LOCKPORT – After more than two years of planning by the Niagara County’s Sheriff’s Office, a new and improved Mobile Command Center became operational last week.
Featuring the latest in communications technology, the nearly $360,000 command unit provides a rolling dispatch center and conference room that will respond to major incidents when a crime scene unit or task force is required for an extended period.
“I’ve been in lots of them in my career, and this is the nicest one I’ve set foot in,” Sheriff James R. Voutour said regarding his experience with mobile command centers.
The unit is part of a $1 million investment in the Sheriff’s Office, which also includes a $750,000 two-story storage garage for evidence, equipment and vehicles, including the command center.
But unlike the new building – still in the planning stages – that will be funded by Niagara County taxpayers, the Mobile Command Center is funded by a federal grant, with $330,000 coming from the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative.
The remainder was funded by drug asset forfeitures.
“We got a lot of use out of the old one, but it was falling apart, and it had become a safety concern,” said Sheriff’s Administrative Capt. Michael P. Dunn. “The possibilities we have are phenomenal.”
Voutour said that it took five years to receive the federal funds. The new unit, which replaces a 13-year-old command center, provides technology that wasn’t even available that long ago.
Voutour and Dunn said that some of the large-scale responses to incidents such as explosions, plane crashes, missing-person searches, homicides and standoffs are ideally suited to the Mobile Command Center. It also will be useful if Niagara County is called on to assist in a larger emergency, such as a major storm.
“The old command center was basically an RV with the bedroom taken out. It was tight, with just two dispatchers. Now we have room for six to seven dispatchers to sit comfortably and a separate conference area,” Dunn said.
“In the past, we had a laptop – just one – and a cellphone,” Voutour said. “Now the entire system runs off an app that allows a number of both iPads and iPhones to connect. Just in case we have any problems, we will be putting in switches to manually operate the system.”
The Mobile Command Center has nine dedicated radios, both UHF and VHF, 12 computer screens/monitors – with two screens for each computer and dedicated iPads, said Special Deputy/Radio Technician Don Burrows, who explained that video can be routed to any screen from any source.
The setup allows mobile dispatchers access to anything that would be available at the main dispatch center in the county Public Safety Building.
The new Mobile Command Center is about 10 feet longer, according to Dunn, and has its own satellite hookup. It allows both Niagara County dispatchers and personnel from any participating departments to work together in an emergency by signing on to the security-protected app.
“It’s really a dual-function vehicle” for communications and a command post, said Deputy Marc E. Kasprzak, senior dispatcher in the Sheriff’s Communications Office. “The front half is set up as a communications room for up to seven dispatchers, which allows us to have communications at the incident.
“The technology we have in this vehicle,” he added, “is going to allow us to take different radio systems and tie them together as one radio. If we have two agencies on scene and for some reason they couldn’t tune their radio to each other’s channels, we actually have a piece of equipment that allows us to tie them together. Interoperability is huge.”
Kasprzak said technology has even changed in the time since they started planning for this command center.
“We didn’t even have multiband radios when we started planning,” he said. “The plan was to put in more radios, but now we can consolidate radios.”
Voutour said, “It’s almost like a dispatch center on wheels. With narrow banding, we can have tactical channels and allow the entire incident to be on one channel and then allow all the other work being done in the county to be done on the main channel, so the incident isn’t overtaking the radio room.”
Kasprzak explained that “normal business of the county doesn’t stop. Dispatchers have their same burden, but we can take the burden of the incident off of them to allow them to do their normal job.”
The rear of the vehicle is a conference area that seats half a dozen people or more and has several monitors and video screens. A rear camera system outside the truck allows those inside the conference room to monitor an incident. An interactive digital “smartboard” lets investigators pull up maps or other digital materials and electronically draw on it, as if it were chalkboard.
Dunn said the door to a conference room can be closed for privacy to conduct interviews. “We really had no connectivity,” he said of the old command center. “This allows us to have a bunch of people” in the conference room – “the command staff who make decisions who can see what is going on.”
Voutour said representatives from the Montana company – Nomad Global Communications Systems – that both provided and wired the system, were here in the last week for setup and training.
“We don’t have a date set” for first use of the command center, Voutour said, “but if there was a plane crash this weekend, we’d be out there and using it.”
As for the new unit’s longevity, Voutour said, “We want this to be used for 20 years.”