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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Of course, all the radios are going to need antennas, and these will have to be mounted. Rather than drilling individual holes through the roof for each antenna, many manufacturers provide rooftop channels and raceways that route the cable through the body and central locations. Telescoping towers are another common feature that enable the elevation of selected antennas. These are useful where an on-scene radio network is being supported or where line-of-sight is necessary to tie in to fixed communications points. Masts also offer a platform for cameras and lighting, or any other accessory that benefits from being raised above the vehicle.

In addition to radios, telephones play a significant role in incident command. To this end, one popular option is to equip the unit with an intelligent telephone switch that will automatically seek dial tone from conventional, cellular and satellite sources when placing calls. With satellite comes high-speed Internet access to online resources and government databases. This can be further extended through the addition of a “wireless hotspot” to support laptop and handheld devices. In this manner, on-scene public safety personnel are afforded their own “Internet cafe.”

With the purchase of sufficient bandwidth, real-time video can be broadcast from the scene back to the emergency operations center, giving key decision makers a clear picture of unfolding events. While units such as the Chicago Fire Department’s command van at O’Hare International Airport have utilized video technology for more than a decade, recent improvements allow for a much clearer and quicker transmission. Also on the horizon is the opportunity created by the recently opened 700 MHz and 4.9 GHz bands, which offer potential for even greater data handling capacity.

Much of the same technology found in the dispatch center can now be found in the field, with a few additions. It is not uncommon to find scaled-down or full-blown versions of computer aided dispatch systems, aerial photography, paging terminals along with hazmat software and weather stations that can predict plume and spill propagation based upon current on-scene conditions.

All of these electronic devices require some form of power, and this is supplied by a series of 12-volt batteries along with one or more AC generators. Many departments specify maintenance-free cells and sophisticated conditioning systems to assure a full charge and long life. The current trend seems to favor diesel generators supplied from the main apparatus fuel tank, but power take-off devices also have their place. Advances in generator and muffler design have resulted in significantly reduced noise-levels. Current purchasers suggest the need to pipe the exhaust vertically to the top of the vehicle to even further dampen the sound and provide easy access for fluid changes and routine maintenance.

Extra capacity is beneficial not only when it comes to pumps, but applies to generators and the ability to add new devices, as well. According to Deputy Chief Chris Suter of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District in the East Bay area of California, departments contemplating the purchase of a new communications and command vehicle should keep this in mind. Having recently put such an apparatus in service, he cited the need to allow for the addition of radios and devices not specified or even contemplated in the initial bid. His recommendation, based on experience, is to allow sufficient space for growth, especially for the wires and cables typically needed to support these add-ons.

Because these vehicles are usually assigned to major incidents, creature comfort and usability come to the forefront. They must be designed to accommodate the activities of many people for several days. To this end, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) plays a large role in warmer climates, while electric heat or diesel-fueled furnaces are popular where conditions required. HVAC can run the gamut from very basic temperature control to HEPA filtration and positive pressure for hazardous environments.

Galleys and lavatories are also often specified, with features and functions from the recreational vehicle sector now playing a part. Among the more commonly found items are AC/DC refrigerators and toilets that incinerate waste. The latter eliminates the unpopular task of emptying holding tanks while doing away with the need to heat the plumbing during storage or cold weather operations.