SOC Vehicles Becoming Nerve Centers of Fireground Operations

Alan M. Petrillo

Special Operations Command (SOC) vehicles have become nerve centers at complex fire scenes and natural disaster calls, serving to link all related communications, direct operations, function as rehab centers, and even issue weather reports.

Incident Hub

The makers of these vehicles acknowledge that they must put together apparatus that becomes the base for sophisticated electronics, radios, sensors, cameras, lights, and other systems to allow the SOC commander to control a situation. "Special Operations Command vehicles are completely different animals from heavy rescue trucks," says Bill Proft, senior chief engineer and market manager for rescue vehicles at Pierce Manufacturing, Inc. "While the basic structure is similar to walk-in and nonwalk-in rescue bodies, the interior is very different."

Proft says typically an SOC vehicle will have a flat floor in the body from front to back, with all storage being kept below the floor level. "The storage compartments might be about 16½ inches high because we want the interior space to be like an office," he notes. "A layout we typically build is an interior area for computer work stations, a galley, storage spaces, and a conference room toward the rear of the body."

In most cases, Pierce has been building SOC vehicles on two-door-cab chassis, Proft points out, because the intent of the apparatus is not to transport a lot of personnel but to get to the scene to control operations. "However, we have done some SOC vehicles on four-door-cab chassis," he adds, "but those were more fireground command centers or for hazardous materials control."

(1) Pierce Manufacturing built this Special Operations Command
(SOC) vehicle for the Bakersfield (CA) Fire Department. (Photo
courtesy of Pierce Manufacturing Inc.)

Various Intents

Scott Oyen, vice president of sales for Rosenbauer, says his company builds three types of SOC walk-in vehicles: a SOC set up as a true command vehicle with computers, satellite communications, a weather station, and conference area; a similar vehicle but with a mobile laboratory and specialized equipment for hazardous materials added; and a SOC with rehab and crew support areas.

Donley Frederickson, Rosenbauer's national sales manager, says Arlington County, Virginia, recently bought a Rosenbauer SOC vehicle where the entire back of the body is a command center with an interior wall filled with computer stations, a weather station, and satellite communications. The unit also carries two special compartments to house a pair of robotic vehicles.

For the Chattanooga (TN) Fire Department, Frederickson says, Rosenbauer built a SOC unit on a three-door-cab chassis with communications, weather and satellite capabilities, as well as a conference or rehab room at the rear.

"We're working on a SOC vehicle for a Midwest fire department built on a three-door extra-long cab chassis where there's a desk and command center behind the cab. The rest of the body contains a wall of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) equipment, a squad bench, other storage, and an area for rehab," Frederickson points out. "The outside compartments are set up for rescue tools, including a back compartment with a drain in it that has a pull-out tray to carry the department's SCUBA vests and packs."

(2) The city of Ontario, California, purchased a SOC and hazmat unit
from KME. (Photo courtesy of KME.)

Multipurpose Command Centers

Kevin Arnold, rescue and specialty vehicle product manager for Ferrara Fire Apparatus, says Ferrara recently built a SOC vehicle for the West Baton Rouge (LA) Homeland Security on a two-door Freightliner M2-106 chassis that has three slide-out sections, two retractable masts at the rear of the body, two cameras, and a satellite dish. "The two masts are pneumatic telescoping versions," Arnold notes. "The one with the camera is 32 feet high and the point-to-point radio communication mast is 42 feet high. They added the satellite dish to use as a backup for their radio communication.

"There are two 12-foot-long slide-outs in the front, one on each side," Arnold continues, "which drop down when they slide out so the floor is flush, which makes a nice conference room area. The rear slide-out is for the radio dispatch area." The middle section of the body contains a galley and a toilet separated by a pocket door.

The West Baton Rouge SOC vehicle is stabilized by a Quadra Big Foot system, Arnold adds. "It stabilizes the vehicle so when the slide-outs are deployed, the vehicle won't rock back and forth when they put 15 to 20 people in there."

Arnold says that after Ferrara built a bumper-pulled 32-foot-long bunk trailer for the Livingston Parish (LA) Sheriff's Department-a unit with a dozen bunks, full kitchen, shower, generator, and on-board water-it then built a 48-foot-long fifth-wheel SOC trailer for the department, containing a dispatch center, conference rooms, galley, shower, toilet, and sleeping berths.

Proft notes that slide-out rooms are getting very popular on SOC vehicles. "Very often a customer will put two slide-out rooms on the passenger side of the vehicle, usually one in front of the rear axle and one behind it," he says. "These slide-outs extend the width of the apparatus by 30 inches, which is a lot of usable space along the interior wall of the vehicle."

Supplemental Power

In most cases, SOC customers choose to have standalone diesel generators installed on their vehicles because of their quieter operation, Proft notes. "They are inside insulated compartments, and the generators are mounted on rubber insulators so the amount of noise that comes into the body is much less," Proft says. "The smaller SOCs are putting in 10-kW generators, but the larger ones are carrying 30-kW generators and even dual 20-kW generators."

The bulk of the power draw on a SOC vehicle is from the electronics gear, Proft points out-computers; communications; digital and infrared camera systems; recording devices; phones; galley equipment like microwave ovens and coffee makers; scene lighting on the exterior, including light towers; and even an incinerating toilet.

(3) The Hardin County (LA) Sheriff's Department turned to Ferrara Fire
Apparatus for this mobile command center trailer. (Photo courtesy of
Ferrara Fire Apparatus.)

Demand Remains

Andy Yenser, rescue truck product manager for KME, says that the fire industry has seen a bit of a decline in the market for SOC vehicles because federal grant funding is not as prevalent as in recent years. Still, he says there are a good number of SOCs being built. "The ones we build are mainly on custom chassis, although we have done some on commercial chassis," he says. "Those on the custom chassis are often built on our Severe Service S2D, a shortened two-door cab that's popular in cities where they're already using our Severe Service cabs as part of their fleets."

