Mobile Command Center Controls First Responses

June 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Command and communications no longer are a military exclusive.

Emergency responders to civilian crises soon may have the same command, control and communications capabilities that the armed forces use on the battlefield. Long-tested military communications technologies are being combined with state-of-the-art civilian systems to provide emergency communications when accidents, natural disasters or terrorist attacks damage or overwhelm an existing communications infrastructure.

Mounted on a single vehicle, these capabilities would provide the commander of an emergency response team with the ability to communicate outside a stricken area through satellite links. These links could provide this commander and other emergency team members with access to vital databases on area information and assets. And, diverse military and civil radio systems could be linked into a single seamless network, which likely will be a necessity in a response to a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The challenges facing emergency responders in this terrorism era were harshly illuminated by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The organizations involved in rescue efforts were so numerous and diverse in their missions that a host of interoperability problems surfaced almost immediately. In many cases, these were complicated by the loss of existing infrastructure elements and capabilities.

These problems are not necessarily limited to large-scale terrorist disasters such as those of September 11. A tornado sweeping through an isolated town on the Great Plains, for example, can pose similar challenges to emergency responders as it destroys existing infrastructure elements.

The ongoing war on terrorism, however, adds a new dimension in that an attack on a domestic target could have military consequences. Accordingly, volunteer and civil government emergency responders may need to operate jointly and seamlessly in a burgeoning crisis situation.

One version of a first responder vehicle aims to fill that niche. Raytheon Company, Lexington, Massachusetts, has incorporated military and civilian communications and computer technologies in a four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle configured to serve as a mobile command post in emergency situations. Known as the first responder command and communication vehicle, the unit is designed to provide interoperable military and civilian communications in the absence of a normal communications infrastructure.

Dale Craig, Garland, Texas, site manager for command and control battle management systems and the capture leader for Raytheon’s first responder command and communication vehicle, explains that the vehicle is designed to allow first responders to understand and assess a situation, and communicate, plan and coordinate effectively in emergencies. The vehicle was designed for crises in which the communications infrastructure is disrupted, different responders have difficulty communicating interoperably, and incident commanders may lose valuable time trying to coordinate responding units.

“This vehicle has the capability to solve problems that first responders have been dealing with for the past 20 years,” Craig declares.

The attack on the Pentagon severely disrupted that building’s communications, and the varied emergency responders had to communicate with their response commander using runners. At the World Trade Center, the city’s emergency command center was destroyed by the collapse of the towers, which also took down cellular and other communications that depended on antennas placed atop New York’s tallest building.

Craig explains that the vehicle is designed to use satellites to address situations where equipment that normally would provide communications has been destroyed. The system offers three satellite links that allow it to bypass an overloaded or disrupted communications infrastructure.

An incident commander en route to the site would be able to begin initial situation assessment and issue preliminary instructions to early responders. On arrival, the vehicle’s driver would take over system operation so that the commander could move on foot throughout the scene while communicating with the vehicle via a handheld unit.

Today, in addition to voice commands, much of the vital information that needs to be moved among emergency response teams consists of data, such as imagery. The vehicle can provide a wireless local area network (LAN) capability to supply the incident commander with situational awareness. This wireless LAN permits the commander to receive data and imagery over the handheld unit. Another wireless LAN can be established to support voice links.

Even if the existing radio infrastructure is undamaged, interoperability can be a problem with diverse response organizations. The vehicle provides a radio gateway capability that links dissimilar radio systems. These systems can be linked either in networks or talk groups so that the incident commander can control all units.

Software programmable radios help provide interoperability among diverse systems. A trunk radio system handles standard police and firefighter frequencies.

Craig continues that this capability can consolidate as many as 11 radio networks. The gateway can link fire, police, ambulance and civil government seamlessly. All the units can be tied into a single giant network established among different systems. A user need only push the talk button on his or her radio to speak to all participants on the newly established network.

The number of stations on the network and the amount of traffic are limited by the network’s operational concept, Craig notes. A high-volume network with active traffic mandates limiting the number of stations. A network carrying mostly logistics traffic can accommodate more stations.

Triage, for example, can be performed among various rescue personnel directly by radio or even by voice over Internet protocol service. The system currently is equipped to support three cellular telephone systems—Verizon, Cingular and AT&T. The vehicles easily can be backfitted to accommodate third-generation (3G) wireless networks as they are introduced.

