Road Warriors

Whether responding to a fireworks display, university football game, local courthouse bomb threat or statewide missing child search, mobile command centers are confidently prepared for any type of combat.

From small agencies to the state patrol, officers nationwide are finding the different sizes of these road warriors can compliment an agency just as unique as the centers can be built.

Campus command
Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, is known for its academic excellence, as well as the fall season and highly anticipated Big Ten football games.

The nearly 38,000 student population, in addition to 15,000 faculty and staff members, is a small city in its own right. The university's emergency services division — police, fire and EMS — work collaboratively to ensure the safety of this very transient population.

In 2004, the university put into service a 2005 Cascade travel trailer, donated by Coachmen Recreational Vehicle Co. The trailer is 32 feet long and replaces a 1976 Travco RV self-contained unit which had seen its final days.

"We chose the trailer version in recognition we had plenty of vehicles in our fleet that could pull it," says Carol Shelby, senior director of environmental health and public safety at Purdue.

Shelby decided on a standard unit, customizing it to fit the university's needs. The bed came out and in went portable communications. "We tricked it out the way that would work with us," she says.

The new unit is estimated at $23,470, and includes, in addition to communication equipment, a restroom, kitchenette and seating area with conference table. It also provides ample storage space.

"It's not too big, but it's not too small," says Capt. John Cox, special services division, Purdue University Police Department. "It can get into most areas, yet is large enough to have six or eight people in it."

The hot summers and bitter cold, Midwest winters in Indiana are unpredictable. This unit has provided, in many cases, a place for emergency personnel to cool down or warm up.

The recent case of a missing student was the perfect opportunity to see the Purdue command center at work. "Because the search efforts were 3 or 4 hours long, we pulled it out for that," says Cox. "We set it up next to the Red Cross folks that came in. We used the command center as a collection area for volunteers, and if somebody was real cold, we could get them out of the weather."

A district-wide drill on January 27 of this year included the participation of nine counties. "We took our mobile command center there, not to act as a communications center, but a place for people to rest," says Shelby. "We had play victims lying on the ground and it was particularly cold. Our center is really more a gathering spot for information and a comfort station to take on scene."

Football fanatics
Typically 80+ police officers are busy at work during a Purdue Boilermakers home football game, which draws in excess of 60,000 fans to Ross-Ade Stadium. Those fans arrive in thousands of cars that can cause traffic nightmares.

"When you get that many people crammed into an area, it's sometimes difficult to get emergency vehicles to a specific area," says Cox.

Cox notes the command center, decorated with the police and fire departments' shields, is a very visual presence during community events. "It's identified on the outside as a command center and is a beacon if you need help," says Cox.

During a home game, the center acts as backup command. The stadium itself houses a communications center for game-day activities.

The mobile center acts as a staging area for the university ambulance, as well as a respite site for emergency personnel, which can total 270 medics, firefighters and police from surrounding counties, the state police and Purdue.

Maryland motor coach
In a city 12 miles from the nation's capital, the Rockville (Maryland) Police Department's needs are determined by its politically significant location. In addition to its more-than-fair-share of bomb threats and suspicious package calls, the area is home to many foreign diplomats and American government leaders.

Through a $98,000, 2004 COPS grant, the agency was able to put into service a 24-foot motor coach mobile communications center from Dodgen Industries Inc.

Choosing the 24-footer was a smart option for this department, as the state of Maryland does not require a special license to operate the vehicle. "Any officer could get the keys and go out and drive," says Lt. Bob Rappoport, homeland security and emergency preparedness director at the Rockville PD, who also stresses the benefit this offers in the event of an emergency. The agency has developed a training program for motor coach operation.

The Rockville PD patrols approximately 20 special events a year, and rolls this unit out for more than half. "It's in the eye of the public on a fairly regular basis," he says, "and a lot of people are saying 'Wow. We didn't know this existed.'"

For the Fourth of July, as well as the three-day Hometown Holidays Festival over Memorial Day weekend, an immense amount of police resources is required to not interrupt normal police duties, as well as provide presence at the event.

The Rockville PD itself boasts 52 sworn officers and 34 civilian employees. "By using the mobile communications center, we can staff it with an additional dispatcher and run all our special events on a separate channel."

At these events, most always representation from the fire/rescue service is stationed in the command center, as well as the city's public works, and parks and recreation staff. Seamless communications are possible when all major players are in the same room, at the same table, discussing operational strategies.

In addition to the run-of-the-mill major police response, the city's truck inspectors take the motor coach on the road for their inspections. "It's great for them because it has computers and printers," says Rappoport. "After they do an inspection, they print a copy of the report and give it to the driver."

Child fingerprinting is a large community draw, and the awning on the motor coach provides a perfect place to set up this public service. The department has moved to inkless fingerprinting, a computer technology which can be powered through the unit's generator.

The police honor guard has even taken advantage of the transportation and mobile changing room this vehicle provides during police funerals, saving fuel, and providing storage for flags and other items.

Looking ahead ... and behind...
"What they want to know up front before they give you the money is, 'How's this going to benefit the guys next door? Are you going to share? Do you have a mutual aid agreement?'" says Rappoport.

"They" is the government. Rockville is part of the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a directive of the Department of Homeland Security. The UASI provides "financial assistance to address the unique planning, equipment, training, and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density urban areas, and to assist them in building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, respond to and recover from threats or acts of terrorism."

This money, Rappoport says, is dispersed among many entities, such as public health, public works, fire, police, hospitals, etc., "so everyone's fighting for the same pot."

