Communications and Command Vehicles: Dispatch Centers on Wheels

Barry Furey discusses how a properly designed communications vehicle provides a platform to interface the decision makers with decision-making technology, and is becoming a more frequent addition to fire departments throughout the United States.


When it comes to “must-have” apparatus, no piece surpasses the pumper. Engine companies are the backbone of any fire department, and as long as water or water-based agents remain our primary means of extinguishment, they always will be. Beginning with these basic building blocks, a...


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When it comes to “must-have” apparatus, no piece surpasses the pumper. Engine companies are the backbone of any fire department, and as long as water or water-based agents remain our primary means of extinguishment, they always will be.

Beginning with these basic building blocks, a community’s requirements are driven by size, location and specialized hazards. Rural departments need a reliable source of water, which will mandate one or more tankers. Cities with multi-story structures must include ladder trucks to deal with the increased demands placed upon rescue and ventilation. Additional units such as hazardous materials vans and trench rescue trailers are found where these needs arise.

But perhaps the newest and most diverse apparatus being added to modern fleets is the communications and command vehicle. Ranging in size from SUV to commercial bus, these units are designed to handle a variety of needs. At their most basic, they provide a platform from which an incident commander can easily access pre-fire plans and other critical documents. At their most advanced, they are self-contained outposts that can place the resources of a conventional dispatch center on the fireground for protracted periods.

While in the past, many of these units were produced in local fire department shops, there is now an ever-growing market in custom manufactured design. Although converted motor homes and delivery vans continue to provide a base from which to operate, an increasing number of these vehicles are designed from the ground up on specialized chassis. Whether it is the renewed emphasis on communications created by 9/11, or the growing complexity of emergency operations that is serving as a catalyst, more and more fire-rescue departments are including communications and command vehicles in their inventories.

Designing a communications unit is much like designing any other apparatus. The first step is to determine your expectations. If, indeed, these expectations are limited to providing decision-making support, then your needs may be met by a commercial SUV outfitted with a few radios and a slide-in rack offered by a number of manufacturers. However, if your requirements are for a more fully featured apparatus, then National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1901 will be a valuable reference. Although you will not be concerned with the firefighting equipment references in this standard, the basics still apply. You will also need to carefully define your capacity requirements – although these requirements will now deal with the capacity to communicate rather than the ability to reach certain heights or carry and move water.

To whom you wish to speak and how you wish to speak to them is a critical definition. As radios are the primary means of fireground communications, an ample supply must be installed. If the sole purpose is to talk only to units of a single fire department, then this step is fairly straightforward. However, if communications is required with other fire departments, law enforcement agencies, EMS and public works, then additional radios will be required. If all players share an 800 MHz trunked system, then providing positions capable of accessing the appropriate talk groups will fit the bill. However, if each uses a different set of frequencies in different bands, then at least one radio capable of operation in that band must be supplied. Additional special devices will be required to patch these diverse channels together if interoperability is expected. With increased focus being placed on interoperability, a number of recently delivered units contain the technology required to interface a wide variety of users.

Electronic equipment such as radios will require mounting space, and this can be divided between the operating positions and racks designed specially for this purpose. Many options are available here, including slide-out racks that provide easier interior access and outside doors that let technicians work on equipment from the vehicle’s exterior.

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