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Tampa’s Mobile Command Center

The Tampa Bay Regional Domestic Security Task Force conducts periodic mock scenarios designed to test the ability of local, state and county law enforcement, fire and rescue, and hospitals and health agencies to properly integrate and respond to a WMD/terrorist incident in Florida’s Tampa Bay area, including making the proper notifications and requesting the necessary regional assets.

Among the equipment and vehicles used in one of the exercises is the Clearwater, FL, Police Department’s Mobile Command Center (MCC). At the location, police officers and their partners from the technology and production crew of Clearwater’s C-View TV channel set up the command center, a 41-foot long, 9.5-foot wide van built on a Bluebird Bus Chassis. The 30,000 pound, diesel powered command center has a clearance of 13 feet and 3-inches. At times while operating on rural roads, the driver had to take measures to avoid low overhanging tree branches and telephone lines.

In free moments during the exercise, task force members were shown the mobile command center’s capabilities. In addition to communication functions, it offered officers shade and a place to do their paperwork, as well as a location to work with collected evidence.

The Vehicle

As far as is known, the Mobile Command Center is an original; there is no other such MCC like it. The MCC’s body can be divided into rooms or modules for video and command and control systems.

Inside are five workstations (the chairs are tied down when the vehicle is in motion or when the chairs are not in use). Behind the driver there are two rows of face-to-face seats with a worktable between them, seating six comfortably. There are eight radio microphones and radio controls, laptop workplace computers that are connected to the Internet, and one printer. Radio communications include city, county, HAM, marine, and CB, all with headphones.

Telephone communications consist of hard-line systems, eight cellular lines, and one fax line. Using its patch panel, other command and media vehicles can be given phone lines and video signals. Why media lines? During 9/11, the police department noticed that the media ran a variety of different stories; now police/media communications will be centralized. Inside there is also a shower facility with hot and cold water, a water cooler, bunks, and a galley.

Two 20,000-watt generators supply electrical power, and if one fails, the other kicks into operation. Lighting includes 3,000-watt telescoping floodlights, interior white and red illumination, and emergency strobe lights in the front and rear, and airport runway green. In addition to hand-held digital video cameras and back-up cameras, camera set-ups include a 50-foot telescoping infrared video camera and a 25-foot telescoping standard video camera.

Audio and visual assets include: 1) two fifty-inch, NEC plasma screens for exterior use, optimized to display multimedia presentations requiring superior image quality, 2) electronic whiteboards and television/VCR screen monitors mounted on an interior wall at the front table section, 3) computers, 4) satellite television, and 5) electrical outlets.

The electronic white boards can be used for SWAT briefings by running a schematic of any building to the screen from the onboard computers. They can even be printed onboard. Video information coming into the bus can also go to the plasma screens.

When on the roadway, the vehicle can cruise at 65 miles per hour without strain, using its turbocharged diesel engine. The driver has video camera screens to monitor what is occurring on the road both in front of the Mobile Command Center and behind it. The MCC has an alarm system as well as air-conditioning.

The command center’s police civilian technicians, known as Police Service Technicians, operate the center. These technicians are also responsible for seeing that the department’s fleet of vehicles, which operate over two million miles a year, are in running condition. They coordinate fleet vehicle maintenance with the city garage and vendors for the fleet’s more than 260 marked and unmarked vehicles.

The Command Center in Action at the Exercise

Video cameras and some of the 40 chairs, enough for press conferences and town hall meetings and carried by the Mobile Command Center’s matching trailer, are arranged nearby. One of the two plasma screens is set up; they can be hooked up to each side of the MCC’s body. Behind Clearwater’s command center, a satellite-dished National Guard truck is parked and set up. Cables are run from the National Guard communication center to the Clearwater Mobile Command Center to link with the Tallahassee Crisis Command Center, some 300 miles away.

Video images generated at the exercises will be used to discuss, describe, and give the state capital the look and sound of the exercise via satellite through video picture screen images and voice communications. In Tallahassee, the governor will be able to see what is happening, real time, at the Tampa Bay Weapons of Mass Destruction training scenario.

This WMD scenario is the first time the Mobile Command Center is being used to televise a signal by satellite using the National Guard satellite truck. The MCC is a fully functioning broadcast studio, the same as any other TV media studio. In the future, the Mobile Command Center will have its own satellite hook-up system so it will have the full capability to send its own signals.

