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Harris County Mobile Command

Author: Sergeant John L. Byrd, Lisa Dodson & Traci Mullins, Harris County (TX) Sheriff’s Office

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2011-01-07
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Originally published in our July, 2006 issue.

Sergeant John L. Byrd, Lisa Dodson & Traci Mullins, Harris County (TX) Sheriff’s Office. Photographs by Joetey S. Attariwala

Since September 11, 2001, the United States Department of Justice has conducted an extensive study of potential targets for terrorist activity in the continental United States.  In the threat assessment profile developed by the Justice Department, 9 categories of threat concerns were identified.  The southeast region of Texas, including Harris County, is the only area in the country identified that contains all 9 threat elements.  These categories include: energy, a major seaport and airport (the Port of Houston and the Houston Airport System), manufacturers of substances that have a potential for misuse, aerospace (NASA), computer manufacturing and software, media, and telecommunications.  This recent fact is one of many that have poised Harris County Sheriff’s Office to be a leader in mobile command platforms, staging and deployment strategy, training regimens, and in the implementation and application of various high-tech communication technologies.

Harris County is located in the southeast region of Texas approximately forty-five miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.  Harris County, with a population of over 3.6 million people, encompasses 1,778 miles consisting of thirty-four municipalities and includes the fourth largest city in the nation, the City of Houston.

In order to facilitate a rapid response to any type of incident, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has strategically placed a number of Mobile Command Posts (MCPs) throughout the county.  These vehicles also provide regional response capabilities and support to the 13 county region surrounding Harris County.

The Sheriff’s Office, because of its long history in using the Mobile Command Post premise, has developed several of the concepts used in Mobile Command Post operations.  As early as the 1950’s, the concept and use of towed platforms to house communications equipment and to provide a stable work environment for personnel to work in has proven to be well founded.  The Harris County Sheriff’s Office began command post operations with a converted travel trailer in the 1950’s, and in the mid 1980’s transitioned to using an 18-wheel converted cargo box trailers and tractors.  Considerable experience has been gained in conducting field operations while maintaining and constantly upgrading the capabilities of these platforms. 

The original travel trailer and 18-wheel cargo trailers were donated to the Sheriff’s Office and built out by employees using surplus County materials and equipment.  Additional materials and equipment were procured from local businesses and citizens who support the policing efforts of the Sheriff’s Office.  Since then, grant funding through the Department of Homeland Security has enabled the Sheriff’s Office to procure additional Mobile Command Post units.  The new units were commercially built to design specifications provided by the Sheriff’s Office, which are appropriate for our geographic location and the types of large-scale events normally experienced in the Gulf Coast area.

Another concept developed by the Sheriff’s Office early on was the use of diesel-powered equipment and generators.  The need for using diesel-powered equipment versus gasoline internal combustion engines has been amply demonstrated through actual experience.  Diesel fuel engines are preferable because, unlike gasoline engines, they do not create static electricity that can interfere with some radio signals.  Additionally, a significant number of the deployments of the Mobile Command Post units have been in environments that are rich with combustible materials and airborne fumes.  Finally, the development of the concept of using 12-volt DC mobile and console radios in the configuration ensures that all line personnel are familiar with the operation and maintenance of the equipment.  Use of 12-volt DC also allows for built-in redundant power sources in the design of the Mobile Command Post units.

Under the leadership of Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas, Command Post operations have grown to include units consisting of light, medium, and heavy response vehicles that can provide a variety of platforms and be configured as necessary to meet whatever needs are determined to be required by an Incident Commander to conduct an effective command and control point during an operation.

In recent years, deployments of the Mobile Command Post units have included regional Weapons of Mass Destruction drills as well as being placed in operation for natural disasters (tropical storms, hurricanes, floods) and man-made disasters (refinery explosions).  Other events include local, state and federal task forces.  Additionally, these units have been used for command and control operations during high profile events such as the 2006 NBA All-Star Games, the 2005 Baseball World Series, the 2004 NFL Super Bowl, the 2004 Baseball All-Star Game, the 2003 recovery efforts of NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia, the 1992 Republican National Convention and the 1990 World Economic Summit.  The Mobile Command Post units are routinely deployed during the annual PGA and Senior PGA Tournaments, which are hosted in the Houston area, as well as other recurring annual events having a large attendance. 

The most complex and largest operation to date consisted of providing radio communications support to NASA during the Space Shuttle Columbia recovery efforts.  The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to support them as needed.  When the Columbia incident occurred in northeast Texas, a request was made to Sheriff Tommy Thomas and a heavy response Mobile Command Post unit was deployed.  A team of personnel and equipment from Johnson Space Center, the Sheriff’s Office, Harris County’s Regional Radio Center and Motorola responded to east Texas and evaluated the situational needs for this effort.  This operation required a creative skill set in order to overcome numerous terrain and logistical obstacles.  Upon arrival, the team immediately set up a repeater channel providing a 24-mile coverage radius.  Over the next three weeks, extensive communication systems and equipment were put in place to support multiple personnel including NASA, FBI, FEMA, EPA, US Navy Dive Team, Texas Task Force One K-9 units, ground search teams and water recovery teams, all operating on separate frequencies, including encrypted digital channels. 

The Mobile Command Post units are part of the Communications Division of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.  An incident dispatch team comprised of personnel from the Communications Division is deployed with the Mobile Command Post units.  The team consists of dispatchers and supervisors whose normal assignment is to the Emergency Dispatch Center of the Division.  The personnel selected to work the Mobile Command Posts receive additional training in Incident Command System protocols.

All current Mobile Command Post units have up to six sources of redundant power consisting of on-board generators, external generator connectivity, shoreline connectivity, local utility connectivity, primary and back-up UPS systems and 12-volt systems.  This redundancy allows for continued operations regardless of the situation or in the event of unexpected power outages that might occur during serious weather incidents.

