Communications and Command Vehicles: Dispatch Centers on Wheels

April 1, 2005
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 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.

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.

Slide-out rooms formerly found only in high-end motor homes now provide a means of expanding floor space for meetings and operations. Storing flush with the body sides for travel, they can add three feet or more to the width of the vehicle while in use. Leveling devices are also commonplace requirements in order to provide a stable working platform.

The list of interior options far exceeds the choices available in the design of any other form of apparatus, as it combines a list of furnishings, electronics and presentation devices. Solid countertops, common in custom kitchens, are now utilized to provide work surfaces for dispatchers. While adding weight, they eliminate the issue of chipping and peeling associated with older laminates. Walls and even cabinet surfaces can be given a gloss-white finish, in effect making the entire dispatch and meeting areas a giant white board. Exterior public address systems, along with flat-screen LCD and plasma TVs are but a few of the available features.

However, when it comes to exterior compartments, warning lights, and cab and chassis combinations, departments will once again find themselves back on comfortable grounds. Roll-up doors, interior illumination, sweep-out floors and adjustable compartment shelves are all familiar parts of any apparatus specification. Because they are typically long and tall, communications and command vehicles can benefit from warning signal applications similar to those used for walk in rescues. And, when it comes to the choice of custom versus commercial cabs and chassis, the same arguments still apply. The choice clearly becomes one of local preferences and available funds.

As the face of incidents to which the fire service responds constantly changes, our ability to support command and control must also progress. An adequate and coordinated response is critical to manage any incident. 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.

Barry Furey, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is executive director of the Knox County, TN, Emergency Communications District. He is an ex-chief of the Valley Cottage, NY, Fire Department, ex-deputy chief of the Harvest, AL, Volunteer Fire Department and a former training officer for the Savoy, IL, Fire Department. Furey is past president of the Tennessee chapter of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and former chair of the APCO Homeland Security Task Force. He also was conference chair for the 2002 APCO International Conference in Nashville.

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