Obtaining the Mobile Command Center

How can a police department with 200-some sworn officers afford such a machine? The Mobile Command Center began with the vision of the police department’s chief to address two needs. The first and most obvious need was that of a mobile, emergency management center, a mini police station on wheels, which could be used wherever and whenever a contingency of officers or other city personnel are needed for an extended period of time.

This might be a crime scene, special event, or natural disaster such as a hurricane. This center could function as a central communication and information-processing unit to direct employees during their assignments. With its command communications capability set up at a staging point, police leadership personnel could communicate by radio to airplanes, trains, and boats.

Project Next Step

The second need was for an educational platform to be used to implement the main goals of Project Next Step. According to Chief Sidney Klein, funding considerations began with the concept of a mobile command center that could be used to advance community policing to an evolutionary level called Project Next Step, taking community policing to the next step.

Beyond use just for emergency response needs, the department wanted the technology of a command vehicle to be able to accomplish their Project Next Step idea: the ability to do community policing outreaches a different way. It would be an educational center designed to go to the neighborhoods, facilitating neighborhood meetings and disseminating crime prevention and drug literature. It would also be used as a place for citizens to come and talk to officers about neighborhood issues.

For six years, the police department tried to set aside funding in its annual budget toward the mobile command center’s chassis, but the city bumped this money for other issues. The city did, however, finally buy the chassis; the rest of the funding for the vehicle had no impact upon local taxpayers.

Major funding came from federal COPS Tech grants. The basic wish list included the 1) replacement of the department’s aging mobile command post, a truck; and 2) replacing it with tool to take police services messages to the community. Experts were brought together to work on the project.

Using the Mobile Command Center

Previously, the chief and the department took their message to the community via their eight-year-old Blue Line television program. This was produced using the city’s stationary cable TV studio with the help of technical support from the city; by their nature, police officers are not video production specialists. The drawback was that their audience for community policing was limited.

With the technology and mobility of this vehicle, the police department can now go to any neighborhood in the city and present a televised meeting to interested community groups, in day and nights settings, broadcast from their full-time production center.

Since the MCC is able to go to community meetings, the department has the ability to reach out to larger numbers of people. Because most citizens have jobs and families, they often did not travel to attend community meetings, but people do watch TV and love watching involved citizens and themselves on the screen, a win/win for the police and public.

The full capacities of the MCC have only been scratched. As a multi-media platform, the MCC offers the police department the ability to market its product: public security. It can make citizens feel safe by enhancing the perception of public safety. For example, at Columbine High School where, on April 20, 1999, 12 students and a teacher were killed and more than 20 wounded before the shooters took their own lives, hundreds of media people were involved.

By allowing the media to hook up to this Mobile Command Center, the police could control the images that were broadcast depicting the crisis or incident. Many law enforcement agencies have mobile command centers, but this one also has this new, multi-media component.

And by having all of a command post’s operational tools ready to handle any crime or accident scene, and because it can tie into other command centers, the bus has played a role in the homicide debriefing of witnesses as well as recording the crime scene. It has also been used at an accident involving an overturned tanker truck.

On the police department’s calendar for the future, the Mobile Command Center in its Project Next Step role will bring a law enforcement presence to a meeting of the Clearwater Collation of Neighborhoods, where neighborhood issues will be addressed. By using its external sound systems, citizens will be able to ask questions that will be televised live, or taped utilizing satellite feeds; all editing can be done onboard.

Suggestions for a police department wanting to put together its own Project Next Step are 1) have a creative grant writer, and 2) do not be skeptical about putting together an MCC and doing it yourself. Clearwater has its own cable studio, but if your city does not, team up with a local cable system to accomplish mutual needs.

Chief Klein suggests that getting in front of the video camera is not difficult, and having the cameras focus on police officers and employees makes them part of the program. A program can be built on a smaller scale than that of the Clearwater Police Department.

The challenges to creating another Project Next Step in community policing involve special technical training for video technicians and computer support, and maintaining the MCC’s basic operations. For example, the Clearwater Police Department had to enlist a cadre of officers to train for and obtain special driver’s licenses.

A Vision

In Klein’s view, the future is upon us already, one that is significantly technology driven, with video imaging, satellite transmitting capabilities, and infrared cameras. The way police handle calls for police services will be much changed, as will the technology of basic police cars and other vehicles. Police departments need to keep up to date with the latest technological developments, especially as they have to do with law enforcement.

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 Florida-based journalist. They may be reached at and

Published in Law and Order, May 2006

Rating : 9.0

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