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4 keys to buying a mobile command vehicle

Having a command vehicle will help manage large-scale incidents, but they don't come cheap; here's what you need to know before buying one


Once upon a time, having a dedicated Mobile Command Vehicle might have been viewed as want-to-have resource for many fire and EMS departments. Today, however, many of those same departments are now finding that an MCV is a need-to-have vehicle in their fleet because of events like natural and man-made disasters; large-scale structure fires; urban-interface and wildlands fires; and criminal acts resulting in multiple-casualty incidents.

These types of emergency events get a multi-agency response that can include mutual-aid fire companies; law enforcement; and local, state and federal emergency response. The modern MCV can provide the incident commander with the tool needed for communication, coordination and control.

Self-propelled MCVs — as opposed to towed units — are the more popular choice for many departments. These vehicles include motor coaches, vans, buses, walk-in vans, and cab/chassis configurations with a truck body. When choosing a self-propelled vehicle for your MCV's platform, keep in mind factors such as: 

  • What's your budget?
  • How much interior operating space will you need?
  • Where will the vehicle be housed?
  • Will it be used on hard-surface roads only or off-road?
  • Who will operate the vehicle? 
  • How will the operator be trained?

Design and construction
Most MCVs have a fairly common floor plan: an operations area with computer-equipped workstations, a kitchen and lavatory for the center core, and a rear conference room — where command and members of the general staff would be located. Most manufacturers agree that customers typically underestimate their space requirements and thus wind up with a vehicle too small for their needs.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest questions to be answered in the planning phase is on-board toilet or no toilet. One manufacturer states on its website that when it surveyed customers who had specified on-board toilets, nine out of 10 said they wouldn't include the on-board toilet if they were designing a new vehicle. The majority of those survey respondents said that nobody wants to clean the restroom or dump the [waste storage] tank, so their restrooms turned into closets.

Don't want an extra closet? Some other options (besides not having a toilet) can include bringing in portable toilets or include an on-board toilet only accessible from the exterior.

A kitchen area is necessity because the incidents that require the capabilities of a MCV also entail around-the-clock staffing. Ensure that you specify enough space for this area of your MCV to be efficient and effective.

To maximizing your available space have a motor-driven rollout awning, an exterior water cooler and an exterior coffee maker. Many departments find it a challenge to keep the number of people inside the unit to the number necessary for operational tasks. Keeping the refreshments outside can be a big help.

Communications and video
The MCV should include technology that provides the incident commanders with the ability to continually size-up the incident, integrate information into the Incident Action Plan, and communicate the plan to on-scene tactical leaders.

The on-board technology should also enhance the capabilities of the command and staff to communicate with the outside world. This includes the ability to send and receive audio, video, text and encrypted data.

Satellite systems are now used to send and receive audio, video and data. For many years manufacturers used a standard PBX system with landline and cellular capability to provide telephone service for the MCV. The gold standard for telephone service aboard a MCV today is a voice over Internet protocol telephone system linked into a satellite system.

A satellite link also enables command to send a live video feed from the MCV's closed-circuit TV system to the department or over the Internet. Pneumatic mast-mounted video cameras — ranging from 20 to 65 feet when extended — are a regular feature for many MCVs. Microwave systems are also being used to receive video from outside sources such as helicopters or mobile video cameras located in key tactical areas of the incident. 

MCVs makers can provide several approaches for meeting a department's land-mobile radio needs. Among these options are having the department's radio equipment installed by the manufacturer during construction; having the MCV prewired for radio installation by the department after delivery; or installation of a new LMR as part of a turnkey product with the MCV.

The JPS ACU-1000 system from Raytheon was the first interoperability product on the market, and other manufacturers have been quick to bring out other systems and configurations. An interoperability system adds real value to the utility of an MCV, especially with the variety of LMR systems that are now brought to emergency incidents by responding assets. 

Make sure that your agency's LMR and communications vendors are included in the design process in its early stages so that the interoperability system fits your agency's needs.

Choosing a manufacturer
Your department may have experience creating the design specifications for fire apparatus and ambulances, but an MCV is a very different animal, so choose your vendor carefully. Look for a vendor with longevity in the marketplace, financial stability, and expertise in the type and size of MCV you're looking to obtain.

Due diligence is a must so check references, seek out other departments that have purchased MCVs similar to the one you're considering for purchase, and visit the manufacturing facilities of prospective vendors. In particular, seek out information about each vendor's reputation for service after the sale.

Even if you've visited a manufacturer's facility while researching vendors, go back for a pre-construction meeting with the builder's staff. You're now a customer, not just a prospect, and you can focus more of your time on seeing other units under construction. 

This is a good time to see how your unit will get built. Also plan on making at least one visit halfway through the construction and a final visit when your unit is completed prior to delivery.

Obviously, the price for a particular MCV is going to depend upon the vehicle type and the level of interior furnishings and installed technology. The following are a sampling of prices for various sized self-propelled platforms:

  • 45-foot and larger vehicles (bus type or truck chassis): $850,000 to $1.3 million.
  • 30- to 40-foot vehicles (step vans or truck chassis): $350,000 to $700,000.
  • 20- to 30-foot vehicles (step vans or truck chassis) $300,000 to $450,000.

Training
Decide who will be the driver/operators for your MCV after you've selected a vendor. Pay particular attention to the operator part of the job title because to get the most out of all of the technology in your new MCV you're going to need a vehicle matter expert. You'll want the personnel staffing the MCV working to mitigate the emergency, not struggling with making the technology work.

Decide whether you'll have your driver/operators trained by the vendor at the factory or have the vendor conduct train-the-trainer sessions. It's a good idea to have the driver/operator training video recorded for future reference and training new personnel.

Last, ensure that upon delivery the vendor provides you with all operating manuals, product registration paperwork, and "as built" drawings, and schematics. Also, make sure that you clearly understand the maintenance processes and the process for getting repair work completed under the terms of the vehicle's warranty.

With planning and foresight you can ensure that the MCV that you obtain for your department and community will meet its unique operational demands for many years to come. 

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