Picture 10“Building a Better Rolling Information Center”

From February, 2009 Edition of Homeland Security Today

Lt. Josh Clot of the Homestead Police Department in Homestead,FLA., knows what its like to be on the receiving end of Emergency Response and to find it wanting. Sixteen years ago, after Hurricane Andrew wracked Southern Florida, scores of emergency units from throughout the state converged on his hometown, which had been decimated by the storm.

“We learned in a personal way just why a fully equipped operation ready emergency vehicle is critical,” Clot told HSToday. “During and after the storm, rescue and response crews from throughout the state and region converged on us. The problem was that once they got to us they were expecting us to provide them with communications infrastructure, with supplies and with logistics support. The problem, of course, was we didn’t have any of those things. From then on we vowed that when we were on the helping end of a crisis we’d be fully response ready. Our formula is: ‘If you don’t bring it, you won’t have it in an emergency.’”

Over the past few years, Clot said, the kind of emergency units that he wished had existed during Hurricane Andrew—vehicles that not only transport teams to the scene of a crisis but actually provide critical communications infrastructure when normal operating systems are down—have finally begun to become available to response agencies.  “The emergency vehicle has finally changed itself into a rolling information center,” he said.

Tremendous strides
A central achievement of these next-generation “rolling information centers,” according to Bob Bohne, director of technical operations for Verizon Business, Basking Ridge, NJ, is to make mobile command communications as fully functional as traditional emergency command centers in office buildings.

“Back in the ’90s and even for the first years after 9/11, emergency vehicles made tremendous strides forward on what might be called the ‘hardware’ side,” Bohne recalled,“meaning the speed, the power and the flexibility of the vehicles themselves.  “The challenge and innovation now is more about the software side,” Bohne added. “We’ve become dependent on restoring resiliency to areas facing disruption of communications processes. The line of innovation for us has been to create a truly resilient and flexibly scaleable communications platformthat can be easily set up on the fly.  If a disaster knocks down all lines and cell towers in an area, we can re-create a temporary fully functional infrastructure.”

In November 2008, Verizon demonstrated its next-generation mobile command at the “Great ShakeOut Drill,” a full-scale scenario in California that simulated a catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake occurring along the southern portion of the San Andreas Fault.  The exercise included over 4 million citizens.

Verizon deployed a 53-foot, self-contained, self-sufficient mobile communications command center to provide business continuity services for Riverside County.  During the exercise, the entire Riverside County Emergency Operations Center relocated to the mobile command center.  Twenty Riverside County employees connected their laptops to the command center’s Ethernet ports to access the Internet and conduct emergency response activities.  The mobile command center was outfitted with standard communications features such as wired and wireless voice over Internet protocol phones and wired and wireless Ethernet access, as well as fax service.

Next steps
The next communications frontier, according to Christopher Boyd, communications architect at PEAKE, LLC, Stevensville, Md., a communications system integrator that works with many leading emergency vehicle manufacturers, is to make emergency mobile command vehicles tools for effective interagency incident response.

“What Katrina made us in the mobile command, emergency vehicle space realize,” Boyd recalled, “was that the true test of an emergency unit was whether it provided operability in a crisis environment where normal infrastructures can’t be relied upon.”

“I remember one of the first mobile command projects I worked on and discussed wireless communications with the client,” said Boyd. “I was told they would just wait for the phone company to run lines to the vehicle. Today, our clients want real time situation reports while going down the road at 80 miles per hour, and we can do it.”

The challenge beyond integrating a greater capacity for communications self-sufficiency, added Boyd, is to build a detailed concept of operations into a vehicle.

“In the military, it’s long been understood that technology is a force multiplier,” he said. “Operations have become increasingly networked in the military. Recent developments have made that same goal an imperative for civilian first responders, as well, and the epicenter of that strategic shift is the mobile command unit.”

The progress that’s been made toward approximating that goal, according to Boyd, could be seen in the coordinated mobile response to hurricanes Ike and Gustav.

“You saw much tighter coordination between fire, police, emergency management, the National Guard and the Army’s US Northern Command (Northcom),” Boyd said. “For both the Texas and Louisiana storms, you had literally hundreds of mobile units dispatched before the incident, dispersed throughout the disaster region, all working with the same operations plan, all with a common operation picture.”

“During Katrina, mobile units deployed by the Army were simply not working with a common picture with state and local emergency workers,” he added. “If you study how mobile command units were deployed in a coordinated fashion in the lead up to Gustav, you see a world of difference”

Throughout that storm and its aftermath, a fleet of 33-foot trucks with 2.6-meter (7-foot) satellite dishes provided the Army North Operational Command Post with two megabytes of connectivity per second through a commercial satellite connection.  The system supported connectivity for users connected to the Department of Defense’s unclassified network and a select layer of users connected to the Defense classified network supporting voice and data connections and video teleconferencing.

Even as the winds from Gustav picked up, users still were able to communicate and access the Defense unclassified network at a speed of about 200 kilobits per second over a high-speed cellular network.

“At the height of the storm,” Boyd said, “responders throughout the state were connected to and using NIMS [the National Incident Management System] Incident command structure.  Three years ago that would have been completely unthinkable.”

Getting the myriad of first response agencies to act in concert in high stress emergency situations remains an ongoing challenge.  In addressing that challenge, there has been progress both in providing both a common “playbook” (NIMS) and common communications standards for public safety interoperability.

As necessary as these new platforms are, a big gap has persisted in making these standards fully actionable, not only in a fixed emergency operations center environment but also in real time in the field. The newest generation of mobile command units is enabling response teams to overcome that gap for the first time.


Reprinted with Permission

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