Apparatus, SOC Specialized

Cisco TacOps NERV: A Unique Communications Truck

Issue 9 and Volume 24.

BY PETER ONG

Cisco Systems has two Network Emergency Response Vehicles (NERVs) to reestablish and provide secure network and satellite communications for emergency responders in a disaster zone. One of the NERVs resides at Cisco San Jose, California, and the other is based at Cisco Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Sue-Lynn Hinson, manager, IT; Matt Runyan, network consulting engineer; and Ron Snyder, solutions architect, have provided the NERVs’ information. Hinson explains the roles: “‘Solutions Architect’ means Ron Snyder’s primary role for our team is to look at the big picture/future strategy for our technologies and solutions and help keep the team on the cutting edge based on what is developing in the industry,” she says. “‘Network Consulting Engineer’ means Matt Runyan’s technical expertise lies primarily in the networking realm. Think Internet infrastructure—routers, switches, wireless, etc. ‘Consulting’ refers to the fact that this is a largely external/customer facing role to assist with architecture/design/implementation/etc. As for ‘Manager, IT,’ I manage all aspects of the team—the personnel, budget, overall operations, strategy, etc. I guess something like a manager.”

Snyder is based in San Jose, California, and Hinson and Runyan are based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Each “TacOps” member usually reports to the NERV truck at the location and seldom flies cross country to serve at the other Cisco NERV.

The three Cisco TacOps members explain the purpose and characteristics of the trucks. “Both NERVs share similar vehicle and computer setup characteristics,” says Hinson. “Cisco Systems paid for the trucks. Estimated cost of [the] trucks and communications equipment is $1.5 million. The NERVs are checked for operational readiness every two weeks. They are parked at a specially designated secure area at Cisco’s campuses under 24-hour security surveillance and patrols.”

The Cisco TacOps NERV fully operational. (Photos courtesy of Cisco.)

1 The Cisco TacOps NERV fully operational. (Photos courtesy of Cisco.)

The main communications workstations inside the Cisco NERV’s body.

2 The main communications workstations inside the Cisco NERV’s body.

The conference room table with live-feed wall monitors and communications equipment.

3 The conference room table with live-feed wall monitors and communications equipment.

She continues, “The Cisco NERV is a mobile communication center that is designed to establish interoperable communications in emergency situations or for planned events. Capabilities are updated multiple times per year on a rotating maintenance window schedule. The NERV is more than just a secure network communications switchboard truck; it can also act as a small (interim) mobile command post since it has a telescoping pole with zoom camera and floodlights, conference table, interior TV monitors, and secure phones and fax machine/printers.”

Hinson explains that the TacOps NERV Mobile Communications truck started when “Cisco TacOps staff identified the need for rapidly deployable communications vehicles after responding to Hurricane Katrina. The primary goal was providing temporary yet robust communications services to served agencies, not necessarily a complete incident command solution. I say we are like ‘paramedics for communications.’ They keep you alive until you can get to the hospital; we keep you communicating until services are restored or the incident concludes.”

Today, many fire departments and law enforcement agencies drive long mobile command trucks with fold-out awnings, extendable side rooms, and no separate cab. These fancy mobile command trucks have the latest features in terms of lights; sirens; glossy, attractive lettering; and bright red, yellow, orange, blue, or white paint. Why, then, did Cisco TacOps choose this NERV International 4300 truck design and paint it gloss black? Hinson says, “Avoiding a [commercial driver’s license (CDL)] license requirement was a major consideration for the design of the NERV, as it may be driven by any of several trained individuals—full-time TacOps or other Cisco volunteers. Anything larger with expandable sides would have probably exceeded the weight limit for nonCDL.

“TacOps have a different mission/environment from the typical public safety/emergency response vehicle. [A] public safety vehicle may be out in the middle of the highway and responding through traffic with lights and sirens and hence need to have as much glow-in-the-dark visibility as possible. The TacOps mission is typically not related to smaller responses but rather to large-scale incidents. We initially had no logos on the trucks as we did not want the publicity. We finally added them after a few years of people misidentifying [sic] us. If we had to go back and do it over, we might not paint them black. They look great but can be a bit of a solar oven, and that increases the HVAC needs. All our newer vehicles/enclosed trailers are white to reflect heat.

“Yes, it can get warm inside the NERV, especially if the outside ambient temperature is hot. We have the largest HVAC units available for this type of system. Our routers and switches will increase air flow to their electronic components to maintain optimum operational temperature. We can close a pocket door between the engineering and command sections to minimize noise. Sometimes we may turn off unused systems to save power, heat, and noise.

