Interactive Interoperability: 2011 California command van rally

The latest, and greatly expanded, California Mobile Command Center Rally both showcased communications interoperability tools and techniques and put them to the test

By Randall D. Larson

The third annual California Mobile Command Center (MCC) Rally was held at the NASA Research Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View, in conjunction with the second annual Disaster Management Initiative organized by Carnegie Mellon University — Silicon Valley.

Taking place on May 22 and 23, it drew more than 400 communications and disaster management professionals, amateurs and volunteers who toured some 20 MCCs and attended more than 30 training sessions, including both classroom presentations and hands-on, interactive exercises in emergency and disaster communications and interoperability.

Inspired by a similar event in Fairfax County, Va., I developed the MCC Rally in 2009 for the California Fire Chiefs Association (CFCA) Communications Section and the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal-EMA). It was originally an interactive display of regional MCC technology, but this year we partnered with Carnegie Mellon University — Silicon Valley (CMU-SV) to expand the event's training component.

CMU-SV, which ran a public safety training facility at the campus of the NASA Research Center at the former Moffett Field Naval Air Station, had held its first Disaster Management Initiative (DMI), a series of educational seminars, in 2010. Combining the vehicle display with an expanded slate of workshops and exercises was a way of fulfilling our original goals for the Rally, while giving CMU an added hands-on bonus with state-of-the-art MCC technology.

Public/private planning
As it turned out, the partnership between CFCA Communications, Cal-EMA and CMU-SV in planning and developing this year's MCC Rally/DMI exemplified the very kind of partnership that would be the focus of the event itself.

Despite the name or type of agency wearing the Incident Commander's vest, any major disaster will require the close cooperation of a myriad of responders fulfilling a variety of operational, logistical and support activities. As we've seen in the responses to Oklahoma City, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, no single agency, no matter how large or well trained and equipped, can handle a long-term response and recovery operation resulting from a catastrophic event.

Public safety has for many years practiced working together through joint response training. Bringing in the considerable resources of private industry, the military and various non-governmental organizations is the next step in becoming better prepared to manage a major disaster in one's own jurisdiction.

To Martin Griss, director of Carnegie Mellon's Silicon Valley campus, the primary benefit of combining the DMI with the Rally was that it brought these separate communities together to learn from each other and gain a deeper understanding of what each can do and how they can work together to better prepare.

"Having each of us see the various vehicles and technologies and try some interoperability tests," he added, "gave us a greater appreciation of the different needs and challenges."

The merging of ICS-savvy field communications professionals with Griss' team of experienced educators and researchers proved to be effective, mirroring the diversity of perspectives that would be found in a real disaster response and recovery mixture of public and private entities.

Rolling stock
While a state budgetary mandate prohibiting non-essential travel curtailed the participation of a number of state-owned vehicles, the event still attracted a wide range of MCCs. The mixture of different sizes and types of units was invaluable in part because it replicated what responders would find in a real disaster, as resources throughout the region come together to support incident response and management.

From a restored 1975 Miller Meteor ambulance with a vintage Motorola radio set or a trailerized amateur radio cache carefully maintained by volunteers, to LDV's mobile EOC for the Palo Alto Police Department, Farber's mobile emergency management unit for Travis Air Force Base, and SVI Trucks' new $1.3 million mobile command/communications vehicle for the Monterey County and Salinas Fire Department, the MCC Rally had plenty of high-tech operations to impress attendees.

The challenge of Plugfest
While MCCs are designed to operate well within their jurisdictions, any major disaster will result in the response of multiple command units from various players and support agencies. Interconnecting these vehicles both technologically and operationally will challenge an incident's command staff if the vehicle operators aren't already tuned into connecting with their neighbors.

With that in mind, the vehicles attending this year's Rally faced the Plugfest, an interactive hands-on exercise designed to test the baseline capability of digital data-sharing among emergency communications vehicles and also uncover touch-points where functionality could be most easily added.

Twelve exercises of increasing difficulty were developed, from sending an e-mail to another vehicle in the Rally and generating and annotating a map of the event, to capturing video and streaming it over the Net to other responders on the event.

CMU-SV Distinguished Research Fellow Steve Ray, who served as the Rally's Logistics manager, designed the Plugfest to measure the degree of interoperability between the emergency communications vehicles and with EOCs, a replica of which was set up in a pair of side-by-side CMU trailers in the vehicle display area. Results of the data exchange were recorded to provide a baseline set of measurements.

In addition, close review of the Rally's communications plan was maintained by NASA's spectrum-management officer to ensure that no interference would affect the facility's own sensitive radio equipment.

"The workshops and exercises allowed both theory and ideas to come together with real-world operational equipment and practice in a controlled environment," said Cal-EMA Coastal Region auxiliary communications officer Jim Aspinwall, the Rally's Operations Chief.

"New and improved ideas and technologies need to work with, or determine reasonable changes to, some very specific constraints (operational, legal, regulatory) and within the available infrastructure," he cautioned. "Information and its delivery technologies are very valuable, but not all information can or should be freely shared."

Information and exchange
The 2011 MCC Rally/Disaster Management Initiative brought together a wealth of technology, educational insight and experience, and demonstrated how a partnership between diverse disciplines and public and private entities can work together to achieve cooperation, commitment and a kind of management interoperability that's essential in today's high-tech world of disaster management.

Kenneth Dueker, coordinator of homeland security and public outreach for the Palo Alto Police Department, found the event's value to be two-fold: "First, it allowed government agencies to exchange ideas and best practices related to evolving technologies."

"Second, and really more importantly, it provided both a social and academic touch point between such agencies and the diverse community resources in our region, such as ARES/RACES ham radio operators, graduate students working on the latest networking systems, and private-sector and non-government organizations."

This was the third year in a row that George Gadd, a supervising dispatcher for the San Jose Police Department, brought his department's command unit to the Rally. "The ability to see and share information between the various private-sector and public safety agencies keeps me coming back.

"The Plugfest highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each participant command/communications vehicle. My goal over the next few months is to improve our digital capabilities within the San Jose Police command/communications van to enable us to interface easily with other entities at an event."

"The rapid adoption of new technologies and applications such as WiFi, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, etc., is providing an entirely new communications landscape and opportunity for the disaster manager," said John Wray, chief technical officer for PC3 Solutions, who was impressed by the array of flexible and interactive technology displayed and demonstrated. "Agencies that are able to adopt and integrate these new methods with their existing systems will be able to expand their information collection and dissemination and manage disasters more efficiently and rapidly."

"They key is to learn by doing," Griss concluded, "spending time trying the technologies and processes, and discussing alternatives with experienced people."

About the author
Randall D. Larson retired after 25 years in public safety communications, most spent as a senior dispatcher and field communications director for the San Jose (Calif.) Fire Department. A former communications specialist on FEMA US&R Task Force 3 (CA-TF3) and a field communications trainer for the California Fire Chiefs Association and First Contact 9-1-1 LLC, Larson founded the California MCC Rally in 2009 and served as Plans Section Chief for the 2011 event. A frequent writer on public safety and other topics, Larson is also editor of

Craig Allyn Rose provides photographic services to the San Jose, Santa Clara County and City of Santa Clara fire departments. His images also cover travel, sports, wildlife, urban landscapes, and aircraft and railroad subjects and have appeared in a wide variety of publications. See more of Craig's emergency services photography at

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