This lieutenant suggests agencies dedicate time to researching vendors as well as clearly deciphering the uses for which their command center will have. Speaking with agencies that have purchased the vehicle and asking for shortfalls, as well as successes, can be a valuable resource during the purchasing process.

An agency must have a strong mission in place when applying for grant funding. The first few years, during which major funding became available, guidelines were much looser, he explains. "People were getting a lot of money and there was no coordination of what our county was doing in relation to other agencies," says Rappoport.

The unit Rockville acquired fills a distinctive position in the Montgomery County area vehicle fleet. The county police own a substantial mobile command unit, equipped with WLAN and satellite technology, as well as digital recording capabilities. The fire department also deploys a large command truck for critical and lengthy emergencies.

"I think ours is a nice niche because we can roll it out on smaller situations, questionable incidents where others don't want to pull out all their resources, such as the large vehicles," says Rappoport.

State police = self-contained
When it's time, however, to roll out the big wheels, the state police are ready. As a support mechanism for every agency, whether city, another state organization or federal government, the Massachusetts State Police (MSP) are a resource not to be overlooked — neither is its mobile command center, delivered in late June 2004.

"Our command post is a very robust platform," says Sgt. Barry Domingos, part of the incident management team with the MSP, "but it works out very, very well in that function. Our job is just support; that's it."

The state police's 53-foot, $1.5 million, AK Specialty Vehicles, now known as Oshkosh Specialty Vehicles, trailer is outfitted with top-of-the-line communications capabilities, six individual communications modules, 100,000 watts of generator power, redundant power systems, 15 workstations with Internet and Intranet, a 65-square-foot equipment room, 20-foot light tower with surveillance capabilities, and conference table for 12 people, just to name a few.

This amount of power is a mobile command dream, but it's also a responsibility that must not be taken lightly. Domingos teaches incident command nationwide and can testify to the importance, as well as necessity, of monitoring the use of mobile command centers.

"Ninety-five percent of the time when we deal with incidents, they pretty much only require first responders and a supervisor," he says. "You don't need much more than that. In that 5 percent when you need to roll out the command post, you better be able to articulate a good reason for bringing it."

There are three things Domingos says a unit must be in order to work properly. First, it must be mobile. "We have to be able to get to a location," he says. "Nine times out of 10 we don't have a hardened location at whatever place we happen to be geographically."

Second, the unit must be self-contained. If response is required in a remote area, where cell signals are unavailable, telephone lines don't reach and power is non-existent, it's essential the unit is able to be used on its own accord. And third, it must be functional. There must be the necessary equipment and other resources on board to make the center an asset rather than hindrance.

The MSP takes extra care in ensuring the functionality of its command post. Only a small number of officers are qualified to drive it, and others are familiar with the setup of the center upon arrival. An additional two to three officers are charged with around-the-clock maintenance at a scene. In a department with 2,500 sworn officers, it's necessary to have just a few experts.

The same way a human asset must be justified, so must an equipment resource, especially one taxpayers have a say in. Maintaining the look, and more importantly, the functional capabilities, of a mobile command center are essential to the cost effectiveness of the unit.

Domingos recognizes that somebody at some point has paid the bill for this enormous asset. He stresses the respect of the unit is a reflection on the respect of the community an agency serves. "If we don't take care of it, not only have we wasted someone's money, but when we get on scene, we're ineffective," he says. The number of deployments, he explains, is irrelevant to the quality of them.

At the ballpark and on the road
Boston is known for its tea party of the late 1700s, the infamous "Cheers" bar, annual Boston Marathon and of course, Fenway Park's Red Sox tradition. When Bostonians come out to play, and all their friends too, the MSP is in full force making sure nothing spins out of control.

In April, more than 20,000 runners as well as millions of fans will take to the streets of Boston for the 111th annual marathon, the world's oldest.

The New England Patriots have been on a winning streak the last few years and the team's hometown of Boston has seen its fair share of Super Bowl parades.

During the Red Sox playoff series, the MSP rolled out the mobile command center to the middle of a street, adjacent to private homes. This was a time when the super-quiet generators were a bonus and a communications patch allowed the state police, on 800-MHz radios, and the Boston PD, on 400 MHz, to communicate seamlessly. This was an anticipated obstacle, so the patch was pre-planned and went off without a hitch.

The same can be done for any incident, in any town, says Domingos. A radio technician can program radios to operate with the local capabilities. "The advantage that gives us is we take the responsibility for the incident from the particular city's normal police responsibilities," he explains. "No matter how big the incident is, the city still needs a functioning police department."

When the party calls
The Democratic National Convention in July 2004 was the first test for the MSP command center, and it showed the department just what this unit was capable of. It was deployed for a little more than two weeks in the same location, hooked to land power, and the base station for all police operations.

Three thousand officers from the Boston PD, MSP, in addition to law enforcement from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island, were dispatched from the mobile center. The shift was changed from ABC, to AB 12-hour runs, making for easier scheduling in mass quantity.

The out-of-state officers replaced the MSP guys taken off patrol to be stationed in Boston for the duration of the convention. "Rather than get someone from Vermont used to the city of Boston, we put them on the highways," says Domingos.

Forty miles of roadway into Boston was shut down for at least 8 hours a day, while the eastern end of the Charles River was closed to boat traffic. The post 9/11 security efforts in then-candidate John Kerry's hometown were considerable.

In addition to man power coordination, equipment and deployment operations were all running from the command post. Helicopters were feeding real-time video records into the center, and cameras set up around the city, including the state house, were being monitored constantly. Security was tight.

"I really got an idea of what that command post was able to perform," says Domingos. "Everything after that has just been making an adjustment."

Each response is unique. Regardless of its nature, mobile command centers can provide a warrior capability to fit.

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