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San Ramon Valley Comm Support 131

Author: Chris Suter

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

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Originally Published in our Sep/Oct 2004 issue.

Chris Suter, Deputy Chief, Sam Ramon Valley Fire District

The San Ramon Valley Fire District (SRVFPD) in Northern California’s Bay Area recently put into service a Type 1 Communications Support Unit, CS131.  The design was the result of extensive review of other Mobile Command Post type vehicles from throughout the United States and, to some degree, elsewhere.  Attempts were made to avoid the pitfalls of some of these vehicles, while capitalizing upon their successes.

The original decision to acquire this unit was to replace the existing backup communications center for the fire district.  The current backup center is located in the District Headquarters building; its equipment was obsolete and the office space was needed for other purposes.  It was found to be cost-effective and more flexible to construct a mobile unit instead of adding additional office space.

Once the decision was made to build a mobile unit, funding was sought through two sources.  District monies were the primary funding source but some of the equipment in the unit was purchased under a Weapons of Mass Destruction grant from the Office of Justice Programs.

The original design concepts included a high degree of flexibility; the unit is intended to provide an all risk resource, as much redundancy as possible to make sure the mission is successful, and a comfortable environment from which to work at any time of the year and in any conditions.

This unit is constructed on a Spartan Fire Chassis with a 20” raised roof.  This chassis was chosen to provide rigidity for operating on the steep fire roads prevalent in California.  The 20” raised roof was selected to provide an additional stand-up work area in the space normally occupied by firefighters in a fire engine design.   SVI Trucks of Loveland, Colorado was selected to produce the actual vehicle. 

The unit is equipped with four dispatch positions, a technology area in the cab, a small conference room for planning and operations, a restroom, and a small kitchenette.  One of the things the District felt was essential was environmental control.  People work more efficiently if they are reasonably comfortable, so heat, air conditioning, and comfortable seating, were taken into consideration. 

A very important feature of the dispatch area is a slide-out on the street side, which increases the interior space by 3’ during operations.  The back-to-back configuration of the four positions is not really practical without this feature, although the unit can be operated without moving the side out.  

The dispatch area has four VHF, 240 channel radios, four UHF 240 channel radios, one M/A-COM Orion 800 MHz EDACS, one M/A-COM Orion Low Band, one Kenwood Low Band, two Motorola Spectra 800 MHz trunked radios all attached to a Telex-Vega C-Soft console.  While reliability has not been an issue with this console, the design allows all the individual radios to be used in a stand-alone mode if necessary.  In addition, there is a Uniden marine radio, an aircraft radio, an ICOM 706 HF to 500Mhz, and a Kenwood TMD-700A amateur radio. 

Each Dispatch position has two17” flat panel monitors, with computer, television, as well as two video inputs.  One of the video inputs is connected to the mast-mounted camera.  These monitors also have picture-in-picture, allowing a great deal of flexibility. 

The two monitors are necessary to support the Intergraph Computer Aided Dispatch system used by the SRVFPD.  Future plans call for connecting to the Contra Costa Fire District’s (CCCFPD) Tritech CAD and possibly others in use in our county.  Connectivity to these systems is accomplished in several ways depending on the bandwidth available.  If either hard wire or 802.11 wireless connections are available, the full CAD is used.  In the event that these options are unavailable then a web browser version is employed.  The web option can be used either via the satellite connection or by a Sprint PCS wireless connection.  In addition, the same mobile data computer (MDC) software is available as installed in the rest of the Fire District fleet.

Satellite Internet access is available using a MotoSat dish.  This dish is stowed during transport, but automatically deploys on command and finds the correct satellite.  It also provides local channels and news television feeds. 

Telephone service is achieved using a Toshiba Digital phoneswitch that employs six 20-button sets in the vehicle, and twelve more that can be placed outside for other users.  There are three Telular Phonecell{r} SX4e cellphones and a Globalstar GSP-2900-LP Satellite phone attached to the switch, which is cabled to allow the local phone company to bring in up to sixteen additional lines for long term operations. One of the Phonecells is attached to the fax machine to permit sending and receiving at any time.

