Mobile command centers to aid public safety efforts

Two grants help purchase units for serious incidents

Carroll County

April 22, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Carroll County will be equipped for large-scale emergencies this fall when officials take delivery of the first of two mobile command centers that will serve as technological bases of operations for law enforcement and fire officials.

Two federal grants worth more than $600,000 have been awarded to the Carroll County Sheriff's Office and the county Office of Public Safety to buy two state-of-the-art vehicles that should be ready for use this fall.

The command centers are staples in surrounding counties, where the units have been used for emergencies, such as the recent tanker explosion on Interstate 95 in Howard County and an August airplane crash in Harford County.

But money to buy the vehicles wasn't available in Carroll until the Department of Homeland Security authorized the grants.

The vehicles are equipped with computers, a dispatch center, workstations, satellite uplinks and video cameras.

They are used as a central meeting place for police, fire and rescue units that respond to emergencies, including hazardous material spills and hostage situations.

Carroll's first mobile command center was ordered by the Sheriff's Office as part of a $359,000 homeland security grant. A large chunk of that grant -- $220,000 -- was set aside to buy emergency response suits for sheriff's deputies and municipal police officers.

The Sheriff's Office used the remaining grant money and additional federal funds for the $255,000 mobile command vehicle. Maj. Thomas Long of the Sheriff's Office said the vehicle is required for all local law enforcement agencies that adopt the national incident management system that was created to deal with disasters and terror attacks.

Although many of Maryland's counties have been using these vehicles for at least a decade, Carroll has created a custom-built bus, based on Harford County's model, which made its debut a year ago. The mobile command units are recreational vehicles outfitted with the latest in technological equipment.

"When you get to the position of having to use it, you're pretty darn glad it's there," said Edward Hopkins, spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff's Office. He said Harford's bus cost about $200,000 and is used by deputies, hazardous material personnel and rescue crews.

The Harford bus has features that will also be seen on the Carroll units: dry-erase boards that transfer writing to electronic form, a direct link to the Sheriff's Office and its databases, and plenty of space to work.

"Carroll County and Harford County are mirrors of each other: both semi-metropolitan, semi-rural, with similar crime statistics," Hopkins said. "They are both bedroom communities, and our calls are probably identical to the calls they would respond to."

Hopkins said the jet crash in Forest Hill showed the need for the bus, which deputies used as a base of operations for four days. They wrote reports on the crash and used the vehicle as a place to rest.

Sgt. David Valentine of the Carroll Sheriff's Office is overseeing the specifications of the new command center, which will be 38 feet long and 102 inches wide with an expanded workstation that can accommodate eight to 10 people.

Valentine said a sheriff's deputy would be assigned to the unit when it is deployed. It will also be equipped with a telescopic camera that can monitor the emergency site. A second vehicle will also be ordered by the county's Office of Public Safety, which received a separate $325,000 grant this month for a vehicle equipped to give the county a mobile 911 center in the event of a power failure. The county's 14 fire companies will share it.

"I think this is something that has the potential to be very useful," said Thomas J. Van de Bussche, president of the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association. "No. 1, we don't have one. We were even in the process of redoing an old school bus to do this. Unfortunately, our incidents are getting more complex all the time. A simple little truck accident can turn into a major environmental incident."

It is a tool that firefighters are eager to use.

"It'll help us in our unified command so that all the people we need to make major decisions -- whether it's terrorist-related, hurricanes or man-made incident -- will be on site," said Leon Fleming, the firefighters' liaison to the county. "It will eliminate confusion."

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