“The NERV has an onboard 20-kW generator, with fuel fed from the truck’s saddle tanks. If both saddle tanks are full, the generator can power the NERV on full load for approximately 72 hours,” says Hinson. In the event of sudden power loss from shore power or generator, uninterruptible power supplies can power the networking gear for 15 to 30 minutes to allow for refueling or a graceful shutdown to prevent damage. DC loads (radios and lighting) are powered from batteries with AC chargers. “There are no solar panels due to limited space on the roof,” Hinson points out. “Power requirements of the NERV are beyond most transportable solar power systems. Our team is constantly assessing the best way to incorporate alternative energy sources in our mobile assets.”

THE CISCO NERV COMMUNICATIONS INSIDE

Cisco’s TacOps members explain the NERV body’s interior layout and communications equipment, noting that all of the consoles have digital communications linkage. The core networking gear is all installed in one row of standard 19-inch racks. There are a total of three A/C units on the NERV, and all can be used to cool equipment. There are nine seats total: three in the engineering section and six in the conference section. The truck was not designed for communications on the move, so there are no seat belts in the body. The cab can accommodate two to three people. There are three workstations on the NERV: two in the engineering section and one accessible from outside of the NERV in what is called the “commander’s panel.” None of the NERV electronics are liquid-cooled except the generator.

Communications and computer equipment improve each year with smaller antennae and sensors mounted on vehicles as electronic and microchip miniaturization technology advances. Has the 2006-2007 NERV truck reflected these changes? Hinson says, “There are no tall SATCOM domes, whip antennas, or other protrusions in order to limit the overall height of the vehicle. Vehicles with higher clearance requirements are sometimes restricted in routes. Some longer antennae are removed for travel to avoid trees. [NERV] height is 13 feet 5 inches.”

Cisco TacOps NERV truck at a disaster scene.

4 Cisco TacOps NERV truck at a disaster scene.

TacOps team members at the workstations. Note the height of the communications wall.

5 TacOps team members at the workstations. Note the height of the communications wall.

With the advent of the smartphone, touchscreens, OLED TVs, artificial intelligence, language translation, and voice-recognition software, computers have reduced in size and become powerful in the palm of one’s hand. Large electronic communications devices have become outdated and obsolete. Hinson and the Cisco TacOps Team detail the path of the NERV’s communications upgrades since the mid 2000s. The main focus of the TacOps team and the NERV is providing the “pipes” (i.e., Internet and telephone) to served agencies. They typically provide their own endpoints, similar to bringing a laptop to a WiFi hotspot. All equipment being considered for installation in the NERV has to be thoroughly tested for austere environments. For example, would a touchpad perform satisfactorily when a user has gloves on? Can voice-recognition software recognize commands given by a firefighter with his self-contained breathing apparatus on?

Systems are of varying ages. Most of the networking equipment is less than a year old. TVs are LED but not 4K. In a deployed environment, there is typically not enough bandwidth to support streaming 4K video. There is a software control panel that can be used as a single pane of glass control panel to turn on or off all the major networking components on the NERV. This in-house-developed Web application can also be used on smartphones/tablets. The NERV workstation PCs are mainly designed for operating the systems on the truck (network security, video surveillance, radio interoperability, network management, etc.). Cisco always overspec’d them so they will last for many years into the future.

The NERV relies on secure communication channels through use of encrypted virtual private networks (VPNs) using the highest commercial grade (next generation) encryption. The NERV also incorporates several layers of security to include the Advanced Security Appliance (ASA) with Firepower and Cisco Umbrella. Respectively, the NERV can accommodate about 1,000 Internet users via WiFi or cable and has a satellite uplink speed of 5 Mbps and a network speed of 30-40 Mbps. NERV truck communications options offered are secure radio interoperability across frequencies and channels, voice-over-IP wireless and wired Cisco phones, networked wired and wireless secure communications such as Internet with firewall and highly secure VPN, networked video surveillance monitoring and recording via video cameras and CCTV, and secure high-security high-definition video conferencing with remote parties. There is no software installed on the NERV to translate language. Several Internet Web sites assist with this, and Cisco has access to telephone translators as well.

During disasters, radio transmissions could become garbled, or static and background noise could interfere with audio communications. However, the NERV’s purpose isn’t a sound stage as it lacks the audio filtration/amplification and automatic closed caption electronics found in a recording studio. “Our radio systems don’t have any specific audio filtering on them beyond what’s built into the radios,” says Runyan. “Most of the time we are just bridging one radio system into another. Also, we do not have any sort of transcription system (speech to text) for the radios.” Hinson adds, “Some of our staff/volunteers are multilingual with languages including Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Tagalog, and a few others.”

