Taking command: The best new comms vehicles on display

Displays, demos and diversity the themes of 4th Annual California Mobile Command Center Rally

On a day that would reach the high 90s, a skyscape of towering antennas and CCTV masts gleamed over the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, Calif.

More than 30 command vehicles, of all sizes and configurations from more than two dozen agencies, from the California Highway Patrol’s high-tech Chevy Tahoe command unit to Cal Fire’s brand-new 40-foot incident communications van, attended the 4th Annual California Mobile Command Center Rally on Thursday, May 31, making the 2012 event the largest yet.

The California Fire Chiefs Association, Communications Section, in partnership with the California Emergency Management Agency, had developed the rally in 2009.

Subsequent rallies were enhanced by training classes running throughout the day, such as the Disaster Management Initiative held concurrently with the 2011 MCC Rally in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University–Silicon Valley.

The mission of the 4th Annual MCC Rally remained the same as it was in 2009: Organize a gathering of diverse response and support resources to display and demonstrate capabilities, to inform and inspire personnel developing or upgrading existing resources of their own and allow diverse organizations to be aware of each other’s technological capabilities before meeting on the disaster scene.

Rick Zinnen/LDV
Two new MCCs from specialty vehicle manufacturer LDV were on hand at the Rally to demonstrate interoperability. The units are from the silicon valley communities of Palo Alto and Sunnyvale.

This year’s rally also hosted a guest presentation from emergency management instructor Hitoshi Igarashi from Japan, who shared lessons learned from emergency response, coordination and communications during and after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

A diverse gathering
This year’s rally in particular gathered together a variety of public safety agencies, supportive cooperating NGOs and military resources. It’s rare to see such a gathering of diverse agencies even in wide-scale disaster training exercises, and the occasion to understand the capabilities of cooperating organizations was one of the rally’s high points.

Vendors on hand included specialty vehicle manufacturer LDV (one of this year’s sponsors), In Motion Technology (which sponsored a cache of cold water, very beneficial in the Sacramento heat), Thales and Barrett Communications (which coordinated a multi-band interoperability demonstration between units), Chief Communications (whose large command trailer functioned as a classroom for Igarashi’s presentation), and Verizon Wireless.

Photo Randall D. Larson
Vendor displays, such as this booth shared by Thales and Barrett Communications, coordinated multi-band interoperability demonstrations between units.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) displayed two of its new command vans, demonstrating its ability to coordinate with public safety responders. CalEMA displayed several of its satellite communications trailers. The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials – International and the California Fire & Rescue Training Authority (on whose property the event was held) promoted continuing education with their booths.

A variety of assets from the California National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard made their first appearance at the rally, providing valuable demonstrations of what these military entities can bring to the command post in support of local responders. Elements from the National Guard’s 95th Civil Support Team were on hand; these self-contained/self-sufficient teams are operational 24/7 and can quickly assist first responders in assessing a suspected nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological event in support of the local incident commander.

Interoperable unified command
The amount and diversity of participating units was inspirational to many attendees, especially those who’ve assumed that the command post is only for high-level police and fire officers. Through the rally’s wide range of participating agencies, attendees were reminded of the relevant support organizations that can assist or share an operational unified command with government agency personnel.

Photo Randall D. Larson
Slide-outs were among the favorite features on many of the larger vans, such as this brand new California EMA command unit assigned to the Kern County area. Slide outs like these increase the interior workspace by as much as three feet.

True operational interoperability is more than simply connecting radios, it’s identifying and communicating with all entities that can support the mission of public safety during times of crisis.

“The trends that were most noticeable to me were the widespread use of mobile radio interoperability systems,” said John A. Peters of PG&E, “and the allowable sharing of information and equipment between governmental agencies and public utilities when addressing an incident. By strategically placing our six Mobile Command Centers in locations throughout the state and using an internal emergency dispatch system, we will be able to respond in a timely manner to any incidents that may arise.”

Given that California’s coastline is more than 1,000 miles long and has a number of large inlets such as San Francisco Bay, the inclusion of U.S. Coast Guard resources was educational even to those agencies that don’t frequently interact with it. As it turns out, the Coast Guard shared many of the same challenges faced by civilian responders.

