A Command Performance
THE DALLAS POLICE DEPARTMENT needed to replace its aging mobile command unit. Funding wasn’t the issue because the department had grant funds from the Urban Area Security Initiative. The real challenge would be making sure the new unit would meet present and future operational needs. Sergeant Paul Junger was put in charge of the project.
When he wrote the bid specifications, Junger had several requirements in mind, including the need for state-of-the-art communications, but the bid was written in a unique way that acknowledged the expertise of the companies bidding on the job. “We were clear that what we want should not force an incompatible solution,” says Junger. “If something we are asking for doesn’t make sense or won’t work or is too expensive, we wanted the company to tell us in the bid.”
The winning bidder, BearCom of Dallas, Texas, proposed that the key to making the center as useful as possible was to choose all the required elements and then build a truck around the equipment rather than trying to fit the items into an existing vehicle. “Using this approach gave police a chance to alter the design several times before the center was constructed,” says John P. Watson, chairman of BearCom.
Because the actual truck was being built out of state, BearCom designed a mock-up of the center in nearby Garland, Texas. “We got to see the inside equipment and saw it work before it was put into the truck,” says Junger.
The command center, which became operational in the fall of 2009, was ultimately built with room for six to eight police officers and three distinct areas: a command and control section in the middle, a hostage negotiation area in the front, and a video conferencing and meeting room in the back.
The command and control section of the center contains all the communications and video equipment. The center is equipped with a radio system and 12 radios that operate on three different frequencies so that officers can talk to other police departments. Officers can also patch into the Internet if radios are not interoperable. The system creates a virtual channel where two agencies whose radios can’t directly connect can talk to each other via the computer.
Officers in the unit can view 82 CCTV cameras which are on a wireless mesh network operated by the City of Dallas. The command center can display the video feeds when the vehicle drives into range of the mesh. “We are currently working with the city to be able to push that video feed out,” says Junger. “So we can pull video from the camera system and then send it to an emergency helicopter, for example.”
The command center has its own night-vision cameras and a robot equipped with a camera for explosives investigations.
The center is also connected to the Dallas Fusion Center. “If we need intelligence or background information on a situation, we can tap in the fusion center databases,” says Junger. “It makes information gathering so much easier.”
A key component to all the communications systems, according to Junger, was redundancy. The center has two generators. One runs the center and one is on standby as a backup. The officers keep a series of battery packs charged constantly to be used if both generators fail. If all of those measures fail, another emergency backup system, built into the center, will run the communications systems for 30 minutes. “We needed our communications equipment to be available when the infrastructure was knocked out,” says Junger. “So in hurricane response, when there is no electricity, Internet, or telephone, this must work.”
A separate room, fortified with noise blocking materials, serves as a hostage negotiation area. The commander of the hostage negotiation unit runs the operation from the command center. Recording equipment is used to record negotiators’ telephone conversations. These can be replayed immediately if necessary.
At the other end of the command center is a conference room complete with SMART Board and interactive, touch screen video displays. Using this technology, officers can take still images from several cameras and make a composite image to print out and give to the press. Also, police can bring in SWAT officers and show them video footage of a situation as part of a briefing. The conference area contains space for reporters or PR officers to set up computers in the truck.
The center also creates a Wi-Fi hotspot that extends outside the unit so that the public can get Internet access even without entering the vehicle. A screen can also be pulled down on the outside of the unit to allow officers to play video for a large group of people if necessary. The police have used the screen to coordinate task forces, K-9 search teams, and recovery teams. For instance, Junger says, the mobile unit was recently dispatched to Greenville, Texas, to assist in the search for a body. “We had probably 20 people to brief,” says Junger. “We used the screen to provide information and display the search grid.”
While merging various types of equipment from different vendors has provided a comprehensive system, the tactic did have one downside. Rifling through all the various manuals while learning about the new system was a challenge for officers. To make the process easier, one of the officers put together a troubleshooting guide and FAQ for all the equipment. The documents are kept electronically and in a bound folder in the command center.
The mobile command center has been in constant use in Dallas since it became operational. According to Junger, the center has so far mainly been used for hostage negotiations and for “barricaded persons” calls when police who are serving a warrant encounter an armed person and need help. Officers working from the center have made more than 1,600 arrests, and it has been dispatched during sporting events, marathons, parades, and protest rallies.