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Suffolk County Fire-Rescue MCU
Author: Steve Silverman
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,
Originally Published in our July 2005 issue.
Developing a State-of-the-Art Mobile Command Unit
Story and Photos by Steve Silverman
Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, is one of the leading suburban areas the United States, and known for the quality of its schools, parks, beaches, boating, farms, and restaurants. It is also the home of the world-renowned Hamptons and Fire Island. The County is a vast 86 miles in length and 26 miles at its widest point, with a total size of 912 square miles.
The Suffolk County Department of Fire-Rescue and Emergency Services (DFRES), proudly serves the 1.4 million residents, 109 volunteer fire departments and 30 volunteer ambulance companies, with 10,500 fire and EMS responders. The department is headed by Commissioner Joseph Williams, who is also the County Fire Coordinator. DFRES operates an Administration Section, Communications Bureau, Fire Marshals Office, and Emergency Management Office.
The Communications Bureau is staffed by 40 dispatchers, eight shift supervisors, and one chief of communications. All dispatch personnel are EMD certified and work on eight-hour tour rotations. The Bureau handles all 9-1-1 calls for fire and EMS in the five western townships of the county, and dispatches 57 fire departments and 17 ambulance squads. In 2004, the DFRES answered 155,000 emergency calls, with 110,000 of those calls processed through the DFRES Dispatch Center in Yaphank.
The current Suffolk County Department of Fire-Rescue and Emergency Services Mobile Command Unit replaced a unit purchased in 1988, which contained a communications and incident command sections, but on a smaller scale. That in turn replaced an older unit put into service in the mid 1970’s, the first concept of a command vehicle. This was a Fire Marshal’s van that was converted with a homemade built-in wooden cabinet containing several low-band radios, which was the only bandwidth in use at the time. Each succeeding unit got a little bigger and came with a lot more electronics and sophisticated equipment.
Three major incidents proved the usefulness of this kind of mobile command center to our chief officers. The first was the Avianca airliner crash in 1990 that occurred in our neighboring Nassau County. Their fire department didn’t have a mobile command center at that time, so Suffolk’s was requested since it had their operating frequencies in it. The unit was set up about two miles from the incident site but after the fact, it was realized that it should have been brought forward. Nassau had two police department command units on scene, but nobody could find the fire or EMS command post, since it was too far away.
The next major deployment of the Command Unit was during the Wildfires on the east end of Long Island in 1995. Those fires brought out fire companies from all of Suffolk as well as Nassau counties, and even from the New York City Fire Department. The Command Unit stayed in the field for almost a week and a half, operating 24 hours a day. The unit helped coordinate the event as a base of operations for the Incident Commander, County Emergency Manager, Fire and EMS Chiefs to coordinate resources with local town, county, state and federal agencies. It was used as the forward command post, and was instrumental in providing communications with different police jurisdictions and the aviation bureau that provided reconnaissance support.
The third major incident was the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996. The DFRES Command Post was the only one there for the first 24 hours, but then other agencies including the FBI, ATF, New York Emergency Management Office, and local government emergency response, brought out their units. There were about eight units operating in a row, all connected to AC shore power.
In 2002, the department began the process of replacing the existing unit, which had exceeded its 12-year life span, and was having some mechanical problems. The generator had been replaced within the last year or two, and the radio equipment had become outdated. Instead of just doing a whole workover on the existing unit by trying to fit the technology changes necessary into the small unit, a request was made through the capital budget to replace it.
When the request was approved, the search began for a unit. Former Commissioner Dave Fischler attended a trade show on the West Coast, and fell in love with the LDV model he saw there. A copy of the specifications was requested and then the work began. A committee was formed with Fischler, Chief of Operations Myles Quinn, and Communications Supervisor Jeff Nirenberg. The committee looked at different existing units from other agencies and at trade shows. Research was done on the Internet and discussions were held with different manufacturers to determine what worked out best for the DFRES needs.
During 9/11, Suffolk’s Command Unit had been deployed into the initial staging area, and then redirected to FDNY Queens Borough Dispatch for a period of time to coordinate with a lot of Suffolk County agencies who had been sent in to cover firehouses in Queens and Brooklyn in the initial days after 9/11. The committee started looking at the LDV Command Units in New York City, talking to both fire and police for ideas.
LDV delivered the first set of specs to the County in April 2003. Input and suggestions were received from the dispatchers in the DFRES Communications Center who would be staffing the unit. The committee knew it was coming out with a larger work area, a larger dispatch function in the unit, and more capacity on the electronics side. Some corrections and updates were made, and the final specs came in January 2004. After some minor adjustments, the final go ahead was approved.
