Jones’ Iveco may look like any other white van, but it’s the envy of councils up and down the country. Open its back doors and you will find a survivalist’s dream – it has everything you could possibly need to live for several days.

Jones is head of building control and dangerous structures at Southwark council, London. He has to be the first at the scene of an incident, to certify that a building is safe before the emergency services can go inside. This sometimes means he is stranded at the scene of a major emergency for hours, so he has customised the van to make it a comfortable haven. It has a padded bench, a chair and fold-away desk, emergency lighting, basic personal protective equipment, 150 scale maps, signage, radios, first-aid kit, kettle, tea and coffee. He says he has lived comfortably in it for two days.

Jones conceived the idea of the van in the summer of 1996 when he was called to the scene of a very serious fire and had to remain at the site for hours. “That was the turning point,” he says. “I spent 10 hours cramped and sweating under my protective clothing and thought: I’ve had enough of this.”

Jones realised that a van was the answer.

“I didn’t know of anything like it, but I knew what I wanted,” he says. “I wanted somewhere to get in out of the rain, somewhere I could change my clothes. The criteria for the van was that I could stand up in it. I’m six foot four, so not banging my head was a priority.”

It took a couple of years to persuade his bosses that it was a worthwhile use of the council’s money, but eventually Jones found his dream van and set about kitting it out.

“I actually sat inside it and tried it out,” he said. “I moved around in it and thought about how it would work. It had to be exactly right.”

The van, along with Jones’ detailed plans, was sent to a specialist fit-out firm in Dover. “They cut the sides down to fit a drop-down step, built around the wheel arches and boarded the insides,” he says. “I also did bits of work myself, like making sure everything was strapped firmly in the right place.”

Jones has always been proud of his invention – he admits that he used to take it home to clean and reveals that his colleagues used to refer to it as the “Bob-mobile”. But recently he has been sharing it with David Cloake, Southwark council’s emergency planning and resilience manager.

“David came in two or three years ago and we hit it off straight away,” says Jones. “When he saw the van he fell in love with it, and said: ‘I want it, I want it’. I told him: ‘You can share it for now’.”

As he describes the practical benefits of the Bob-mobile, it becomes clear that Cloake feels professional appreciation of its functionality rather than misty-eyed affection.

“It works as a base for operations,” he says. “It contains signage and communications equipment, and it’s a good visual presence showing the council is responding. Southwark is the only council in London that has one of these. Whenever our counterparts in other councils see it, they want one.”

Last year, Cloake won approval for £3,000 to buy a trailer to attach to the back of the van, containing bedding for people evacuated from their homes.

But the Bob-mobile’s days are numbered.

Cloake explains that he will be looking to replace the vehicle in 18 months time. “We’ll upgrade and this van will probably be taken out of service,” he says. “We’ll be looking to enhance communications by connecting to the ICT infrastructure. That way, we’ll be able to file and send reports and briefs more easily.”

How does Jones feel about the prospect of the Bob-mobile being taken out of action? His answer is philosophical: “Don’t forget, this has been running for eight years; it needs a re-think. Of course, I’ll be sad to see it go. It’s my little brain child.”

About the van

Model: Iveco Daily 35-8 Classic
Reg: R (1997)
History: Clocked up 9,000 miles in 18 months as a library vehicle before it became the emergency control vehicle, aka the
Bob-mobile. Now has 13,200km on the clock
Used: 20 times a year in emergencies plus numerous multi-agency training days
Cost: £11,000 to buy in 1998, £10,000 to fit out; trailer bought in 2005 for £3,000

  • 240v generator
  • Resuscitation blankets
  • Emergency lighting
  • Basic personal protective equipment
  • Signage
  • Radios and mobile phones
  • Maps
  • PA systems
  • First aid kit
  • Ladder
  • Kettle, tea and coffee
  • Toolkit
  • White board

Trailer: Contains about £9,000 worth of equipment including: 60 sleeping bags, basic kitchen materials and blow-up mattresses

A van for all reasons