Many of the new technologies and innovations that are being implemented in the mobile command vehicles used by law enforcement agencies will enhance the effectiveness of the unit and the operations they assist. From satellite downlinks that provide high-speed Internet and video, to interoperable systems which allow communication with any type of radio, these recent upgrades are examples of how new technologies are driving forward the many functions of mobile command vehicles.
The body is a temple
Having the latest technology won't do a police department a bit of good without a sturdy, rugged body to house it. Like the equipment they hold, the bodies of mobile command vehicles have been enhanced.
"I think in the last couple of years, there have been major improvements in the types and qualities of bodies available to build on," says Larry LaGuardia, sales and business development manager for LDV, based in Burlington, WI. "Since these are once-in-a-lifetime purchases for many agencies, the vehicles are now getting into a structure that will last that lifetime."
Overall, bodies have a more rigid structure, fewer rivets and are steering away from fiberglass and rubber roofs. One of the reasons more mobile command units are being built with rigid bodies is because the funding has recently become available. "In an age when people weren't getting grant funding, it was a budgeted item and there was less funding for this type of item," explains LaGuardia.
"Consequently, people years ago were forced to make compromises — trying to convert buses and make things work that really weren't designed from the ground up for this application."
LaGuardia now sees most customers build their vehicles with 1/8-in. aluminum which is typical for fire apparatus and fire trucks since the material practically lasts forever with maintenance. He also notes that most people are diverting from the RV-type chassis and switching to a commercial chassis.
Many of the roof units on older mobile command vehicles are constructed of fiberglass or rubber. After mounting several hundred pounds of equipment on them, they begin to flex, leading to leaks or cracking. To alleviate this problem, welded tread plate roofs are becoming the norm. This makes the roof more rigid, and even with all the equipment being placed on the roof, the situation with water and air leaks is significantly reduced.
Another recent improvement in the body construction is an expanded application for chemical/biological protection. Incorporating specially sealed bodies that use over-pressurized air filtration systems, more vehicles are able to be NBC (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) protected.
"If you have a hazardous material or anthrax situation, this means you can drive into the plume, gather a sample, identify the material, find an antidote, etc." says Jim Parker, vice president of sales for homeland security and government for Pierce Mfg., Appleton, WI.
Communication is king
There are countless technologies available to fill a mobile command center. Determining which technologies are the right ones is up to the individual department and the specific missions it wants the mobile command center to fulfill.
Communication might be the key factor when it comes to the successful response of a situation.
The primary means that law enforcement and first responders communicate through is radios. With different radios, frequencies and channels, each member of the command team might have multiple radios in front of them. The technology mobile command centers are incorporating to combat this difficulty is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). "VoIP interfaces the hardware/radio with the use of an interface card and cable to a computer network, and the software operates those hardware devices," explains Matt Stehno, engineer and project coordinator for Emergency Management Equipment, Salt Lake City, UT. "Instead of the dispatchers console having five to six radios on different bands or channels, there is one computer that can operate and patch any and all radios together across band frequencies."
VoIP can patch over telephone, cell phone, satellite lines and much more. It frees up space and allows for less equipment and consumption of a battery or power source.
The radio interoperability unit used by both the Delaware State Police and Folsom (California) Police Dept. is the SYTECH RIOS (Radio Inter-Operability System). Bill Carrow, chief of communications for the Delaware State Police, says that beyond the advantages of tying disparate cell phones, landlines and radios into one common communication path, the unit also provides a recording mechanism to record conversations without having to buy a second device.
According to Chief Sam Spiegel of the Folsom Police Dept., the advantage the SYTECH system allows his unit is the ability to create a virtual interoperability situation between any type of radio as long as it has an adapter. "What makes this different from other systems is that I can take a dispatcher/police officer and in less than 10 minutes show how they can create the interopt groups and how to facilitate the communication between different sources," says Spiegel. This is not limited to radio communications. The SYTECH RIOS can bring together computer and landline communications, satellite, telephone, and cellular telephone. "It's important to us to have as much flexibility in the interoperability as possible," says Spiegel.
More so with law enforcement than with other professions, knowledge is power. The more information and data officers are able to receive and disseminate, the better equipped they will be for any mission.
