The Other Life of Command Trucks

For many years, large outdoor sporting events have requested government and nongovernment organization mobile command and communications trucks to support races. Although traditionally used by incident commanders, volunteer amateur radio groups have found various ways to collaborate during special events and use these resources in Minneapolis, Minnesota to support medical operations.

Mobile command and communications vehicles are used in a variety of radio-related roles. In Minneapolis, public-private agreements between law enforcement agencies and ham radio operators have proven to be mutually beneficial for special event planning and emergency response. Command trucks provide valuable resources that enable radio operators to provide more robust response communications during large and small events.

Communication Links at Large Events

Incident commanders for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon weekend have been St. Paul Fire deputy emergency medical services (EMS) chiefs, who would rather be staged at the finish line. In that location, medical professionals are better positioned to gauge the health status of individuals by observing the faces and condition of runners as they complete the race. With over 10,000 athletes on the racecourse and the possibility of temperatures approaching the danger zone for heatstroke, it is critical for EMS to stay ahead of an impending possible mass casualty incident.

Using detailed documentation – medical plan (ICS Form 206), incident action plans, and various internal documents – the medical system is able to respond without delay. By long-standing agreement, a 911 call is made for a runner down. In this way, a rolling emergency room is on the way and prepared for life-threatening scenarios such as a heart attack.

At the same time, the volunteer medical team takes immediate action. Amateur radio operators, stationed at regular intervals, call in the bib number and location of the injured runner. An assigned incident dispatcher in one of four net control stations or command trucks correlates the 911 report and radio reports. If they match, a “thumbs up” is exchanged with EMS medical command. In this way, errors are addressed and duplicate dispatches to the same scene are prevented. For example, in 2019, a dispatch call went out from a unit on an unmonitored government radio channel. This was heard by an EMS employee volunteering that day who recognized that there was no matching 911 call. The EMS volunteer initiated a dispatch, so the error was caught.

Command trucks should not sit and collect dust when they can do so much more to enhance local response efforts and public-private event communications.

Volunteer medical providers at aid stations, on the racecourse (i.e., bike medics), and in a 40×80 foot main medical tent care for minor conditions that, in their judgement, can be treated locally. These stations relieve strain on the 911 system and area hospitals.

Serving as an intertie between amateur, event and government radio channels is one role for the command trucks. In the annual medical communications plan for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, there are four amateur radio repeaters and two event-rented radio medical channels (with 350 rented UHF radios). In the case of larger events, the communications mix can include up to 10 rented radio channels as well as many public safety radio talk groups. This is all documented on the ICS Form 205 and on the incident action plan.

Westgard 2

Source: Erik Westgard

Coordination Roles at Smaller Events

Command trucks also have a role at smaller events. For example, Minneapolis hosts a summer race – the Red, White & Boom half marathon – that welcomes a few thousand runners and has around five aid stations. In this case, the Hennepin County Sherriff Incident Communications Center (ICC) truck arrives with a team of special deputies. These volunteers staff the aid stations with communicators and park the truck near the finish line. Government radio systems are used by the authorized volunteers. Race-rented radios are used via a temporary antenna in the truck to talk to the race medical director and aid station volunteer staff.

The incident commander for this event is a Hennepin Healthcare EMS supervisor. On a normal day, the event and volunteers run the show. If a mass casualty incident is declared, there is literally a chair in the command truck for the incident commander to occupy. Until then, he/she also prefers to be on the finish line next the medical director, as it is often a hot day. In 2019, volunteer special deputies were given authority to coordinate dispatches under the supervision of the incident commander. This model is used for parades and similar events all summer.

In another case, the mobile command and communications truck has been outfitted with inexpensive mesh/Wi-Fi radio gear and IP video cameras. With open-source broadcast software, trucks and portable cameras can be used to capture video and stream it, as required, to an emergency operations center or even to social media sites. The remote cameras and multiple vehicles were used with the mesh network to cover a 40-mile dogsled racecourse on a 20,000-acre lake for the 2020 Klondike Dog Derby.

Every June, The National Association for Amateur Radio hosts ARRL Field Day. It is common to run that 24-hour contest/event from command trucks and emergency operations centers as a preparedness exercise.

Planning for Future Events

Recommendations regarding command trucks and volunteers:

  • To justify their existence, trucks need to be used. If trucks are too closely secured, they will collect dust and may be vulnerable to disposal or scrapping. This has happened in the Minneapolis area. Several surplus command trucks listed recently online had surprisingly low mileage.
  • Repeated use and training are critical. Underutilized gear will be unfamiliar to personnel if needed in events or emergencies.
  • Oversight is needed to stay current. Equipment and software suites (e.g., analog video) will become outdated.
  • Trucks provide resources that can be shared with volunteer responders: extra open antenna mounts, cable ports, rack space, electric outlets, and powerful Wi-Fi are always helpful.
  • Ham radio and other volunteer equipment can be installed on trucks. However, for security reasons, it may be better to air gap from government networks. Do not share routers or switches from gear that is not enforcing the same security policy. Best practice is to not have secure network segments at all, with every user and usage being authenticated “zero trust.”
  • Deploying trucks at events provides visibility and builds rapport between response agencies and parade goers, runners, skiers, and other community members
  • Regular live testing of trucks and equipment is a viable solution for many public safety communications problems. Capacity building with other agencies and nongovernment origanizations can enhance the ability to scale
  • The recent practice of removing or not ordering tall antenna masts from command trucks seems ill advised when deploying to rural or storm-damaged areas.

Many local and state agencies have valuable resources that are underutilized. Command trucks are one example of equipment that can be repurposed and shared with volunteer organizations that assist in special event planning and response. Such collaborative efforts not only provide resources that may otherwise be unavailable to volunteer organizations, they also enhance agencies’ ability to maintain equipment during normal operations and enhance response efforts for special events. If command trucks and other emergency equipment are collecting dust, there is a good chance they will not be ready and usable when disaster strikes.

Erik Westgard

Erik Westgard, MBA, NY9D teaches digital strategy in the College of Management at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis. He coordinates ham radio volunteers for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, Red, White & Boom Half Marathon, and the Loppet City of Lakes Winter Festival. His most recent project is the conversion of a dozen surplus construction light tower trailers into mesh networking tower generator units to support events and Minnesota VOAD.



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