High-tech truck to link emergency efforts


Anne Arundel County officials introduced yesterday the newest -- and most expensive -- vehicle in their emergency response fleet: an $820,000 Mobile Command and Control Unit.

The 27-ton truck will serve as a communications hub for emergency agencies.

The information systems for the 40-foot truck were designed and built by ARINC, an Annapolis-based communications company.

The truck has 13 workstations, seven flat-screen televisions and an air-conditioning system. Most important, say authorities, it comes with software that translates communications from different devices (radios, cell phones, wireless Intranet) into one common language.

The communications software will link disparate national, state and local emergency response agencies. For example, using the new command center, a boat from the Department of Natural Resources can communicate with a helicopter controlled by Anne Arundel County.

"It seems like such a simple thing, but we truly couldn't do this a year ago," County Executive Janet S. Owens said at an event yesterday to unveil the truck. "We spent our monies on what our first-responders say that they need. 'Interoperability' is the mantra."

The vehicle was paid for entirely from the state's share of federal homeland security funds. However, maintenance falls to the county. Upkeep will cost about $10,000 a year, said James D. Weed, the emergency management director for the county.

Officials at yesterday's event said that additional training would not be necessary for field emergency workers. They will not receive or learn about new equipment because the radios and cell phones they use now will pipe directly into the truck.

The truck could serve as a command point in case of a terrorist attack, officials said, but they stressed that it has other uses.

"It can be used for long-term police operations, severe weather events, large crowd events like the Volvo race and the bridge walks," said Chief Stuart D. McNicol, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel Fire Department.

McNicol said that during previous Bay Bridge walks, emergency responders from different agencies had to swap radios with one another so they could communicate. Such improvisation will not be necessary with this vehicle, he said.

When Tropical Storm Isabel blew through the region in 2003, the unit would have been invaluable for disseminating minute-by-minute weather information to first-responders, Owens said.

Some experts question whether the federal government should pay for vehicles such as the Mobile Command and Control Unit.

"Even though you can argue of the double use or triple use of these items, economically, federal dollars should not be spent this way," said Veronique de Rugy, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

"Our federal dollars should be spent exclusively on preventing bad things from happening, not from cleaning up the mess when we've failed to prevent an attack."

Although the truck is officially called Mobile Command and Control Unit 1, Weed, the emergency management director, said it was unlikely the county would purchase a second one.

"We've got a pretty good supply of stuff now," Weed said. "What we've got to do now [with federal homeland security funds] is train."

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