Yenser says KME is seeing an even split between SOC units with full command centers, communications, and conference rooms on the interior, compared with SOCs where the front half of the body is a command unit and the back half is set up as a walk-around for equipment storage. "Sometimes they'll put in slide-out body portions," Yenser notes, "and we can do any length they want, but the extension width is 30 inches. We also have stabilization for the vehicle, usually four jacks to take the front and rear suspension out of play so the truck doesn't rock."

Typical KME SOC vehicles have recessed lighting around the body, Yenser says, sometimes light towers on top, along with communications and camera masts or towers. "The tower or mast heights are customer-driven," Yenser notes. "We've made them up to 40 feet high."

Yenser observes that KME has built about twice as many SOC vehicles on single rear axles as those on dual rear axles. "The challenge is in determining the mission of the truck," he adds. "You have to fully understand that, and once you determine the mission, you can set the truck up better so it works best for the fire department."

(4) Hackney built a SOC unit for the Oakville (Ontario, Canada) Fire
Department on a three-door cab and chassis with command center
functions in the walk-in body. (Photo courtesy of Hackney.)

Specing Trailers

Jim Kirvida, president and founder of CustomFire, says his company recently built a SOC trailer for the State of Wisconsin Emergency Management System-a 45-foot-long gooseneck triaxle trailer with four slide-outs (two each side, forward, and rear). "The slide-outs in front make a large work area, while a sliding door makes the rear area completely private," Kirvida says.

The Wisconsin SOC trailer has two telescoping towers in the rear, a 54-foot-high communications antenna, a 22-foot high digital and infrared camera mast, as well as a satellite dish, three rooftop air conditioning units, and a 20-kW Onan generator.

CustomFire also built a SOC unit for Douglas County, Wisconsin, on a Kenworth T300 chassis with a 30-foot-long command body on a single rear axle. The vehicle is 311 inches long and 101 inches wide and has an interior height of seven feet and a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 40,600 pounds. "Only one in a dozen is this kind of super heavy duty command vehicle with a walk-through between the cab and the body," Kirvida says. "This one has a Cummins ISC 330-hp diesel engine, an Allison 3000 EVS automatic transmission, a 90-gallon fuel tank, and a PTO-driven Onan 25-kW generator."

It also carries the Quadra Big Foot leveling system, a Will-Burt NightScan light tower with six 9,000-watt lights, a 20-foot telescoping camera mast, a 56-foot telescoping communications antenna, a kitchenette, three furnaces, and communications and computer equipment.

(5) This SOC trailer built by CustomFire for the State of Wisconsin
Emergency Management System is 45 feet long, rides on triple axles,
and has four slide-out sections. The two masts at the rear are for
communications as well as infrared and digital imaging. (Photo
courtesy of CustomFire.)

Grant-Driven

Ed Smith, director of sales and marketing for Hackney, says historically a lot of grant money was spent after September 11, 2001, for SOC vehicles set up with conference rooms, communications suites, and rehab areas. "The next wave of money went into communications technology to make the vehicles able to talk across the various agencies," Smith says. "Typically we see the SOC vehicles going to larger population centers where they are used as uninterruptable communications centers."

Most of the SOC units Hackney has built have been on commercial chassis, Smith notes, although it has built a number of trailer SOC units too. "Typically they want multiple large conference rooms, command offices, networked computers and communications equipment, a galley of some sort, potable water on board, and toilet facilities," he points out. "Perimeter lighting is standard on these vehicles, as are light towers, repeater antennas for 800-megahertz communications systems, audio visual systems, and tower-mounted digital cameras."

(6) Alexis Fire Equipment built this SOC vehicle for USA Disaster
Relief. The unit is constructed on an International 70-400 4WD chassis
and has a 180-gallon fuel tank, a Will-Burt NightScan light tower, and
a Harrison 30-kW hydraulic generator. (Photo courtesy of Alexis Fire
Equipment.)

Shifting Sizes

Doug Gau, project manager for Alexis Fire Equipment, has built walk-in SOC vehicles for customers but recently has seen customers moving toward smaller SOC units based on Chevy Tahoe and pickup-truck-type vehicles. "They're making them into command-type vehicles with radio communication and computers, setting them up as command locations where everyone can go to discuss a plan," Gau says. "We'll put command organizers in the back of these vehicles to go with the radios, computer, and materials they use for references. Some even have weather stations in them."

Gau points out that some departments want the smaller SOC vehicles to be inconspicuous, so Alexis installs hidden warning lights inside light bars and places few outside markings on the vehicles. "They may be used for dual purpose," Gau says, "for instance, as a chief's vehicle but also as a SOC unit when it's needed."

Alexis built a walk-in command vehicle for the USA Disaster Relief Corp., in Lake Bluff, Illinois, which takes the unit to disaster scenes. The SOC unit is on an International 70-400 four-wheel-drive four-door cab and chassis with a walk-in rear area, carrying a 180-gallon fuel tank, a 30-kW Harrison hydraulic generator, and a 50-foot Will-Burt NightScan light tower.

"We had to build a custom rack for all the communications gear," Gau says. "They have about 30 different radios and ways to communicate, including Iridium and other satellite phones. The back section has 15 monitors ranging from five-inch screens to 20-inchers." The front of the unit has a custom bumper with a brush guard made from ¾-inch plate steel and three-inch heavy wall tubing, Gau says, and carries a 16,000-pound capacity Warn winch. The exterior body compartments carry Hurst a hydraulic spreader and cutters, and the unit is set up to use an Amkus high-angle rescue system.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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