It is no secret that U.S. communications capabilities during recent times of disaster have ranged from unsatisfactory to poor to, at best, marginally acceptable.  One need only look at the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the numerous communications failures during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to understand that a major problem exists and that the need for adequate disaster communications must be addressed as a high priority at all levels of government – state and local as well as federal. It also should be recognized, however, that technical solutions to improve communications interoperability is not an important issue for most jurisdictions.  There are many companies that can provide a broad spectrum of solutions or at least partial solutions. The real problem, though, is obtaining the funding needed to finance those solutions. Mobile command and communications (MCC) vehicles are one of the more important items in the overall homeland-security response equipment inventory that have been receiving more attention since Katrina devastated Mississippi, Louisiana, and other areas of the Gulf Coast.  

These vehicles can enhance public safety significantly because of the ability they provide to manage incidents on-site or very close to the scene of an incident. They also extend the reach of communications during an incident. Many jurisdictions are purchasing or seeking to purchase these vehicles because of their ability to provide communications interoperability solutions that can be managed from the front lines. The broad use of interoperability solutions, therefore, is more an issue of funding. Public safety budgets at Financing the vehicle purchase is not always the most important consideration when officials look into the possibility of purchasing a mobile command-and-communications vehicle. all levels of government are being stressed both by routine operating costs and by a major increase in fuel costs – as well as by the decisions made, on some occasions, by government officials who do not always fully understand the need for, or the “return on investment” provided by, interoperability solutions.   

Mobile command and communications vehicles, although extremely productive and for that reason alone usually cost-effective as well, are relatively expensive.  They can cost anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million or more, particularly when the high-tech systems and equipment needed for on-site solutions are installed.  At those prices, most of these vehicles are the property of state- or county-level public-safety agencies that can afford the cost – usually with the help of DHS (Department of Homeland Security) grants. However, very few of the DHS grants are allocated to local public-safety agencies – unless the jurisdiction is a major city and/or is considered to be a very high-value target for terrorists or other criminal groups. Innovative Solutions, and Inescapable Facts Because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot fund interoperability solutions across the board, it has created a National Public Safety Planning Action Committee (NPSPAC), which uses a series of radio channels in the 800 mhz range (which has been set aside for public-safety use during major national emergencies). Because these are national channels they must of course be used with great care. On the other hand, because the assigned frequencies also are national they are helpful for very large incidents but much less useful for smaller and/or more localized incidents.   

A number of public-safety radio manufacturers – e.g., Motorola and M/A-COM – have developed several innovative interoperability solutions, and there are a number of other solutions available from vendors such as ARINC (Aeronautical Research Incorporated) that have focused on products that, because of the greater versatility they provide for local agencies, have broader appeal than the NPSPAC systems have for daily use. The average MCC costs approximately $650,000 when fitted with high-tech interoperability systems and some other “bells and whistles.” Financing often needs to be very creative, therefore. Some jurisdictions seeking to purchase one or more MCC vehicles have resolved this problem by purchasing the truck or bus with funds provided by one budget account and paying for the technology needed to fully equip the MCC from another account.  

This approach also can be used in obtaining funding assistance from a combination of grants provided under: (a) the federal Urban Area Security Initiatives (UASI) program; and (b) other technology grants or funds that may be available to the same jurisdiction or community. The Department of Homeland Security has established several avenues for public-safety agencies to purchase at least some of the equipment they need to increase their ability to defend their jurisdictions from and/or respond to terrorist threats. These funding sources include, but are not limited to, the State Homeland Security Grant Program; the Urban Area Security Initiative; the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program; the Citizen Corps Program; the Emergency Management Performance Grants program; and the Metropolitan Medical Response System.          

Maintenance, Operations, and Other Cost Factors Financing the vehicle purchase is only the first and not always the most important cost factor to be considered when local officials look into the possibility of purchasing a mobile command-and-communications vehicle. Another major cost consideration is how to obtain the funds needed to sustain the operation. Jurisdictions can come up short if they do not accurately estimate the potential operational costs in advance. Those costs can easily reach $50,000 a year or more, particularly when one considers the fact that a purchasing agency will have to cover the recurring cost of such components as basic radio systems, the interoperability systems needed, a satellite downlink (for internet access and telephone connections), satellite TV connections, microwave downlinks, vehicle maintenance costs, hardware and software maintenance agreements for computers and servers, and other recurring costs.  Some of the larger MCCs carry considerably more equipment onboard. Contacting other jurisdictions that already have purchased similar, and similarly equipped, MCCs of about the same size as those being considered for purchase may be the best way to obtain helpful insights into the actual operating costs of these vehicles.   

Consideration also must be given as to how many people it will take to move, set up, and operate the vehicle for any specific type of incident or event. An extremely accurate count is needed, in other words, of the number of personnel who will have to be trained both to accomplish these seemingly simple tasks and then to sustain the operation.  This could be, in fact, the largest per-event cost associated with the purchase of a mobile command-and-communications vehicle.   Another cost factor that is of concern to at least some agencies is the need for someone to constantly be working with the vehicle to maintain training levels and equipment readiness. This requirement has persuaded some agencies to opt for assigning a full-time staff member to the vehicle. Many jurisdictions prefer interoperability solutions that can cross jurisdictions, and thus, as an ancillary benefit, provide greater capability in the local agency’s home area. Building Strength by Reducing Vulnerability The Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) already provides funding to a number of major regions around the country.  The selection of what are considered “key regions” is based on several criteria, including vulnerability. The jurisdictions selected as UASI sites are given the ability to expand their own jurisdictional boundaries to better protect a larger area.   

One reason for expanding the UASI perimeters is that this would give surrounding jurisdictions the ability to come to the aid of the primary jurisdiction – usually through memoranda of understanding and the sharing of not only equipment but also both training and personnel. For example: If the primary jurisdiction expands its area to six additional jurisdictions and the UASI provides each of those jurisdictions with equipment and training funds, the regional jurisdiction’s equipment can be pre-positioned throughout seven locations, thus making the equipment not only much more available but also less vulnerable.   In homeland defense as in so many other matters it has become abundantly clear that in unity – in the form of cooperation – there is strength. That eternal truth should be kept in mind when local leaders are formulating the plans needed to increase local preparedness capabilities without spending more than the always limited financial resources available.

Gary Simpson

Gary Simpson is a 32-year veteran of the Annapolis Police Department who, after he retired (in the rank of captain), was hired back to serve as the emergency management director for the City of Annapolis. Two years later, he shifted back to the police department as director of domestic preparedness and in that post was responsible for the department’s anti- terrorism planning, technology management, and intelligence operations. He also has served in CID, the Arson & Explosives Unit, Public Affairs, Patrol Operations, Special Operations, SWAT, the White Collar/Fraud Crimes Unit, and Communications. He left the department earlier this year to start Simpson Security Strategies LLC, a security consulting company.

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