If you have served in the EMS world for any length of time, you have found that during any major event, communications is usually the number one issue. After 9/11 we saw the country beef up its hazmat decontamination response. After Hurricane Katrina, we saw similar changes with disaster communications.
It has been proven that during a major event, even if the communications infrastructure is still intact, it will be overloaded in the area where the event is occurring. For those of us on the East and Gulf coasts, we know that at least some part of the communication infrastructure will be affected after a hurricane. Regardless of the type of disaster, during major incidents that affect a large area or mass of people, emergency responders will need additional communication capabilities.
Emergency management agencies in many states have built several caches of mobile and portable radios, including portable radio towers that are strategically located across the state. These can be moved into an affected area when permanent towers have been knocked out of service from physical damage or due to loss of power.
Most nationwide cellular companies have some type of portable towers that can be moved into regions that have been damaged. They can also be placed in areas that have overloaded the local cellular infrastructure due to local events. Some cellular companies have memorandums of understanding with disaster teams to respond to affected areas with them if they have resources available.
Communications infrastructure is an area that each response group should investigate to determine all of the resources available and build them into disaster-response plans. In our case, the Capital Regional Advisory Committee State Medical Assistance Team is lucky enough to have a hospital communications asset that is available to us during deployments.
WakeMed Health and Hospitals has addressed our local communications issues with the availability of an interoperable communications vehicle. The Mobile Communication, Coordination and Command Vehicle (MC3) is based on the Freightliner MT55 chassis LDV vehicle platform.
Given the size of our hospital system and the different locations of our facilities, including the critical care transport program, the ability to continually answer, transfer and dispatch calls is a major part of day-to-day business. If communications is lost for any reason at one of our facilities, MC3 can be moved to the affected location and assist with establishing communications back to our communications and data center. The hospital has agreed for this asset to be used as a local, regional, state or federal resource as needed.
MC3 provides the ability to link into WakeMed’s data center, tapping into the clinical, communications and emergency services platform. This connectivity makes MC3 a remote extension of the hospital.
The unit houses two Cisco routers that provide full connectivity, firewall protection, WAN optimization and intelligence to connect back into WakeMed over a variety of network transports. This can be accomplished by setting up a VPN tunnel via any standard Ethernet connection. These connections can be split and users bandwidth throttled, making sure that personnel have access to the Internet without wasting bandwidth.
If cell signal is available, MC3 will use a cell uplink to establish the connection. If no terrestrial based connection is available, MC3 can connect via satellite, automatically locking on to a geosynchronous communications satellite and providing up to 5 MBs of connectivity.
MC3 also houses a Cisco VoIP telephone system. The phones are preprogrammed to integrate into WakeMed’s internal telephone system, which allows hospital personnel to call staff in MC3 just as if they were located within the hospital. The telephone system is equipped with voicemail and wireless VoIP phones that can be utilized with the Wi-Fi mesh system. With the 40-foot mast fully extended, the mesh Wi-Fi can blanket an area large enough to support an average size base of operations, providing encrypted data and voice communications.
MC3 has several Lenovo laptop workstations that have the capability to operate as a computer-aided dispatching position to assist WakeMed Police as well as WakeMed mobile critical care units. MC3 has radio capability for local and statewide law enforcement, EMS, fire and emergency management.
MC3 also has an ACU-M that allows the capability of tying local portable radios together with portable radios that are maintained on the unit. Communications units should have similar functionality to enable them to communicate shortly after arriving on site. The mobile radios can be programmed with other needed frequencies in the event the unit responds into a different region and radio communications will be maintained for a long-term deployment.
MC3 is also equipped with a HAM radio, which can be used to relay information from isolated areas during major events. When used as an incident command post, the MC3 features a PolyCom video conferencing system, which can handle standard definition video calls. MC3 can also initiate video conference calls to anywhere in the world via standard IP H.323 video.
With its four perimeter cameras, plus a mast camera with low-light capability, MC3 can enhance scene security. Additionally, surveillance video is captured via DVR and can be remotely viewed by relay photos and video. The vehicle can also operate for 72 hours without being refueled.
Building Mobile Communications Units
Every agency has different and specific needs. When looking for a communications vehicle to assist your agency and region during a man-made or natural disaster, finding local resources that can assist you as well as finding subject matter experts on tactical communications will benefit your agency in determining the overall needs. They can also assist in building out the communications that you need while maintaining the needed security. Check with other local services to verify that you are not reproducing a capability that is already available, but rather building to address the needs of your area and partners.
Editor’s Note: Technical data on MC3 was provided by John Tuman, director of network services at WakeMed Health and Hospitals.