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Mobile Command Post Technologies - What can be done to improve field communications in your agency?
Author: Bryan K. Rudel, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, TX.
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Above: The newly-designed Harris County (TX) Sheriff Office Mobile Communications Unit (MCU), shown here visiting the Battleship Texas, which is moored at the Battleship Texas State Historic Site located in Houston, Texas. This MCU is one of several mobile command vehicles used by the agency, and is their most frequently responded command and communications unit. Photo by Lisa Rowe.
Most law enforcement and emergency responders will agree the single most important factor after a catastrophic event is maintaining order, providing aid and restoring stable, effective communications in the field, which becomes a monumental task when traditional power is unavailable. In early 2013, the Harris County Sheriff Office Mobile Command Unit met to analyze the deficiencies of existing equipment and formulated a plan for comprehensive technological updates.
Recognizing budgetary limitations, grant funding was sought for these necessary upgrades. The Federal Department of Justice agreed to allow the Sheriff’s Office to use a portion of existing Justice Assistance Grant funding to support the technological updates recommended by the Mobile Command team. Over the next ten months, the Mobile Communications Unit received a massive technology “face-lift” that included some very notable enhancements that brought this Unit into the forefront of public safety mobile communications.
The first step was to replace outdated and nonfunctioning satellite systems with new AvL 1.2 meter Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite systems on each mobile command vehicle. These systems allow a reliable tertiary connection for data, voice, and video. VSAT systems were crucial after Hurricane Ike when the commercial cellular towers were down or at capacity and there were no other means of reliable connectivity.
The next step was to find ways to improve interoperability on the mobile communications platform to better provide support in the field. A system called Mutualink was implemented to provide the units a means of sharing video, voice, texts, and documents among a secured, encrypted Virtual Private Network (VPN) to all members of an incident. This system also allows the patching of any radio talkgroup with others talkgroups that is broadcasts over the secured incident for all members. This unprecedented system has become a game-changer for this Team, allowing true interoperability no matter the radio frequencies of multiple agencies on a scene.
To better the interface of the Mutualink system, 65” touchscreen monitors were installed to provide a large working surface and a touchscreen interface. These touchscreen monitors allow on-scene commanders the ability to pull up current maps, annotate on those maps important details of a plan, and then send them through an email with a single touch of an icon. The large screens also aid in the viewing of live video streams and photographs through Mutualink.
Situational awareness of active scenes was accomplished by the installation of Internet Protocol (IP) digital Pan/Tilt/Zoom (PTZ) cameras mounted on top of pneumatic masts on these units. Panasonic WV-SW598 cameras were chosen for this project, as they provide a weatherproof, fully enclosed dome camera with Full 1080p HD images, 90X optical zoom, face detection, area privacy zones, and the ability to function fully from inside a secured network. These cameras have proven themselves invaluable during many deployments by providing the ability to zoom at very long distances.
With new technologies came the need for more bandwidth, which is always a challenge in the wireless environment of a mobile platform. The units were running off of a single commercial 3G/4G wireless modem to provide voice, data, and video. This would not be nearly enough to handle to capacity required for sharing live HD video and sending large documents and photographs from the field. To address this need, a Peplink Balance Multi-WAN router was installed in each mobile command unit. These routers combine all active connections for load balancing data transfer for faster and more reliable connectivity.
To provide even more bandwidth in the field, a point-to-point microwave system was installed on the units. These Broadband Antenna Tracking Systems (BATS) provide a high-speed connection between the mobile command units in the field and a stationary microwave antenna connected to a secured network which will maintain its connection while traveling up to 60mph. This point-to-point system allows high speed data transfers with speeds up to 200Mbps, depending on distance and line of sight of the devices. The bandwidth provided by this solution resulted in seamless video streaming and reliable connectivity, which is crucial for Public Safety agencies.
With an average of one deployment per week to support specialized units in the field such as SWAT, Hostage Negotiation Team, and Vice Operations, it was determined that the radio system itself on the mobile command units needed upgrading to provide dispatching capabilities in the field. Encryption for the Motorola radio system was installed to be interoperable with the encrypted radio talkgroups of these specialized teams. With their encrypted talkgroups now loaded in the system, Tactical Dispatchers can now dispatch in the field on these channels to provide support, which is crucial for officer safety during these high risk incidents. To further support the Hostage Negotiations Team (HNT), a Crisis Response Vehicle Integration Package was installed that allows the direct connect of their “throwphones” to the mobile command post to provide voice connectivity directly to the command post.
Four (4) WhisperWatt 56kW towable generators were purchased to provide external power to the command units in the field when shore power is not available. To add to their functionalities, adjustable LED scene lighting was added to the roofs to provide lighting for operational personnel and scene security.
The end result of this monumental technology upgrade to the mobile command unit was the addition of interoperable systems, high-speed broadband connectivity, multiple network connectivity, and external power supply that brought this unit into the forefront of mobile communications. In response to this project, the Harris County Sheriff Office Mobile Command Unit garnered the 2015 APCO Technology Leadership award for Large Agencies for the hard work and dedication by this team in providing the latest in technology to serve the citizens of Harris County.
Bryan K. Rudel is a sergeant with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (TX) assigned to communications and mobile command. For more information about Harris Co S.O. see http://www.sheriff.hctx.net/