The Chicago Fire Department (CFD) recently purchased a stripped-out vehicle module and installed wireless technologies, said Chief Anthony Vasquez, executive assistant to the CFD 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), which oversees communications and operations, 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 — God forbid — something large-scale happens where infrastructure fails."

In total, the city retrofitted three vehicles: 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 satellite terminal with 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.

"They have patch outs where 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 and will 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. The truck will be act as a hotspot and will be capable of running voice connection when physical infrastructure is down.

"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. If MABAS calls, they can use it."

Lessons Learned: From the Buyer

  • 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 are key.
  • Avoid proprietary technology from hardware and software vendors.
  • Upgrade the look. There are benefits! Public 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. Have a regional coordinator of assets.

Source: Morgan Franklin/Chicago Fire Department