She continues, “Through our training and previous experience, we are also able to tailor our discussions to varying levels of technical expertise, as well as other specialized audiences such as emergency responders and military. We can ‘speak geek’ as well as the incident command system.”

The NERV can also use hard-wired Ethernet connection for uplink, according to Hinson. “This is typically how the NERV is set up during indoor trade shows. Traffic is secured over a VPN with next-generation level commercial encryption. A separate independent satellite phone is also integrated as a backup voice system.”

The TacOps NERV team still prepares for the future regarding communications upgrades. “TacOps is constantly assessing the communication requirements for disaster response,” notes Hinson. “We strive [to] improve our response process and technology after every deployment based on the lessons learned from that incident. Lessons learned from the NERVs were incorporated into the emergency communications unit (ECU) design (e.g., better structured cabling design inside/outside the vehicle). We will likely replace the NERVs at some point. As a showcase for customers, we may also build other vehicles with cloud-managed networking similar to some of our deployable kits.

“Most gear is rack-mounted and intended to be replaced on a regular schedule—three to five years. Some is more specialized or not as quickly outdated and stays for longer. We try to keep both trucks identical in terms of equipment for ease of maintenance.

“We periodically evaluate all our technologies to see if they meet our application requirements, are supported by the respective vendors, and meet recommended security practices. We then prioritize our upgrades and test thoroughly in a lab environment before moving that tech onto a truck. Matching up hardware, operating system, and application dependencies is a huge challenge. PC upgrades will certainly be a part of this process; we have prioritized network security and speed improvements.”

The Cisco NERV and supporting utility pickup.

6 The Cisco NERV and supporting utility pickup.

The Cisco NERV with utility pickup and ECU trailer behind the NERV.

7 The Cisco NERV with utility pickup and ECU trailer behind the NERV.

DEPLOYING THE NERV TO DISASTER ZONES

The two Cisco TacOps Teams on the West and East Coasts are much larger than the three Cisco members in this article and normally stay on their side of the coast for emergency communications reestablishment response. Note that the corporate Cisco TacOps and Disaster Incident Response Teams (DIRT) are not first responders and search, rescue, and recovery teams even though some TacOps members are former firefighters or police officers. Cisco TacOps and DIRTs’ roles are to reestablish communications after a disaster and to set up an emergency mobile networked command center for the government agencies to use.

Hinson explains, “Each team typically handles its own local events and incidents whenever possible. That being said, we often mix and match. For example, we usually have team members and equipment from both coasts respond to international incidents, big planned events like technology conferences, etc. together. Or, if we are in the throes of multiple simultaneous events/crises, or one NERV is tied up, we will pull the other truck and whatever personnel are available regardless of home base. One time the Research Triangle Park NERV was already committed to something, and we needed a truck in Florida. So, you guessed it, the California NERV came cross-country to pinch-hit.

“Major disaster deployments involve rotations of personnel from both Research Triangle Park and San Jose-based team members. Cisco volunteers within DIRT come from all over the world.”

Cisco provides its TacOps and NERV emergency communications service at no charge to the receiving organizations. “There is no fee charged to the requesting organization for TacOps deployments,” says Hinson. “At one point, Cisco considered doing this as a managed service but decided it was better as a best-effort pro-bono community service. The TacOps manager determines the size of the deployment team based on our assessment of the customer request. We can push additional personnel and technology assets if needed via commercial carriers.

“There is not [a] set severity level or geographic size limit needed for the NERV to deploy. Availability, location, and communication requirements determine whether the NERV can support disaster responses. Typically, the NERV is deployed for incidents exceeding one operational period due to travel times. We work with local, state, and national government agencies; first responders; critical infrastructure; and nongovernment organizations. We have worked with many groups from the smallest fire and police departments all the way through the United Nations.”

The TacOps Team does have emergency plans in case the NERV breaks down or is damaged during the deployment. “The NERV, like any other specialized vehicle, has its share of mechanical issues, and these do increase with age,” explains Hinson. “We check the truck biweekly to ensure mission readiness and track issues with online spreadsheets so they get addressed before an emergency. If something arises during a mission, we work with various vendors to repair or replace parts as needed. As soon as a problem is identified, our team will initiate a process to fix it. We always try to do some basic troubleshooting to know how to proceed. If the work is outside of our expertise, we will take the NERV to a truck repair shop or call a tow truck/mobile mechanic to get it fixed as soon as possible. If there are significant impacts or delays to a mission, we can deploy additional Cisco assets to respond.”

