Preparedness Enhances Communications

System on Wheels
System on Wheels
Motorola deployed this System on Wheels (SOW) in Calhoun County, Alabama. It was placed at an elevation of 900 feet and provided a communications site where there had been marginal system coverage. (Photos courtesy of Motorola Solutions.)
This mobile command center was used during the Possum Kingdom Complex wildfires in Palo Pinto County, Texas.
This mobile command center was used during the Possum Kingdom Complex wildfires in Palo Pinto County, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Parker County Emergency Management.)

Communication is consistently cited as an issue in after-action reports or critiques. Whether it is not enough, unclear, or nonexistent, it is that one thing that the fire service consistently strives to improve. On a larger scale, the systems that send and receive messages often catch some of the blame for communication woes on the fireground.

Large-scale events often provide lessons that help fire departments and other public safety organizations prepare themselves for future events. This year, the nation has had plenty of opportunity to showcase how these lessons have led to better preparation for major incidents. Two, in particular, involve communication: a tornado that touched down in several communities in Calhoun and Talladega Counties, Alabama, and the Possum Kingdom Complex wildfire in Texas. In both cases, communications technology provided by Motorola helped fill communications gaps.

Lessons Learned

In both areas, preceding incidents helped these communities prepare for future events. The technology Motorola provided came in the form of equipment on a mobile communications center and what Motorola coins as “Systems on Wheels” or “Sites on Wheels” (SOWs). The SOWs are mobile communication systems that tie into areas that have marginal coverage from a radio system. “In the case of Texas, with the wildfires, this was a case where, because of previous disasters and experiences, our customers there realized the need for this type of equipment and purchased it,” says Steve Gorecki, senior manager, media relations at Motorola. “So when these wildfires occurred this year, they were prepared. They were aware of what their needs were and, when this one happened, they had their equipment and they were prepared.”

In the case of Alabama, Gorecki says there was an 800-MHz Motorola system already in place that helped them. “But, in certain rural areas, there was a need for these SOWs where they needed to bring communications there.”

Departments can purchase SOWs, but they are also located throughout the country available to Motorola’s customers or federal agencies that require them. So, preparedness includes not only purchasing equipment but also knowing where to get it if necessary. For Calhoun and Talladega Counties, Motorola provided an SOW.

“In Talladega County, they already had an existing system,” says Lance Marrow, area sales manager for Motorola Systems. “Think of that in terms of five repeater sites. And, the specific area where they had an issue, where there was devastation and lives lost, that’s where we drove this trailer, which was configured like the existing sites. So, instead of a five-site system in the area where they had minimal coverage, we took this SOW, hooked it back into the main system, and provided coverage there. It not only hooked back into their main system, but we patched in a lot of disparate users who maybe didn’t have 800-MHz trunking.”

An SOW is a trailer with an air-conditioning unit in it to cool the equipment. It has an antenna that rises to provide the height necessary for clear communications. Inside, it’s a mini system, like a single-site system that might be found in a small town. “Its purpose is to provide communications within that area. It’s a supplement or a small mini system to a certain area,” says Marrow. “It might have six repeaters in it, a switch to provide the functionality of the repeater site. It might have a MOTOBRIDGE, which is a patching solution. In some cases it would have two or three control stations that are VHF, 800-MHz, and UHF, so they can communicate on-site.” He adds that in some cases, Motorola furnishes 50 to 60 portables as well.

Gorecki adds that an SOW is a temporary solution for an emergency where it either adds an additional site to an existing system to help in an area not already covered or it becomes a temporary communication system in an area not served by any communications at all.

Calhoun and Talladega Counties

On April 27, 2011, an F4 tornado touched down in Calhoun and Talladega Counties, Alabama. The tornado affected the town of Ohatchee and the communities of Big Oak and Webster’s Chapel. As it wreaked havoc on the area, it destroyed a fire station in Webster’s Chapel and one truck and heavily damaged another truck.

According to Chief Wade Buckner, Jacksonville (AL) Fire Department, the communications manager at the emergency operations center (EOC) requested an SOW from Motorola very early on. “It came out initially and operated in the analog mode on some of our national calling channels, providing coverage that way,” says Buckner. “Then it was patched, at another location, to the talk group that’s assigned to that area.” As the incident progressed, it turned into a whole trunking site once a microwave link was established to one of the county’s regular sites.