Power for the unit comes from three sources; CS131 has two 30-amp shoreline connections to provide power at the home fire station and cables to plug into any nearby building at an incident, if available.  During transit there is a large inverter, operating on its own batteries, to maintain all 110 VAC equipment in transit.  During field operations there is an on board 25kw diesel generator which is fueled from the truck main tank.  Experience has shown that, assuming a driving range of 50 miles, the truck can operate independently for at least 48 hours.

The vehicle is equipped with a JPS ACU-1000 Interoperability unit, with a M/A-COM Orion 800Mhz EDACS and a Motorola Spectra 800 MHz radio, 2 UHF, 2 VHF and 2 Low Band radios as well as an ICOM 706.  In addition all major portable radios are supported, including Nextel Direct-Connect, with cables to attach them to the ACU.  The combination of radios and cables allows a wide variety of systems to be interconnected, quickly and reliably.  The radios have sufficient channel capacity to support most of the frequencies used by Law Enforcement, Fire, Public Works and Industry in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. 

The antennas and radios in the interoperability area are all connected via a patch panel, allowing the roof antennas to be used by portable radios if necessary.  Three of the antennas are mounted on the 40-foot pneumatic Wilbert mast.  The mast also has a color, remote, pan, tilt, 30x zoom camera.  

The technology area also contains an 11x17 color printer and a laser, fax-printer-copier-scanner.   The controls for the satellite uplink are also housed in this area.  The computer in this area is also equipped with the console software and is capable of being used as an additional position, should it be required. 

A full set of California three-dimensional topographical maps, with a street network layer are on board the unit.  For Contra Costa County, the unit also carries orthographic photographs, allowing incident personnel to view fire trails, vegetation, etc., overlaid on the topographical maps with street names displayed. 

Software is installed for all the radios on board, although the only conventional channels can be programmed into the trunked radios in the field.  In addition software is installed for numerous portable radios to support larger operations. 

In the compartments below the floor of the truck, the unit carries 32 (APCO P25) Digital VHF portable radios, 16 analog UHF portable radios, a portable repeater, basic EMS equipment, an Automatic External Defibrillator, extension cords, telephone cable, ICS Vests and a host of other minor items. 

Operations and procedures have been worked out between SRVFPD staff neighboring agencies and other interested parties.  In Contra Costa County, a group referred to as XCC Comm has been formed to manage the communications assets of all the fire and some Law Enforcement agencies in the County as a single resource.  The group consists of personnel from SRVFPD, CCCFPD, Moraga-Orinda Fire District, Richmond Fire Department, El Cerrito Fire Department, Contra Costa Sheriff, and Walnut Creek Police Department. The concept is to drop the boundaries to the benefit of all the citizens of the area.  Plans were put into place to utilize this Comm Support Unit as well as several other units and radio caches, repeaters, etc. 

While these assets are truly “all risk,” the current automatic deployment deals only with fire events.  The plan is to dispatch Comm Support 131 automatically on any 3rd Alarm Structure fire and any 2nd alarm Vegetation Fire anywhere in the county.  Discussions are underway to expand that area to surrounding counties, also.  The group hopes to expand the automatic request to other types of events.

The primary operators of the unit are a cadre of communications reserve firefighters.  This Communications Specialist group is trained to operate the technology of the unit.  A number of these personnel have been trained to drive the vehicle, as a result the deployment time is quite short under most circumstances. 

SRVFPD and CCCFPD both employ a number of Incident Dispatchers who have received specific training for incident deployment.  The Incident Dispatcher pool is being enhanced with additional fire dispatchers and other personnel, including dispatchers from the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department.  These personnel are being trained on the operation of the Comm Support unit to improve effectiveness and make this unit more effective on Law Enforcement and “all risk” events as well.

The current plan is to send two Communications Specialists and an Incident Dispatcher to go with the unit whenever possible; if no driver is available a career engineer from the station is sent.   This deployment can be either varied by the requesting agency or more likely after the arrival of the unit and the incident needs are evaluated. 

Several checklists have been developed to assure successful dispatch, deployment, breakdown, and rehabilitation of the vehicle.  Such items as watching the pneumatic mast and light towers at all times while it is in motion are part of a systematic approach to deployment to assure safety and successful p

Chris Suter is Deputy Chief of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District in Northern California’s Contra Costa County.  His career has spanned 28 years with responsibilities including the Communications Center and all communications equipment.   [Update: Chief Suter is now enjoying a well-deserved retirement. –rdl]


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