Once at the scene, Hinson details where the NERV sets up. “Just like a fire scene, apparatus placement has many considerations for comms vehicles: safety (overhead power lines, dead air space for carbon monoxide, soft/uneven surfaces), mission parameters (satellite look angles, line-of-sight for wireless), cable length into served agency facilities, shore power availability, personnel and support vehicle access/egress, etc. We typically colocate with our served agencies.

“From a shutdown state, the NERV can be set up to be online with services within about 15 minutes. Once physical setup is complete (stabilization jacks, chocks, stairs deployed), the generator is started and basic lighting turned on first, then removable antennae are installed on the roof, and the satellite dish then gets deployed and mast extended. Then various systems inside the truck are started. Some multitasking with multiple team members can shave off a few minutes of startup time.”

Hinson explains that the three main things that need to be maintained before and after each disaster on the NERV are “loading and unloading of additional communications equipment, basic cleaning and organization, and keeping a list of everything we change or damage on a deployment so it can be put back to baseline configuration or repaired.”

Based on opposite coasts, does one NERV and TacOps team get more deployments than the other? Hinson says, “Both NERVs are identical and get about the same amount of recognition. The San Jose truck had the first emergency deployment at the Harris Fire near San Diego, California, in 2007. The North Carolina truck holds the longest deployment record of about 45 days straight at the Evans Road Fire in Eastern North Carolina in 2008.”

“The truck has not been tested to see if it can fit in any [USAF] cargo plane,” says Runyan. “After the Japan earthquake in 2011, we got a quote to fly the NERV there and it was more than the vehicle was worth. We do have a trailer version of the NERV that was designed to fit on a C-17, also never tested. The reality is, air cargo transport is so expensive for large items that it is not practical for our missions. We can send dozens of portable kits in Pelican cases for what it might cost to ship one vehicle for international disaster incidents.”

THE NERV USUALLY DOESN’T ROLL ALONE

“No support vehicle is required to deploy with the NERV, but the utility truck is often deployed with the NERV to carry extra gear and provide a means to procure diesel fuel to refill the NERV’s tanks,” says Hinson. “The NERV has standard vehicle suspension. The equipment is not specifically shock-, vibration-, or EMF-dampened. Some equipment is braced to withstand extra vibration. We try to use solid state drives whenever possible for reliability.”

When traveling to a disaster zone, roadside debris and closures could hinder access and mobility and even damage the tires of the NERV. Hinson explains how this is addressed. “Good planning and reconnaissance are key; we try to get known safe travel routes before we leave. Crowd-sourced GPS apps sometimes help avoid traffic and road closures if cellular data service is available. We also typically send a second vehicle ahead to scout the route and radio back to the NERV truck with any issues. Sometimes, we will have emergency escorts from law enforcement or other emergency services, and we maintain contact via radio. A special truck GPS is programmed with the height and weight of the vehicle and routes us around any potential obstructions. The driver is ultimately responsible for safe operation of the vehicle, and if we can’t get there safely, we turn around.”

Cisco also has the ECUs, essentially trailers with satellite dishes on top. Hinson says that the NERV doesn’t have a tow hitch since towing an ECU would put it over the CDL weight limit. Instead, the utility pickup tows an ECU. “The ECUs have an identical technology package as the NERV with all the same capabilities,” says Hinson. “The ECU is another mobile asset that can be deployed to a different area to support additional sites or combined with the NERV for expanded work space.”

The Cisco NERV next to a USAF HH-60.

8 The Cisco NERV next to a USAF HH-60.

THE FUTURE

As of early 2019, the two Cisco TacOps NERVs are around 12 years old and have driven to practically every deployment in the United States. Cisco is looking into replacing them in the future since the manufacturer, Wolf Coach, is no longer in business. While plans haven’t been finalized, the new NERVs might be painted in a different color (such as white to reflect heat) and take advantage of the latest communications gear such as Cloud computing or speech to text.

While the towed ECU trailers and other TacOps portable communications assets such as vans, pickups, and SUVs can pinch-hit for the large NERV, having a NERV truck present acts as an interim secure networked mobile command center and an enduring base of communications operations.

One thing is certain: The two Cisco NERVs located on opposite sides of the United States and their TacOps and DIRT Teams will be there to provide free and secure emergency communications setup after a disaster on request from government agencies.

PETER ONG is a freelance writer who writes short stories, articles, poetry, and reviews.