Riding Into the Hot Zone

“Every firefighter, police and EMS first responder knows that when you ride into a hot zone where an emergency incident is under way every millisecond counts,” mused Charles Blaich. “That means that any lag time in communication, any gaps, however momentary, in getting the right information or the right resources to and from the right places is deadly. Conventional communications, and command and control as usual, won’t cut it.”
It’s an observation born of experience and knowledge, and Blaich, director of emergency preparedness for the Homeland Security division of Raytheon Co., based in Waltham, Mass., knows whereof he speaks. For over 30 years, he served in the New York City Fire Department. Holding the title deputy chief on Sept. 11, 2001, he hauled himself out of bed, where he was recovering from surgery, scraped together a helmet and uniform from old relics around his house, forced a Staten Island ferry captain to dock at the World Trade Center site and, when he arrived, learned that he was the ranking firefighter on the scene—the rest of the command was killed or missing.
Emergency response professionals have long realized the truth of Blaich’s statement.
“There are many situations where no matter how sophisticated and competent your support network back at ‘headquarters,’ you’re on your own in the field—just your team and your vehicle,” observed Richard Reincke, president and chief operating officer of Aegis Assessments, Scottsdale, Ariz., a disaster recovery consultant and solutions provider.
“The doomsday scenario, of course, is the terrorist attack or natural catastrophe that literally wipes out your command and control, but in fact there are all sorts of less apocalyptic situations where putting more capability and self-sufficiency in the field is crucial—when a team is responding to natural disasters and has to coordinate events on location, at major crime scenes where personnel need to be deployed remotely for extended periods, and critical incidents such as hostage takings where a high level of field control is necessary,” he said.
Until recently, however, the promise of mobile command and control has been slow to be realized in the civilian realm, and one reason has been the lack of effective “on-board” communications.
The command function
“I can remember all too well the incredible chaos that had to be navigated to respond to a major incident once first responders made it to a scene,” Blaich recalled in an interview with HSToday. “To get helicopter support, for instance, the fire chief, once assessing the scene, used to have to call in to a central police dispatcher, who in turn called emergency dispatch, who then had to call in a helicopter unit. That’s four steps, too much duplication of effort and waste of precious time.” 
Another reason is that, unlike the military world—where sleek, easy-to-deploy vehicles with on-board communications, surveillance, environmental sensoring and testing capabilities have been available for years—civilian emergency vehicles have been notoriously cumbersome to use.
“If you’re thinking about the kinds of vehicles that used to serve in many cities as mobile command centers, let’s just say they weren’t very user-friendly,” noted Reincke. “We’re not talking about the Batmobile.”
Indeed, if the goal of the emergency vehicle is to act as a sort of swift and nimble ninja-warrior on wheels, those sitting in the lots of many a fire and police department across the land tend to be more like sumo wrestlers when it comes to flexibility.
A case in point is the Las Vegas Fire and Rescue Department, which for years used a 1983 vintage trailer home as a command unit, a true period piece. “The trailer was comfortable enough to hang out in,” Assistant Deputy Chief Greg Gammon remembered, “but unless you had a really big incident, it was not something that could be deployed very readily. So mostly it just sat unused.”
This experience was for many years the rule rather than the exception across the country. As Blaich recalled, “Modernizing emergency vehicle/mobile command centers was on people’s wish lists, but not a matter of urgency.  But 9/11 completely changed that. First responders saw what can happen when command centers literally come down, and nothing is left to replace them. Not all disasters are going to be 9/11 or a nuclear holocaust, but the need to develop back-up mobile dispatch capability, interoperable communications and enhanced incident response were permanently dramatized that day.”
“The observation that everybody’s had in major, critical incidents is a need for more advanced communication command vehicles,” offered Larry LaGuardia, director of technology for Burlington, Wis.-based truck manufacturer LDV, Inc. “There’s interest certainly in upgrading the quality of chassis and bodies in this industry, but the important issue is what can the vehicle do in a critical incident? I think that the fire service, certainly, and police and EMS, as well, have gotten a much broader view of what a mobile command center is.”
The next generation
Into that breach has charged a new generation of emergency response solutions. All these systems seek to provide seamless communications between emergency headquarters and field units and penetrate as deeply into hot zones as possible, furnishing on-scene incident support to both responder teams and victims.
