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Tips for Mobile Command Centers

Written by Jim Weiss

According to John Mattman of Mobile Specialty Vehicles, many important factors should be considered in the design and build phase of a new Mobile Command Center (MCC)—whether that MCC is a 16-foot bumper pull trailer or a 45-foot truck or bus. Once the need for an MCC has been established, the first items in the flow chart are always: the interior space required, the type of platform needed, and of course the budget allowed.

Interior space. The most common layout in an MCC is an operations area with workstations, a center area with galley and lavatory, and a rear conference room. If one or more of these items are not needed, chances are a smaller load space will be adequate. This could be accomplished in a Sprinter-type van, a truck with a small body, or a short bumper pull trailer.

If all three areas or more are needed, a larger truck, bus or large trailer may be required. Most trucks tend to max out at 30 feet of load space. A trailer or bus could be longer, although most of the larger buses are rear engine which takes up rear floor space. These larger platforms are all available with slide-out rooms, and trailers are now available with nearly 1,000 square feet utilizing two large slide-out rooms.

Platform. MCC vehicles tend to get very few miles on them. Unlike fire apparatus, ambulances or mobile healthcare units, MCCs are commonly used for extended periods in one location. Most MCCs are used less than 1,000 miles per year. As a result, many agencies opt for a trailer if they already have an adequate tow vehicle, which saves the cost of a driveline that gets very little use. Such trailer MCCs are available up to 53 feet long with very large slide-out rooms. The disadvantages of trailers are that the tow vehicle may not always be available, it likely requires a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), and it requires more time to respond.

Self-propelled vehicles allow the driver to hop in and go, and are selected as a platform more often than trailers. Self-propelled units include motor coaches, vans, buses, walk-in vans and cab/chassis configurations with a truck body. No special license is needed to drive these until you get into the much larger units. If self-propelled is the preferred platform, consideration must then be made as to which one is the best fit. Budget and the space needed come into play.

A big question is whether a restroom should be included. The answer really comes down to what services are available during an incident. There are several schools of thought. One is not to include a restroom and to bring in portables. Another is to include one, but have it only accessible from the exterior. The last is to have one inside, especially if there are dispatchers on-board. All approaches are valid. Nine out of 10 customers surveyed with on-board restrooms said that because no one wanted to clean it or dump the tank, their restrooms turned into closets and they would not get one again.

With regard to communications, new products are coming out daily. For telephones, the more basic units simply use the handheld cell phones and radios assigned to the officer. A standard Private Branch Exchange (PBX) system with landline and cellular capability has been the most common configuration for years. Today’s most advanced units utilize a VoIP telephone system tied into a satellite system.

Satellite systems are now used to receive Digital Satellite System (DSS) television, allowing the MCC to monitor news coverage of the incident; they are also used to send and receive audio, video and data. This allows the MCC to send video from its mast-mounted CCTV security and surveillance video systems to the department or to the Internet, as well as support the telephone system and provide Internet service. Microwave systems are also now being used to receive video from outside sources such as helicopters or multiple SWAT team cameras. Mast-mounted cameras are a very common feature in today’s MCCs. Pneumatic masts typically range from 20 feet to 65 feet, extended.

When it comes to two-way radios, there are multiple approaches. Some agencies either have radios installed at the upfitter, or the unit is pre-wired for the agency’s installation. Others include the two-way radio system as part of a turnkey product MCC. This system may consist of full base stations or simply individual radios at each workstation.

The next consideration is whether or not to include an interoperability system. While Raytheon was first to market with its JPS ACU-1000 system, there are now numerous systems and configurations available. If the budget allows, an interoperability system adds some real value to the MCC’s utility. This is where the agency’s communications folks should be included into the design process to be sure that the system fits the agency’s needs.

Plan for a pre-construction meeting to meet the builder’s staff and to visit the plant. This will allow you to see other units under construction, and it is a great opportunity to get new ideas and see how the units go together. If possible, try to make at least one visit mid-construction and one when completed prior to delivery.

Bear in mind that changes or additions get more expensive the further the unit is in process. Therefore, any additions or changes should be made during the pre-build meeting or soon thereafter. Additions may also add time to the build as lead times for the new items have to be factored in, and it must be determined in which phase of construction they will be installed.

Whether you are picking up your MCC or having it delivered, you should decide if you will do your own training, or if you want those who will be involved in the unit’s deployment to be factory-trained. Videotaping training is always a good idea for reference. The unit should include a binder with all manuals, product registration paperwork, as-built drawings and schematics.

Chassis and Body

According to Bill Proft, senior chief engineer-rescue products at Pierce Manufacturing, it is important to first understand your agency’s requirements before ordering a new MCC. How many personnel will your MCC carry en-route to a situation, and how many will it support on the scene? What are the typical distances the MCC will travel and the number of calls it will probably make in a year? It is also necessary to consider the required capabilities, weight limitations and the overall length and height of the vehicle.

