Even amidst budget crunches, public-safety agencies continue to invest in mobile command vehicles. For example, the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) recently purchased three stripped-out vehicles and installed wireless technologies, said Chief Anthony Vasquez, executive assistant to the fire commissioner. The technologies installed turn the trucks into mobile hot spots that support voice, video and data transmission from the vehicles to the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications Center (OEMC), Vasquez said.

“We function day to day regardless of these trucks,” Vasquez emphasized. “But what it does is enhance our ability in case there are failures in the communications link. We [now] have these as a backup to communicate to the OEMC if … something large-scale happens where infrastructure fails.”

In total, the city retrofitted two tactical command vehicles to respond to all working fires in the city and one command vehicle for large events as directed by the fire commissioner. Inside each is a Cisco IP network, said David Beering, managing director of advanced network solutions for Morgan Franklin, the systems integrator for the project. In addition to an IP network, each vehicle has a terminal that leverages an auto-point, auto-acquire format to tap the city's satellite system. It also includes an EVDO mobile data terminal that connects to Verizon's network and eight channels of VoIP connectivity.

“It's linked into the city's private network, private satellite. Once the trucks are live, there's a shared capacity available to the vehicles, assuming someone else isn't fighting for it as well,” Beering said. “If satellite connectivity is not available, then a broadband data link accesses the commercial Internet.”

Vasquez noted that the technologies are not limited to the contents of the truck.

“A tent can be inflated that can house 20 people, and the data network can be pushed out to a tent for a mobile office,” he said. “That means video, voice and data and telephone that are connected back to the network. So if you think of that capability alone, it's incredible.”

Beering said the only consideration in running the system is location. Drivers have to keep in mind where the truck is parked so there is clear line of sight to the satellite.

“And once the truck is set up, they essentially push a series of buttons on a sat terminal, acquire the signal and put the truck on air,” he said.

Vasquez said the trucks will be used for local incidents, large-scale events and mutual-aid calls. It will act as a hot spot and will be capable of providing voice connectivity when physical infrastructure is down, as seen in some of the United States' worst disasters.

“[Hurricane] Katrina was a great example of how we were an island, strong in numbers but had no backup and no connectivity,” he said. “And what's unique about these vehicles we retrofitted is that if our infrastructure fails, we have the ability to continue working and communicating — telephone, video, data, not only in Chicago but this can be transported anywhere in the United States and function.”

The CFD recently also retrofitted a semi-trailer for use as a mobile laboratory to test and identify hazardous materials, said Chief Daniel O'Connell, who oversees the department's hazmat operations. O'Connell said the nearly $600,000 lab was developed from scratch so the department could have a customized mobile platform capable of testing hazardous materials. The semi-trailer has been outfitted with technologies specific to hazmat incidents. Inside, the lab includes workstations for testing chemicals and storage facilities, including a refrigerator and cabinets.

O'Connell said the fire department currently has two full-time hazmat teams and a total of 25 companies trained in Tech A-level hazmat response as well as four heavy-rescue squads trained at the Tech-A level. When an event occurs, the hazmat-trained fire department personnel arrive at the incident and begin field-screening chemical spills. The addition of the mobile lab means his team can test chemicals, contain them and communicate with headquarters to determine the appropriate response, he said.

“We perform field screening and that is the key work; we are not lab technicians,” O'Connell said. “We test the chemicals using a variety of technologies that are now included inside the mobile lab.”

One unique feature used in the mobile lab is a glove box that is used for mobile hazmat containment, O'Connell said.

“It generates a negative pressure within the containment enclosure, so nothing can escape,” he said. “It keeps a chemical, if it was to leak, in the glove box and not inside the mobile lab.”

The technologies inside the mobile lab include 3-pound, handheld chemical detectors from Ahura Scientific and an ANDROS robot from Northrop Grumman that interoperates with an identical robot owned by the Chicago Police Department. The robot can be controlled wirelessly, so users can dictate its movements and how it collects samples at the chemical spill, O'Connell said. Any data gathered about the chemical incident is transmitted via two-way radio, a firefighter's push-to-talk mobile phone or when the incident commander contacts 911 dispatchers to disseminate the information.

However, the lab is not infallible; that's why O'Connell ensured that reach-back programs were negotiated with vendors.

“We need to be able to reach vendors at any hour so we can have access to their support personnel,” he said. “Sometimes, this can be at 2 a.m. and we need to know they are there to support us.”

Smaller departments also see the benefits of developing mobile communication trucks. The Maple Grove (Minn.) Fire Department currently is custom-building a communications-infrastructure truck to serve the needs of its response area, which includes two nuclear plants, said Deputy Chief Kurt Kramer. Included in the retrofit is an Icomera Moovbox M200 mobile broadband gateway for real-time communication services on emergency response vehicles.

The M200 acts as a bridge between a first-responder vehicle and high-speed cellular data networks including HSPA, EVDO and WiMAX, as well as 4.9 GHz public-safety data networks. It provides encrypted Wi-Fi access and a secure Ethernet-based LAN for connecting on-board systems — such as laptops and IP-CCTV — over VPN to remote facilities, according to the company.

Kramer said the fire department will take advantage of the cellular links supported by the M200 to connect vehicles to a central command facility in the event of nuclear and other large-scale emergencies. Communications are particularly vital when the department is addressing an incident at the nuclear power plants in Minnesota because the field team must access weather and mapping information in real-time and communicate back to the state's emergency operations center, he said.

“Our teams are responsible for the detection and sampling of radioactive materials downwind of the release, in the unlikely event of a problem at the plants,” Kramer said. “As a result, we require secure and reliable VPN connections for receiving current data.”

The system also includes public safety-grade antennas and amplifiers to maximize signal quality and data throughput to the vehicles, Kramer said.


  • Get all stakeholders around a table. Don't do this in a silo.
  • Be smart by leveraging both funds and shared assets.
  • Don't allow new technology to drive the way you do business — use technology to support and improve the way you do business.
  • All parties need to understand the mission and human factors.
  • Put the solution provider in touch with IT resources and end users in order to understand the back-end and operational issues.
  • Prepackaged solutions are not the only way to go; custom solutions meet your specific needs.
  • Avoid the notion that new technology will not work with legacy systems.
  • Technology is not the only consideration when it comes to regional interoperability; policy and governance also are key.
  • Avoid proprietary technology from hardware and software vendors.
  • Upgrade the look to increase the community's faith in public service.
  • Don't overlook environmental factors when it comes to reliability. Existing platforms can be updated.
  • Support is hard to keep consistent. Employ a regional coordinator of assets.

Source: Morgan Franklin/Chicago Fire Department