“There are all of a sudden a lot of products out there, and for the first time money is available from government to pay for them. Which leads to a whole lot of salesmanship,” observed Ed Ohlert, president of the Continuity Assurances Group at Virginia-based security technology firm L-3/Titan.  “But we tell all our clients that products and technology are not what lead the way. They are only as good as the mission analysis that first response organizations have. There are a lot of platforms and options out there. The key is to adapt them to specific needs first responders are likely to face. Many locales can just adapt SUVs [sport utility vehicles] already in use and install off-the-shelf communications hardware and software. For other areas where command vehicles need to be ready to respond to WMD events, vehicles will need to be custom-built.”
The Emergency Vehicle Mobile Command Center that emerges from these needs and requirements consists of a panoply of high-tech options. Some of the most common are cameras for both day and night, satellite telephones in the event cell lines or land lines are disrupted and Internet live-feed capability. Microwave video reception and transmission allow live video feeds to remote locations, and many manufacturers now offer wireless computer networks within the mobile command center.
Increasingly popular are video overlays that allow interaction with the computer network and electronic boards. Global positioning satellite systems are now also coming already programmed with maps and other data preloaded, eliminating the need for separate memory cards. Other advances include high-brightness flat screens for exterior monitors and modulated video systems that allow video-first selection with a standard control port.
As recently as three years ago, customers had to build all or most of these systems from scratch, making prices prohibitive for most local and many state agencies. That’s no longer the case.
Clearing the confusion
The range of innovation in emergency command vehicles makes for a brave but confusing new world for the uninitiated. 
The most basic strategy, and one suitable to many locales, is to outfit existing vehicles, SUVs, cruisers or other autos with mobile communications systems capable of assuring interoperability among first responder agencies in a city or region using off-the-shelf hardware and software. Another alternative is to custom build vehicles from scratch.
Whichever path an organization takes, it is likely to gain new capabilities.
“Vehicles are simply much more sophisticated than people were talking about five years ago,” La Guardia said. “They have better radios, better recording and video systems, more interoperability. The current generation is a big step forward in that it’s designed to penetrate communications inside high-rise buildings and other enclosed spaces where we didn’t have access before. The next challenge is to have systems readily in use that enable individual tracking of each firefighter at a scene in real time even inside enclosed space.”
The prices for setting up a mobile command can range from a low end of  $10,000 to $20,000 for adapting off-the-shelf radio communications to well over a million dollars for a large, customized unit.
Though mobile commands represent a sizeable investment for most first responder organizations, grant money for them is increasingly available, particularly through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
One promising development related to the new impetus for funding mobile command, according to LaGuardia, is that regional jurisdictions are now coordinating and focusing their resources to purchase compatible systems.
“For a long time, police, fire and EMS did their own thing as far as choosing vehicles and whatever on-board systems they had,” he noted. “Now, excitingly, states and locales are finally getting the important insight that uniformity and standardization of vehicles and systems across organizations is a crucial way of establishing cohesive response. I’m seeing a number of programs at federal, state and local levels where agencies are creating unified commands. States are putting together programs where identical vehicles are situated throughout the state, so they can call any number of vehicles as required, and when all the different agencies—EMS, police and fire departments—show up, they can easily work together. One vehicle can cover area security; another can cover technical support, another command and another communications. Trained staff from allover the state can operate in a vehicle designated by application. I see more of that in terms of a cohesive response.”
He continued: “Challenges still exist. One of the big current problems is that the timing of funding and the manufacturing and inventory cycles we’re working with aren’t in sync. Given the demand out there for next-generation vehicles, there’s often a waiting list for the right inventory. Yet funding windows are still set up to close very quickly, with any unspent monies lost if not spent within the allotted six months or one year.”
Another big problem is lack of standards. “A big gap in the current environment is that, with all the technologies floating around, there really are no agreed-upon standards for accrediting products,” observed Ohlert. “DHS could really help clarify things here by certifying approval of products through testing.” Finally there’s what Ohlert calls the “glitz syndrome.”
“If the debacle of Katrina taught us anything,” he says. “It ought to be that we need to stick to the basics. No matter how many bells and whistles you’ve got at the end of the day the point, the only point of emergency vehicles is to get responders on scene and have them work more effectively together. Everything else is beside the point.”
The high-tech “gee-whiz” factor that plays a part in the development of emergency command vehicles is quintessentially American—and it especially applies when it comes to any wheeled vehicles. For those of us who grew up on images of good heroes battling bad guys in ultra-cool cars—be they the Batmobile or James Bond’s all-purpose Aston Martin—it’s hard not to fixate a bit on the gadgets.
The real challenge, though, and to a great extent the accomplishment of the current generation of manufacturers and designers, has been to integrate all the gee-whiz high-tech into a utilitarian frame, offering a wide variety of options, price points, forms and functionality suited to the complex tasks of first response.
It’s an impressive achievement and an important one. HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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