“The MCC Rally was a great way for agencies to illustrate their capabilities to other MCCs throughout the state, as well as an opportunity to strengthen partnerships with local government, state, private, and military resources,” said David Warfel, Operations Specialist First Class with the Coast Guard Mobile Contingency Communications Team from Novato, Calif. “We need the local governments to see that we have a lot of good resources for them to take advantage of, and this rally helped in that regard.”

An ongoing theme of interoperability

Photo Randall D. Larson
Exterior components such as TV monitors, headset connections, laptop workstations, and a refreshment station are becoming as valuable as interior technology and workspace.

Being able to connect to neighboring agencies, let alone resources from distant areas or disciplines such as NGOs and the military, has remained an ongoing concern for emergency response management even before 9/11 brought the “I” word into the public and political consciousness.

Demonstrations of interoperability between MCCs from different agencies, using a variety of technologies, were once more a highlight of the rally.

“The solution that I have seen in the majority of the mobile communications vehicles at the rally was the use of radio bridging,” said Warfel. “The technology is there, but I believe that it is underutilized in the field, and events such as these provide a good training opportunity for developing those needed skill sets.”

“There seemed to be a lot of interest in radio interoperability systems” at the Rally, said Rick Zinnen, a senior sales specialist with LDV. “Palo Alto’s Mobile EOC has a SyTech RIOS interoperability system, and they spent hours demonstrating the system to departments over the course of the day.

Photo Randall D. Larson
Interoperability with military communications resources like this California National Guard Comm truck were especially of interest to local government responders.

In addition, Zinnen noted, “People touring the Sunnyvale command unit really liked the fact that the truck is designed for multiple uses. They have a dedicated dispatch area, a hostage negotiations area, a command area and an external galley with a work station. The external galley concept seemed to be a garnering a lot of attention because it minimizes the traffic going in and out of the vehicle.”

Remote monitoring
Another topic of conversation at the rally was the increasing use of video technology; nearly every MCC on display raised its CCTV mast to establish networked video displays of the scene.

An incident’s command staff need not be looking at the event to effectively manage it. Reliable communications from support staff augmented by the ability to pan, zoom and record video imagery from the command post keeps them aware of the ongoing situation as it develops. These images can be networked among different units to keep unified command personnel apprised of situational changes.

The large and the small of it
When most public safety people think of MCCs, they usually imagine the kind of large-scale, motor-home or truck-and-trailer units that have come to characterize the modern MCC, and there were certainly a number of big-bodied vehicles on display in Sacramento. But there were also a variety of vans and SUVs with much smaller configurations, yet significant capabilities.

“We are seeing smaller budgets and less grant funding available to our clients, therefore we are working hard to maximize value without sacrificing quality,” noted Zinnen. “We are also using more vehicles that have a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of less than 26,001 pounds, because this allows the end user to drive the vehicle without a special license.

“Many agencies do not want to deal with the expense and training that is required to get a Class B driver’s license. The long-term viability of a vehicle can be hindered if GVWR is an afterthought.”

Photo Randall D. Larson
State EMA resources such as this Mobile Interoperability Gateway Unit (MIGU) are assigned to local agencies, such as this one from San Mateo County, to support regional communications in the event of a disaster.

One rally attendee from a rural county was especially keen on looking into smaller units. Without a metropolitan center or larger population base, many counties don’t have the budgets nor needs to justify a large MCC. While long-term support resources are available through regional and state-wide mutual aid, more isolated counties in the mountains might expect to operate on their own for the first few days of an incident.

Smaller vans, SUV- and pickup-mounted command modules, or trailered units attracted just as much interest at the rally as the large vehicles with their pull-out sides.

Geared toward local needs
Most attendees who answered evaluation questionnaires felt the most useful things about attending the rally were being able to connect with multiple agencies in one location, learning about the latest technologies and configurations of the mobile units, and seeing how personnel would operate in them during an event.

Even agencies that already own an MCC got new ideas, such as the sound proofing in the roof and walls of the CalTrans command trailer; the exterior video monitors on a number of the larger units; interior furniture and layouts; and examples of portable repeaters, audio patching capabilities and other interoperability aids.

“It was fantastic to be able to meet and speak with so many agencies in one location,” remarked one telecommunications officer from Cal Fire. “That, coupled with actually being able to see their mobile response equipment, made it very easy to see what individual agencies can bring to the table during an actual event.”

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