Personnel working on the Mobile Command Post units have a multitude of equipment at their disposal.  The equipment includes:

  • The use of Telular telephone lines tied in to an on-board PBX system.
  • Hand-held satellite telephones.
  • PBX-style VoIP satellite telephones.
  • Audio recording equipment to record all radio and telephone traffic.
  • Local area network (LAN) connectivity for computer-aided dispatch, (CAD) TLETS/NLETS and TCIC/NCIC queries.
  • Wireless network system supporting PDAs.
  • Satellite connectivity that is capable of handling video, voice and data transmissions; this capability provides a redundant voice and data system.
  • Motorola Command Star radio consoles with connectivity to the 800Mhz, VHF and UHF frequencies.  With these consoles the dispatcher, at a push of a button, can connect multiple agencies (Police, Fire and EMS) with each other regardless of what radio frequency they operate on.  Additionally, these consoles have telephone patching capabilities built-in to connect incoming and outgoing phone calls with radio units. 
  • Fully operational dispatch positions with complete PC connectivity to the Harris County Regional Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, TLETS/NLETS and TCIC/NCIC queries and the Harris County LAN system.
  • Laptop computers with CDMA air cards (being upgraded to EVDO) for use by incident commanders or county officials during deployments.  These laptops have the same capabilities as the dispatch positions.
  • A pneumatic telescoping mast with a color digital camera mounted on top for remote video monitoring.  This video signal can be viewed and recorded within the Mobile Command Post as well as in the Sheriff’s Emergency Dispatch Center.  Additionally, this video is viewable to other authorized remote viewers via satellite connectivity.
  • Local and satellite television connectivity to monitor local and national news and weather.
  • Weather monitoring equipment.
  • Electronic copy board with PC interface into the on-board network system.
  • Color network printer/fax/copier/scanner. 

In addition to the above, personnel working on some of the units have other amenities such as refrigerators, microwaves, water coolers, Incinolet toilets and sinks.

Several of Harris County’s newest medium response Mobile Command Post vehicles were custom built-by Farber Specialty Vehicles, located in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.  Harris County recently took delivery from Farber on a new heavy response vehicle, a Mobile 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Point.  This Mobile 9-1-1 PSAP is housed in a 53-foot custom-built trailer.  It is equipped with ten (10) computer-telephony integration workstations utilizing Plant Equipment Inc.’s suite of products; VESTA Pallas, MapStar and MagIC.  VESTA Pallas provides all the 9-1-1 functionality that exists in a traditional PSAP environment, i.e.  ANI, ALI, selective routing, TTY call handling as well as being VoIP ready.  MapStar, Plant’s mapping application will provide a 9-1-1 call taker with a graphical display of the caller’s location from both wireline and wireless telephone devices.  MagIC, Plant’s comprehensive call analysis and reporting application will allow users to measure, track and report on call and agent data when the unit is deployed. 

9-1-1 calls can be delivered to the Mobile 9-1-1 PSAP via a variety of sources, i.e.  direct connection to a central office, microwave point-to-point, wireless access points or satellite voice and data connectivity.  This variety allows for more flexibility in deploying the unit into an environment where connectivity resources are limited.  The Mobile 9-1-1 PSAP is also equipped with digital recording equipment, video surveillance equipment as well as standard office equipment to allow staff to perform daily functions. 

The Mobile 9-1-1 PSAP was developed as a cooperative grant project between the Sheriff’s Office and the Greater Harris County 9-1-1 Emergency Network, which is the 9-1-1 administrating agency for Harris and Fort Bend counties.  The stimulus for the project was the destruction caused by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.  The storm caused billions of dollars in damage countywide and affected four (4) area PSAPs and numerous secondary PSAPs.  The Harris County Sheriff’s Office received the most damage, having to evacuate and relocate the operations of the 9-1-1 PSAP and Sheriff’s Emergency Dispatch Center for six weeks until repairs were completed.  While the unit’s primary purpose is to provide a back-up facility for the region’s PSAPs during a disaster, it can also be used while complete capital replacement upgrades on existing PSAPs are being done or to provide a short-term solution in the event of a cable cut.

The key to Harris County responding well to large-scale events is a well planned and an adaptable mobile communications platform that can be deployed quickly.  In addition to a rapid response, these platforms must be capable of continued and sustained operations with little or no outside support.  Unfortunately, there is not any amount of exercise scenarios that will prepare an agency for all of the problems they may be faced with during a large-scale event.  The Harris County Sheriff’s Office recognized early on the need for effective command and control points when dealing with large-scale events simply because of all of the problems and issues that cannot be predicted arising from catastrophic events.  Many lessons and years of experience have gone into the design and planning of Harris County’s Mobile Command Post units and as a result, Harris County can face most threats, either natural or man-made, quickly and decisively. 

With its progressive nature and commitment to serving the citizens of Harris County and surrounding areas, the Sheriff’s Office has seen Command Post operations evolve over time, and now encompasses a broad spectrum of highly capable and adaptable platforms, and extremely well trained, professional operators.  These efforts continue to be improved and enhanced with technological advancements, thus positioning the Harris County Sheriff’s Office to be on the forefront of mobile command expertise.

 

Sergeant John L. Byrd is in charge of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Mobile Command Post Operations.   Lisa Dodson, ENP, is 911 Administrative Coordinator for Harris County Communications and the President of the Texas chapter of NENA.   Traci Mullins is Harris County’s Audio Records Custodian. 

Photographer Joetey Attariwala  is also a writer and photo-journalist for various international defense, aviation, and law enforcement magazines throughout the world.

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