Mobile Communications Centers are Designed for Today & Tomorrow

Image: Randall Larson

Mobile communications centers have and continue to evolve with technology and MCC design innovations.

The prevalence of mobile command centers or mobile communications centers in public safety agencies in the aftermath of September 11th was prompted largely by the availability of Department of Homeland Security grants and other funding opportunities. These resources were aimed at increasing the incident management capability of local and regional public safety resources in a post-9/11 world.

As the founder and one of the managers of the California Mobile Command Center Expo since 2009, I’ve explored mobile communications centers inside and out, and have operated within them during real and simulated incidents. The technologies inside these vehicles has changed over the previous 10 years, and there is more coming for these “EOCs on wheels” in the next decade ahead as innovation continues and provides greater degrees of situational awareness. In this article we’ll address changes I’ve followed in several California-based mobile command vehicles.

It’s important to keep up with the state of the art in mobile incident command, but remain mindful of what’s needed. “Having a reasonable budget to maintain what you have and explore what you might like to have are the important elements of a successful mobile command unit program,” advised Palo Alto Director of Emergency Services Kenneth Dueker.

Sizing & Set Up: Significant Developments in MCC Design
Slide-out rooms expand these mobile communications centers by several feet.

Probably the most significant MCC modification we’ve seen in more than 10 years are slide-out rooms. Just as with recreational vehicles (RVs), slide-out rooms increase interior work space by up to a dozen feet side to side, which can permit more staff to operate more comfortably in traditionally cramped incident command vehicles. Depending on the size of the MCC, the configuration is either two or four slide-outs. “If you design a unit with double slide-outs, one on each side, you’re gaining an additional four feet,” said Rick Zinnen, senior sales specialist for Wisconsin-based specialty vehicle manufacturer LDV. “Most MCCs we build now have a 102-inch-wide body, which is the widest you can legally have driving down the road. That gives you about 99 inches of interior space and then you’re adding another two feet [per slide-out] so you’ll get approximately 12 feet of additional interior space when you open the slides, going across.”

Since most modern MCCs are loaded with technology to run radios, communications interoperability interfaces, antenna masts, CCTV cameras, video monitors and all manner of switchable and moving parts, understanding how to set a unit up when it arrives on scene can be daunting.

A significant change in recent years is vehicle automation through multiplexing,” said Zinnen. “Push an ‘auto start-up’ button on a touch screen monitor and the system literally starts setting the truck up for you automatically — aligning leveling stabilizers, raising antennas, extending the slide-out rooms, deploying awnings, etc. Literally anyone can go in there and have the command center ready to go within five minutes of arrival.”

Manny Perez, western regional manager for Florida-based Emergency Vehicles, Inc. (EVI) has seen a trend in recent years in which sales for medium-sized MCCs has dropped off significantly. “They’re either going small or they’re going big,” he said. “An agency might want to stay small with a SWAT command or hostage negotiation unit, or else they’ll go gigantic. There’s no in between. We’re in production now on a unit for the city of Inglewood which is huge. It has conference rooms and four slide-outs and outdoor meeting areas, but with their city’s new football stadium, they needed something big serve as a command post out there.”

Scaling Based on Funding & Ongoing Support

Inglewood Police Department in Los Angeles County is replacing an older MCC purchased in 2002. This follows a previous purchase of a new SWAT Command Vehicle, also from EVI.

Courtesy EVI

“We were fortunate enough with moneys coming into the city from the development and construction of the stadium, so along with our own asset forfeiture funds we were able to purchase a 40’ state of the art command vehicle that we can grow into as technology advances,” said SWAT Commander Lt. Jim Kirk, adding, “It will be utilized as a mobile command post during stadium operations and other special events, as well as a mobile dispatch center in case our communications center goes down.”

Last year the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Fire & Rescue Division, was looking to expand their fleet of mobile command units from four to eight. A Request for Proposal was issued, and the contract awarded to Burton’s Fire, Inc., which arranged for the units to be built by emergency response vehicle manufacturer Rosenbauer in South Dakota. “These 42-foot long units were designed with input from the users and OES staff as well as the Rosenbauer design team,” said John Borges, operations manager for Burton’s Fire. “Basing the interior layout on the four existing MCCs with various improvements and upgrades as requested by Cal OES, the goal was to make the units self-contained and operationally effective with two interior rooms, one for communications and one as a command area.”

Choosing a contractor or working directly with the builder is important in order to ensure the final result matches up with the specifications in the original RFP and incorporates any changes requested during the design/build of the vehicle. “The most important thing is to make sure the builders have done these types of units and are capable of supporting them after they hit the street,” said Borges. “These are emergency vehicles and they have plenty of electronics and specialty equipment on board that needs to be cared for. Downsize your proposal if your budget requires it. Our goal is to deliver the right technology in a vehicle designed to specifications that will be usable for the next 20 years.”

Is Bigger Better?

During the past 10 years of the California Mobile Command Center Expo, organizers have seen an abundance of configurations, sizes and designs that attest to the fact that one size — and one design — does not fit all.

While the big and beautiful 40’ MCCs tend to attract the most attention and can hold the most equipment and staff, they are not necessarily the best unit for every agency. In some cases, a smaller unit works as well or better in some jurisdictions. It’s best to design the kind of vehicle that’s tailored to the specific needs of a jurisdiction’s operations and environment.