The vehicle includes a software programmable radio that can emulate a military single-channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS) waveform and communicate directly with a SINCGARS unit. This allows the vehicle to connect civil emergency radio systems with those of military units.

Civil-to-military connectivity becomes especially valuable when responding to an emergency wrought by weapons of mass destruction, Craig notes. A nuclear explosion or the deployment of chemical or biological agents in a populated area will require a coordinated effort among civil and military organizations. The National Guard, which would be the most likely military group called out in this type of emergency, would need to communicate with civil government first responders.

Such a capability also permits the vehicle to be used in military deployments that require interoperability with a civilian communications infrastructure, such as during overseas peacekeeping activities. Domestic military installations have the same kind of public safety concerns as civil governments, and they also must interoperate with civilian first responders amid their local infrastructure.

If the vehicle had been in use at the Pentagon on September 11, Craig offers, it would have been able to immediately establish a link out of the emergency area via a 64-kilobits-per-second satellite terminal. This would have provided access to data worldwide, such as streaming video and other sensor data. It also would have provided the incident commander with two satellite voice links via the Globalstar system. These Globalstar links also permit 9.6-kilobits-per-second data connectivity.

The Pentagon incident commander also would have been able to immediately determine the available radio frequencies and equipment possessed by the initial responders. These radios then could have been linked through the radio gateway.

Craig points out that the vehicle is not designed just for major catastrophes. It can serve as a command post even for day-to-day capabilities. Employing it in this manner would help train personnel for rapid and efficient response when an incident does occur. Its systems can run off vehicle power, off a power cord or off a generator. It requires only about 600 watts of power, Craig allows.

The vehicle largely comprises commercial off-the-shelf technologies, Craig offers. Some system technologies and architectures owe their origins to the defense sector. Craig notes that the satellite links emerged from the company’s long-time work in that arena. The communications capabilities also originate from military interoperability efforts. The radio gateway concept, while built from new technology, has had some use in the military.

Similarly, some military applications will transition to future vehicle iterations. Craig relates that researchers are examining how to connect various sensors directly to the vehicle so they can interface with the system. This would be especially useful in chemical and biological incident response, he notes.

The vehicle incorporates a television camera that can provide remote satellite video imagery to distant locations. It also can be equipped with infrared sensing systems, as company engineers already have demonstrated the ability to interface these sensors with the full operating system.

Craig adds that the company is looking at a system known as the emergency response analysis and visualization environment, or ERAVE, to downlink databases to the incident commander. An application layer next to the large database server would ensure that the commander receives only useful information instead of huge reams of data. This system would provide situational visualization and decision support to allow the commander to integrate, display and analyze a common operational picture along the lines of military situational awareness. This could include simulations such as city and transportation modeling and atmospheric plume modeling. Geospatial data could be downlinked for use in analyzing a facility or structure as well as vital information on potentially hazardous materials stored in an area, for example.

Downloading large amounts of data, such as from supercomputers that can model environmental dispersal patterns, is limited by the satellite links’ 64-kilobits-per-second rate. However, Craig notes that company researchers are working to enable a wide-band downlink along the lines of the global broadcast system. This would enable remote sites to transmit high volumes of data to the incident commander.

Another innovation in the works will allow easier incorporation of diverse radio systems. Currently, enabling interoperability for a particular radio requires a degree of knowledge about that system. Craig relates that engineers are designing a system that will allow a vehicle operator to establish interoperability with a legacy radio merely by keying one of its units in the vehicle. This new interoperability system would automatically determine the necessary interoperability interface and load it into the vehicle’s computer system. A simple touchscreen tap would provide interface with the radio.

The vehicle will be customized according to the purchaser’s needs, Craig adds. A basic model is targeted at the broad market, which he describes as the battalion-fire-chief level. Option packages would allow more extensive and expensive iterations. The current system is built around the Chevrolet Suburban, but future versions may incorporate several different models such as a Ford Excursion, a four-door pickup and other vehicles that may be commonly employed by first responders. To improve the product’s marketability, the company intends to package the system in modules that can be installed in virtually any vehicle.

While the largest likely market remains civilian emergency responders, the National Guard is another potential user area. Craig believes that the Guard may generate the first bookings, based on its procurement decisions. Most early marketing efforts will be targeted at governments in large urban areas, he allows.