"Having advanced communications equipment opens the door for a lot more instantaneous information so decisions can be made," says Ken Farber, CEO of the Columbus, OH-based Farber Specialty Vehicles. "The people in a command post are not normally in the line of fire, so they are probably making decisions based on a long-distance feed."
The major technology on a mobile command unit providing this flow of information is the satellite dish. "Basically it's a way of getting high-speed Internet into your vehicle," says Stehno. "Information at your fingertips is really what it's about."
Once the command vehicle reaches its destination, the dish is deployed. It raises and calibrates to find and lock into a satellite. Once it has made the connection, the command unit has an Internet connection that can be used within the vehicle. Depending on the department's service provider, they will have different amounts of bandwidth to use.
This isn't the first time Internet has been streamed into mobile command centers. "You can do wireless Internet connections through cell towers, called general packed radio service [GPRS], but it is usually at speeds similar to dial-up or even a little slower," explains Stehno. As opposed to GPRS, the speed of Internet through satellite is similar to having DSL or broadband.
The effectiveness of a satellite link can be seen in the way it is able to communicate across the country. Real-time feedback of a situation can be sent to a mobile command center, which can then send that information, via the satellite, to another site in the country that may be dealing with a similar incident. "Within a split second, an agency can be getting the same kind of information in Los Angeles that they are gathering in New York," says LaGuardia. "The ability to disperse this information and get live, accurate information is huge."
Mesh networking is another technology that will have a considerable impact on mobile command vehicles, believes Devra Herlin, public safety manager for Wolf Coach, based in Auburn, MA. "I believe mesh technology is going to be a vital tool in establishing critical communications links," says Herlin. "If there is a city-wide deployment of a mesh network, the command and control vehicle will be able to log in anywhere." Once police units arrive in the area of the mobile command unit, they will then automatically log into the system, become part of the network and easily share necessary data.
To further enhance interoperable capabilities, mobile command units are incorporating IP addressing. "With the IP address, it allows easier dissemination of critical information to other locations," says Herlin.
Wolf Coach demonstrated the capabilities of data transmitted with IP addresses at a recent Assoc. of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference. Video captured by a wireless surveillance camera, and stamped with an IP address, was transferred to Cisco's Raleigh, NC, headquarters, posted on a Web page, and then forwarded to a screen across the APCO floor. In addition, the video was sent to a handheld PDA outside of the command center. "If you can send and receive data, voice and video in a fixed site command center, you should be able to communicate as effectively in a mobile situation," stresses Herlin.
Seeing is believing
The inclusion of technology that transmits video is also becoming prevalent on mobile command units. One type of video system LaGuardia has seen improvements in is the body pack remote audio/video system. For a number of years, the body packs were hardwired, so whoever was carrying it had to haul cabling to get live feedback. To eliminate the cabling, microwave was used, but this was only available with line-of-sight and it wasn't real time, which led to jerky image movement.
However, advancements in this technology have made the necessary upgrades for smooth video transmission to the mobile command unit and other upgrades. "Traditionally microwave has been line-of-sight, but some of the technology, which is in its early stages, is able to take people into buildings and around corners," says LaGuardia.
This empowers an officer to go into a situation away from the mobile unit, get real-time feedback to the vehicle and then transmit either via satellite or via microwave to another location. "This really gives people inside a command center and at other locations the most complete, direct information," adds LaGuardia.
Wireless video is another type of technology appearing in many mobile command vehicles, states Farber. The technology permits users to control the pan/tilt/zoom of remote cameras via a wireless laptop or PDA and receive real-time information. The type of camera can even range from infrared to submersible. The feed from the cameras is then able to be transmitted to other sources through a secure channel via satellite, microwave, etc.
With communication going beyond just audio, interoperable systems that allow transmission of voice, data, video, etc. are becoming more prominent in mobile command centers. "We are seeing a trend where new pieces of equipment can be developed by various companies and we're tying them into existing technology," says LaGuardia.
He adds that a lot of the technology of mobile command centers is being tied into the audio and video routing system of interoperability pieces. This permits several agencies to share live information simultaneously. "Departments are able to have more accurate and quicker response that affects a variety of agencies — all in real time."
Sam Simon is assistant editor for Law Enforcement Technology, a sister publication to OEM Off-Highway, and from which this article was adapted.