DC’s Command Unit Achieves Interoperational Capability

Aug. 1, 2004
Elizabeth Friszell reports on The Mobile Command and Communications Vehicle placed in service by District of Columbia Fire & Rescue and conducts a Q&A with apparatus executive Jim Parker.
Photos courtesy of John Lewis Operations Chief Jim Martin, above, and Sergeant Edwin Lehan, below in foreground, work together at one of four basic workstations in the vehicle. Each workstation is equipped with a laptop and hard drive for downloading.

In a post-9/11 world, one of the best components in incident command is achieving interoperability with surrounding agencies and jurisdictions. The Washington, DC, Fire Department has taken a leap toward accomplishing that feat by adopting a new command unit to coordinate all the main activities that occur during a major incident. The Mobile Command and Communications Vehicle, available from Pierce Manufacturing, has been delivered as a tool in the next step of preparedness for first responders and command personnel.

“At a large incident, we can merge all of our radios with the radios from the surrounding agencies. It coordinates efforts with police, hazmat, the Emergency Management agency, Department of Public Works, Department of Health, American Red Cross…we can all be on the same page,” says John Thumann, division commander and deputy chief.

Departmental needs have changed dramatically since Sept. 11, 2001. Operations Chief Jim Martin reports that back then, they would use a liaison, a runner, who would literally run around to the various departments relaying information. “During the attack on the Pentagon, we realized that we couldn’t depend on cell phones and, although we did use a runner, the agencies were branched out all over the place. I stayed with the incident commander at Arlington. He would give information to me and I would coordinate. Today, we could just get in the unit and coordinate with every jurisdiction on the city, county, state and federal levels.”

Simultaneous Knowledge

The multi-purpose vehicle is used as a combination for both fire and EMS calls and coordinates on any call where the operational commander responds. Once the chief arrives, a unified command is set up. The front of the unit is set up as operational command, with Thumann functioning up there, while the back part is unified command, where Martin synchronizes with the other entities. There are four basic workstations at a normal working fire, with the capabilities expanding to nine during a major incident. Each station is equipped with a laptop and a hard drive for downloading.

Basic radio operations at each workstation allow everyone to be on the same frequency and know the same information at the same time. That, Martin says, is a tremendous asset if DC has to evacuate an area. They are currently working hard to get MPD’s helicopter into their vision.

Photo courtesy of John Lewis The Mobile Command and Communications Vehicle for the District of Columbia Fire/EMS.

“Obtaining visuals from CNN and other television helicopter feeds is an asset as well. Frankly, they have the budgets to allow them those resources and if we can see what they see, it will benefit the incident,” Thumann says. Martin agrees. “During the Pentagon attack, I had an entire view but Chief Thumann did not. If we had fly-over capabilities, I could get that information to him right away. Now we can.”

The Ikegami ICD 870 camera attached to the mast of the command unit scans a 360-degree area for observation. In a WMD incident, they may not know what chemicals have been released outside. The camera allows them to perform a signs and symptoms survey. Another function of the camera is that it has an instantaneous playback recorder so that they can record what’s happening on the screen. They can also print it out.

“There are times that we need to replay something. ‘Did that guy call for help?’ We can play it back and say, ‘Yes, whoever from Engine 1 is on the second floor and he needs help.’ It’s an effective tool,” says Thumann.

“It also has a repeater built in, so we can use the command unit voice recorder system (VRS) if a tower is knocked out. It acts independently enough that we’d be able to have communications in the event that the primary center is disabled,” Martin says.

Photo courtesy of John Lewis The video capabilities at each workstation allow for playback from the instantaneous playback recorder.

The in-depth weather station – displaying details such as the direction of the wind, temperature, a plume – has a monitor, so if they pick something up with the telescopic lens, they can see where it would be headed. “The value of that is if we’re going to an incident with mutual air, we could assemble their company officers outside of the vehicle immediately and tell them that we need to start suppression activities. They then know what we need and we can deploy them to where we want them. And we can plug their radio system into ours.”

The Washington, DC, Fire Department took delivery of the vehicle six weeks before putting it into use. That allowed workers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with it as well as inspect it. They practiced and trained on it and send it back to Pierce to fix and add new features that would facilitate easier operation, though security concerns obviously prevent any further details.

“We know we’ll have to add more to it down the road, but for right now it’s what we want and what we need to get through any large-scale incident,” Martin says. “Maybe we’ll add more units, who knows? But it’s very efficient and accomplishes our goal for a unified command.”

Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Unveils Mobile Emergency Command Center

Public Information Officer, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue

Timothy R. Szymanski

Las Vegas Fire & Rescue recently exhibited its new mobile Emergency Command Center, which provides the department with a mobile mini-headquarters for large-scale disasters and emergencies.

Pierce Manufacturing built the chassis of the million-dollar unit and its partner Lynch Diversified Vehicles (LDV) built the interior of the unit. The interior is divided into three areas: public information, communications, and command and control. The public information area is a small office where information can be gathered and disseminated at an incident scene. It has a number of communications devices, video equipment, weather instruments, and numerous TVs and radios. The communications area has room for three dispatchers to communicate with numerous agencies and personnel. It also has a special radio unit built in that can patch communications between multiple agencies working at the same incident, but using different radio systems. It also has various telephone systems, including hardwire, cellular and satellite. The command and control area consists of a small conference room in which commanders can plan and discuss incident details.

The unit also has a small galley (kitchen area) and restroom so personnel can stay at an incident for an extended amount of time. The unit has two large-capacity diesel generators on board that can produce all the electricity it needs, including portable lights.


  • Overall length of the unit: 39 feet
  • Overall width of the unit: 8 feet
  • Overall height of the unit: 12 feet, 9 inches
  • Wheelbase of chassis: 260.5 inches
  • Complete heating/air conditioning system (3 units)
  • 120-/240-volt system/2 Commercial quiet 12-kilowatt built on board generators
  • Complete VHF/UHF/800MHz radio systems/Hardwire-Cell-Satellite phone system
  • Direct Satellite TV / Cable & Normal VHF/UHF TV Receive / AM-FM-Satellite Radio Receiver

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