When selecting an appropriate chassis, the chassis gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) determines licensing classifications for its drivers. Make sure that the chassis is appropriately powered. Custom chassis have nearly unlimited design flexibility. They can be equipped with heavier frame rails than commercial chassis, providing greater long-term durability, and on a four-door custom chassis, crew cab space can be used as an additional command center area. However, custom chassis also have a higher price point.

Should a custom chassis be selected, be sure it has the appropriate power and adequate GVWR. In selecting an appropriate body, be aware that van-style bodies are often riveted together and do not have the long-term durability of custom bodies. Warranties on van-style bodies are often one year, while custom bodies have 10- to 15-year structural warranties. Consider long-term use requirements. While custom chassis and bodies have a higher initial price point, after five to 10 years the electronics can be upgraded without buying a completely new vehicle. Chassis and body are just as important as the interior appointments and electronics.

Consider on-scene power sources. Stand-alone generators are often used. These come in 8 to 30 kw power sizes. They are mounted in a vented but insulated compartment, and are typically found near the rear of the vehicle in a compartment directly under interior seating or storage to minimize interior noise. PTO-driven (chassis-driven) generators should be used only as a backup. They require the chassis engine and drivetrain to be in operation while being used, which adds noise.

Foundation Systems

Tony Saggiomo with Sirchie Vehicle Division says the company has been providing special purpose police vehicles for more than 40 years. The sales and design staff says there should be a focus on three key points when starting a command vehicle project: applications, foundation systems and cost.

Foundation systems. The key foundation system to consider is the base vehicle that will be used for the project. The vehicle must have the size, weight capacity and powertrain to handle the conversion as well as the worst case scenario application where it may be used.

Other key foundation systems are auxiliary power (12V DC and 120V AC), climate control and communication systems. The vehicle must have the capabilities to operate at a remote site for extended periods while providing a comfortable work environment and effective command/communications function. Emphasis should always be put on function in lieu of ancillary features that “would be nice to have.”

Applications. MCCs can range from First Responder SUV units to mid-size Daily Response Vehicles, to very large Major Incident Response Vehicles. A determination at the very beginning of the project must be made as to how the command vehicle will be utilized.
The factors that normally determine the application are the size of the jurisdiction, the area in which the unit will be utilized, and the potential incidents or events at which the vehicle will be used. In some instances, the unit may be called upon to serve multiple functions, such as responding to major crime scenes. In those cases, the unit can be outfitted with crime scene investigation equipment. There is no one-size-fits-all in command vehicles.

Cost. MCCs vary drastically in price. The larger and more customized a vehicle is, the more expensive it will be. Even vehicles of the same size can have very different prices depending upon how they are constructed. Vehicles produced by apparatus manufacturers (NFPA1901 Fire Industry construction) normally cost more than vehicles built utilizing heavy duty commercial chassis and bodies, which normally cost more than vehicles built utilizing RV or motor home construction methods.

A purchase should be made only after considering the amount of funding that is available and the ability of the vehicle to respond and function properly during worst-case-scenario use. We have found that heavy duty commercial chassis and bodies most often provide an ample platform without devoting excess monies to features that are not necessary. Purchasing larger but less expensive units with lighter duty service capabilities, such as those used for recreational markets, is normally a recipe for poor performance at the wrong time.
After-delivery support is very important because technology changes, and the vehicles must be able to adapt to those changes. When researching the project, look for designs and construction methods that allow for expansion and/or change at a later date. This type of construction also helps with in-field servicing of the vehicle should a piece of equipment be damaged or fail and need replacement.

Function of the MCC

Cheryl Stang at LDV advises agencies to first consider the function of the vehicle. What will be its overall purpose and who will use it (emergency operations, crime scene investigations, SWAT and tactical operations)? Will it be shared among departments, and if so, in what capacities will it be used? Communications and interoperability should also be considered.

Decide what floor plan will allow your team to function effectively. Although the design of mobile command and communications vehicles varies according to each department’s needs, typical configurations include four to six work stations for real-time communications activities; a conference room for on-site meetings; a galley and lavatory; and an exterior work station with access to telephone, radio and audio/video technology.

Insight and ideas can be gained by involving end users in the process and talking to other agencies regarding the features and equipment they have found to be most valuable in their mobile command operations. Also make use of the experience and knowledge of the manufacturer.

Stang stresses that the vehicle should be built to allow easy upgrading because generally the platform will outlive the technology. Features such as modular ceiling panel design and wire raceway allow for the addition of easy and cost-effective upgrades and technology over time. Work with a builder with a solid reputation for quality and after-sale support and service.

Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, OH, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER.

Mickey Davis is a California-based writer and author.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2010

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LDV Inc.Mobile Specialty VehiclesPierce ManufacturingSirchie
 

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