The unit was funded through capital funding out of the County budget. That required the request be submitted to both the County Legislative and Executive Branches. The DFRES proposed the project to both, put a price tag to it, and then went forward. The County officials recognized the validity of the unit and approved the funding. They all had seen the amount of use received from the old unit, and recognized the value of what it also brought. There was also high praise from the fire and EMS services about the unit, and what it did for them at their times of crisis. The unit was built for just under $400,000, with another $25,000 to $30,000 spent for the radios.
In the middle of March 2004, Quinn and Nirenberg did a final inspection at the Wisconsin factory. One week later, the unit was delivered and the installation of radio equipment was completed by local vendors. It was basically one year in the works from start to finish.
LDV factory personnel provided in-service training and together with Quinn’s assistance, the Communications Staff and Fire Marshals were trained in the operations of equipment on the truck. The department then began orientation sessions throughout the County to familiarize all the County Deputy Fire Coordinators, firefighting and EMS organizations, including the County’s Ambulance and Fire Chiefs Councils. DFRES Communications personnel demonstrated the various capabilities of the unit and how to request its response. A brochure was developed which was distributed Countywide to let other agencies know what capabilities the van had, and how to request its deployment. The unit was placed into service in May 2004.
The Command Unit is owned by the Suffolk County Department of Fire-Rescue and Emergency Services, but is available to assist any of the 109 fire departments or 30 ambulance companies in the County. Each of the departments is volunteer, and the unit is there to service and support all of them, urban or rural. The unit can be requested by any incident commander, although there are a couple of preplans in effect for certain instances. For example, any report of an aircraft emergency coming into the Long Island MacArthur Airport, which has grown to be a major regional airport, will get the unit dispatched.
The DFRES has an administrative staff, which is actually an extension of the State and County Fire Coordinator’s Office. They can call for the unit at the request of the local Incident Commander. The Deputy Fire Coordinator’s job is to go in and assist the Incident Commander with logistics. If they see a need, they may make a recommendation to them to bring up the Command Post.
Interoperability was a big aspect of what was designed with the new MCU. On the old unit, communications was pretty much operating under the old radio system from twelve years ago. Over the years, a lot of agencies have changed systems and frequencies, which are now all over the bandwidth. Low band is still used as the main channel for fire operations communications within the County. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in some of the structural buildings, such as the Federal Courthouse. The new Command Post carries an onboard UHF repeater, with 16 portables for incident command, in order to supplement anything that might be in place. “We will actually issue out a command vest and a portable radio, and that’s what the individual operates with back at the Command Post,” said Myles Quinn.
The vehicle is equipped with SyTech’s RIOS interoperability system. Suffolk County was said to be the first non-federal entity to receive that unit. DFRES opted for this unit because it was felt that SyTech’s technology is a little more current than the ACU 1000, and LDV is incorporating RIOS into their specialty units.
When agencies spec out and develop new command units, a fair amount of research needs to be done on the product lines that are out there. Quinn suggests evaluating your options based upon your local needs and what is going to be done with the unit. “I’ve seen a lot of units from some of the surrounding counties, and they were set up differently then what our needs were, since we all operate differently,” stated Quinn. “Know what you’re going to use it for, know what the intent is, and be realistic in the money you spend. You can make it very flashy or you can make it very functional. I believe we made ours very functional,” added Quinn.
Suffolk DFRES has transmitters at nine different towers located throughout the County, from the Nassau/Suffolk line out to Montauk and Orient Points, the easternmost ends of the County’s twin forks. All radio traffic is recorded at the Communications Center as long as it is received through one of the nine towers. The phones in the MCU are not recorded, unless connected with the main Communications Center, whose phone lines are recorded. “We are in the process of purchasing a logging recorder to record all phone and radio traffic to and from the MCU. The RIOS has some ability to record, but only the radios that are linked or set up the in interop mode,” said Quinn. At press time, the details are still being worked out and the vendor is yet to be determined.
Quinn added that “the clock system we have on board has a battery life, but it doesn’t last more than 60 minutes after shutdown, so an atomic clock or some type of network clock would be a good feature, getting the outside signal from the satellite. That’s something maybe we can hook up to GPS. Clocks are important in our business.”
Steve Silverman is the Deputy Fire Coordinator – Public Information Officer for the Suffolk County Department of Fire-Rescue and Emergency Services, and a long-time fire photographer in the Long Island area, whose images have frequently appeared in our pages. Special thanks to Chief of Operations Myles Quinn and Communications Supervisor Jeff Nirenberg for their assistance in the preparation of this article.