Buckner states that putting the SOW in service was just like taking one of the county’s mountaintop sites and placing it out in the field. “It was a whole lot more than just a communications trailer per se,” he says. “Once they got it up and running, it was a full trunking site. So it tied back to the main system and everything.” The main system is an 800-MHz P25 system.

The system went into service not because of towers lost to the tornado but because that area had marginal, at best, coverage by the county’s radio system, according Buckner. “This really enhanced that because the fire departments in that area utilize a UHF system and it just didn’t have the coverage to get back and coordinate things back to the EOC as well as this 800 system does.” The SOW was placed at an elevation of 900 feet. The unit provides coverage in the Northwest corner of Calhoun County and is unmanned.

Buckner asserts that it is important that departments identify where assets, like SOWs, are and make them part of their emergency plans. “It is very likely that we could have experienced an outage with a main site somewhere, and mobilizing one of these assets into your area could be very beneficial to you,” he says. “Most counties or states do have assets for conventional radio where one of these sites might not be necessary. But this particular piece of equipment can get a very elaborate radio system back on the air in minimal time.” SOWs also work well for extending coverage into adjacent areas if departments are covering an area with mutual aid. “If you are providing mutual aid into areas adjacent to you that may not be covered, this is another way to extend your coverage on a temporary basis,” Buckner adds.

Possum Kingdom

Motorola technology was also in use during the Possum Kingdom Complex wildfires in Palo Pinto County, Texas, in April. In this case, the technology was incorporated into a mobile command center. “We call it our mobile command platform,” says Shawn Scott, fire marshal and emergency management coordinator for Parker County, Texas. “It has repeaters, and radios, and the whole nine yards built onto this truck. But, we also have office space within the rig so we can function from there.” He says that the rig is used at any event where the fire department will be on site for awhile; where multiple agencies are working together on one incident; or, like an SOW, where there is a hole in communications. “If we have that hole in communications, much like we did with the wildfires to our west, we take the truck out and we use it to try to fill in those gaps.”

Its function during the Possum Kingdom Complex fire was to support ground and air operations. “It was the primary focus for all incoming air drops and all North Branch operations,” says Scott. “The fire stretched 50 miles back to the south. There wasn’t a good communications backbone to reach back to the south where the joint command center was. The guys in the field couldn’t get their orders from the command center. So, information was relayed to our command post. Our antenna array provided the communications link to the guys on the ground.”

Scott’s role at the incident was working with Texas DPS on field communications as deputy comm unit leader for the incident. “My job was to go out and figure out how we were going to fill communications holes,” he says. “We basically had to build our communications infrastructure from scratch for this incident.”

Challenges Addressed

Scott says that having this communications center provided was a place to work. “It gives me a place to bring my people together, come up with a plan. Then it gives me the tools to disseminate that plan to the field. And that’s exactly what it did at this Possum Kingdom Complex fire,” says Scott. An incident management team inside the truck could make on-the-fly decisions from the mobile command platform and then relay those decisions back to the area command, according to Scott. “The way the organization was when we got there compared to the way the organization was when we left was night and day,” adds Scott. “That’s been the primary key—giving these guys a place to work and a means to communicate and organize the incident. That organization is what truly saves the day.”

The truck is set up to cover all major frequency bands as well as aircraft radio. To that end, the group on the truck ran all aircraft operation relays through the truck. “So, if the guys would relay in that they had houses in danger and needed air support, that information was relayed back to the truck,” says Scott. “The division commander was in the truck and would relay that out to the aircraft to give them a location to make those drops. That was a critical role in protection of a number of the homes that were in danger out there.”

Reduced Need

Scott asserts that organization is key to getting any large incident under control. “The organization you bring with these types of vehicles is tremendous.” On the back side of that, he adds, these vehicles bring a plethora of communications tools. “With these assets, communication hasn’t been moved down the list, we’ve just found other areas of communication that need improvement.” These areas include how people communicate, either face to face or over the radio. Now that the departments have the tools, Motorola does not see as many requests for the equipment—which it views as a good thing, according to Gorecki. “We’re working directly with our customers and agencies in the field and asking, ‘What do you need?’ and we’re getting back that we don’t need anything right now. That’s a good sign to show that the customers have learned the lessons and they are prepared.”

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 17-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.

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