Depending on how large the vehicle is, it may present problems based on its gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).  “In California, once you cross 26,000 pounds GVWR you’re required to have a Class B license to drive the vehicle,” said LDV’s Zinnen. “If you stay at 26,000 or below, you can operate with a normal Class C license. While the trend has definitely been to go with the larger trucks, that isn’t always possible.”

Two MCCs Zinnen recently delivered to Hayward Police Department and to neighboring cities Morgan Hill and Gilroy were deliberately designed to remain under the 26,000 lb. threshold so their operators could drive with Class C licenses.

“What we’re seeing now is, rather than police and fire buying their own MCCs, they’re looking for something they can use jointly,” said EVI’s Manny Perez. “Another thing is operational longevity — these things are staying on scenes longer now, especially if it’s a wildland fire campaign. They’re staying out there two or three weeks sometimes, so they have different needs for their generators and even some bathrooms to be installed.”

Healthy Mobile Communications Centers Get Regular Workouts

The city of Palo Alto, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, purchased their Mobile EOC (MEOC) through LDV in 2010 with a combination of a federal grant and matching city funds. “One of the most important things we realized in our process was that acquisition of a command vehicle was not the end of the process, but really the beginning of a long obligation,” said Dueker. “Command vehicles require ‘care and feeding’ and, moreover, need a team of dedicated staff.”

The units also need to be used. I’ve seen and heard stories of public safety agencies who buy a big MCC with grant funding and it sits in the parking lot because the agency hasn’t drafted a policy for its use, or staffing has rotated and whomever started the process is gone and there’s no one left to manage the unit.

Palo Alto’s MEOC is activated at least once per week, either to support planned events, local dignitary visits, or real emergencies. The MEOC partners with Stanford University Police to serve as the alternate command post for Stanford football games, and frequently assists outside agencies on request. “The other thing to keep in mind is that our MEOC was, at least in part, funded by Homeland Security or UASI grants, so that means it’s a regional asset,” Dueker added.

5 MCC Developments We Will See Ahead

It’s clear that mobile command centers need to keep pace with future changes, as new communications equipment is developed and operational tactics are introduced. Officers, dispatchers, and managers need to be trained and then re-trained so they are familiar in operating in these units.  Here are five coming developments in MCC operations and technology  to get ready for.

#1 Advanced Cellular Services

Vendors are looking forward to FirstNET, which is dedicated cellular voice communications for public safety agencies and will provide MSSs with priority cellular service.

“The next big thing we’re waiting to be released is 5G cellular service,” said Zinnen. “They’re claiming that it’s going to be as fast as fiber, which will be a great solution.”

#2 Drone Technology Interface

MCCs can already access video from law enforcement and fire service helicopters and aircraft, so integrating drone technology into the units is the next obvious step.

“Agencies that have drone systems can downlink their video into the AV system in the vehicle, and through their cellular or satellite connectivity be able to share that video back to headquarters or whoever they need to share it with,” Zinnen said.

#3 Solar Battery Power

In Palo Alto, Kenneth Dueker has already experimented with solar batteries as an alternate and long-lasting power source for his MEOC, eliminating the noise and exhaust of portable generators and the short run time of regular batteries.

Courtesy Palo Alto OES

“The Achilles heel of all these vehicles is power. We just got a grant award for a military type solar battery with enough juice to run our MEOC, theoretically, indefinitely. While the solar stuff isn’t quite ready for prime time, it’s tantalizingly close.”  Dueker plans to add a truck or trailer to his fleet carrying a solar battery to provide up to half a megawatt hour of battery power. “For my command vehicle that’s plenty” he said. “Even if it’s rainy and dark and cloudy for weeks.”

#4 Sleeping Quarters

EVI’s Manny Perez notes that he’s being asked by some agencies to have sleepers in their command units. “That goes back to some of the long wildfire deployments,” he said, “so we’ve incorporated some sleeping quarters in the command units. Recently I’ve spoken to three agencies that want to be able to have crews on 12-hour shifts. When they rotate off, they grab something to eat in base camp, and then go to sleep in a secure isolated sleeping quarters within the vehicle.”

#5 MCC Supporting Vehicles

Mobile command posts require additional mobile support.

In addition to their MEOC, Palo Alto has a small fleet of mostly grant-funded supporting vehicles: a Ford F-550 4WD pickup truck providing logistical support to incident command; the director’s command vehicle — a  Ford F-250 pickup providing rapid response to establish incident command and provide the OES director or incident commander mobility and communications outside the MCC; and a utility terrain vehicle, a 100 percent all-electric Polaris Ranger used to tow emergency supplies into incident sites and disaster zones.

About the Author

Randall D. Larson retired after 20 years in public safety communications, serving as a shift supervisor, trainer, and Incident Dispatcher Team supervisor for the San Jose, California, Fire Department. Larson was also the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine from 1995 to 2009 and its online version from 2009 to 2018. He currently resides among the northern California Redwoods writing in a number of fields of interest.

Courtesy Burtons Fire

The 11th Annual California Mobile Command Center Expo takes place in San Francisco on April 18, 2019.

Learn more about the free event featuring MCCs and disaster management and mobile incident communications seminars.

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