Taking command

  • Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services"â„¢ new state-of-the-art Level III mobile incident command vehicle.
  • The operations room, located at the front of the vehicle.
  • The conference suite is where the decision-makers from different emergency services sit and direct everyone"â„¢s efforts.
  • Emergency personnel from Goodwood"â„¢s command centre undergo training on their new mobile command unit.
Date:31 January 2009 Tags:, , , , ,

High-tech mobile disaster command unit hits the road.

Managing a major disaster is not for the faint-hearted. It requires nerve, skill, experience, major co-ordination – and some very sophisticated equipment indeed. Burning oil refineries, collapsing sport stadiums, leaking nuclear reactors, high-rise buildings engulfed in flames, airliners ploughing into suburbs… these are all scary scenarios, and if they’re handled badly, the fallout – in terms of deaths, injuries and property damage – could be catastrophic.

The need for effective communication and teamwork is hardly overstated. Imagine the chaos if firefighters on the ground have no idea what the helicopter pilots are doing overhead, or what the HazMat teams are up to around the corner, or how to locate more ambulances.

Now meet the latest addition to our Fire and Rescue Services family – Cape Town’s state-of-the-art Level III mobile incident command vehicle. Cost: a cool R4,4 million.

This amazing machine puts the comms back into communication, making it possible for emergency personnel across all disciplines to wage war on disasters as one coherent unit, and win.

December 2005 was a lousy festive season for Cape Town’s emergency personnel. How the many runaway wildfires started that year is anybody’s guess, but one thing was all too obvious: the Metropole was burning. Cape Point, the mountainside overlooking Simon’s Town, the greater Table Mountain range as well as the West Coast from Table View up to the Koeberg nuclear power station were all ablaze – on the same weekend.

Such was the scale of the disaster that everyone got involved, from fire and ambulance personnel to disaster management teams, Nature Conservation, Metro emergency services, the South African Police Services and the SA Air Force. Co-ordinating everyone’s efforts – bearing in mind that each service communicates via different radio frequencies, and maintains separate command structures – was a logistical headache, to put it mildly. An example: when it became necessary to evacuate a retirement home and caravan park in the coastal suburb of Melkbosstrand, it quickly became clear that the interlinks between the various emergency services needed a major overhaul. If the City Fathers were serious about improving their response to major disasters, they needed to put on their thinking caps.

A task working group was established that included Patrick Muir, station commander for Milnerton’s Fire and Rescue Services and a veteran with 37 years’ experience. Says Muir: “At the time of the 2005 fires, we were still operating six separate emergency services around the Cape Metropole, and everyone did their own thing in those days. Shortly after the incident, all six were amalgamated into one unit with the creation of the Cape Town Unicity. As a result, the entire command structure was changed and centralised.”

Although mobile disaster management units are not new to South Africa; until now they’ve tended towards rudimentary mobile offices rather than fully functional, multi-disciplinary command units. (Level I gets you a small vehicle with basic radio facilities while the Level II vehicle is slightly larger, with room for four people).

Another drawback of the old approach was that each unit worked exclusively within its own discipline, with the result that sharing critical data timeously with others became problematic. The amalgamation of the six services into one provided the perfect opportunity for the city to acquire a Level III (long-duration) unit better suited to big disasters that require a more multi-faceted approach.

Muir and his team didn’t waste time. Their first move was to borrow a stockstandard bus and play with it while they compiled their “wish list for the perfect vehicle”. High on their agenda was an automatic gearbox. Muir explains: “It’s the familiar pool car syndrome. Because we could have up to 300 drivers for this vehicle, depending on where and how it’s used, experience has shown that automatic gearboxes are more user-friendly for drivers as well as kinder to the vehicle.”

Since the main function of the vehicle is to assimilate data and distribute it coherently to emergency personnel on the ground and to Cape Town Unicity’s Command Centre in Goodwood, it had to feature high-tech communications systems.

This meant the inclusion of a self-tracking satellite system that works with any configured satellite to provide high-speed Internet access and maintain TV reception from remote locations. Says Muir: “When you leave the city, you lose the ability to communicate fast. Also, if we cannot get the required information from Cape Town – for example, about a particular hazardous waste – we are able to contact our counterparts in the United States for an immediate solution.”

And the TV? “We also rely on the news channels. When dealing with major disasters, every bit of information helps.” A 3G module was included for low-cost connectivity.

To maintain a secure lock-on to satellites, the vehicle comes with an automatic self-levelling system with four jacks, each with its own hydraulic reservoir and 24-volt DC motor. Their job is to take the load off the vehicle’s suspension and prevent it from being rocked by wind or personnel moving about inside – common reasons for breaks with satellite links.

To ensure that all personnel on the scene remain in the loop, the planners installed an advanced radio interface.  is allows up to nine radios on diff erent frequencies representing the various disciplines (fire, ambulance, Netcare 911, police, air band and so on) to be linked into a single network.

When it comes to gathering information, seeing is believing. So they added a pair of digital cameras to the inventory. One camera, fixed to a pneumatically powered telescopic mast, can be raised to a height of about 8 metres. It features 260x zoom (26x optical and 10x digital), can be rotated by 360 degrees, and has full day/night functionality. The other unit, a 2,4 GHz wireless line-of-sight remote camera, is perhaps even more useful because it can be positioned at a vantage point up to 3 km away – for example, on the roof of a tall building – to provide a bird’s eye view of what’s happening on the ground.

Visuals from both cameras can be viewed on either of the two large plasma screens on the bus; one is located up front in the operations room and the other is in the conference suite in the rear. Visuals can be streamed in real time to the command centre in Goodwood.

External lighting was an absolute necessity. The main lighting is provided via a bank of four weatherproof, 1 500 W, 240- volt quartz halogen lights mounted on a rugged tower that can be raised 3 m above the vehicle’s roof. The lower two lights can rotate about a horizontal axis to provide light on the opposite side of the apparatus. The tower can overhang the side of the bus to provide maximum illumination. Power for the light bank is transmitted via collecting rings, enabling the tower to rotate a full 360 degrees.

Because meteorological factors can determine how a disaster scene plays out, a weather station was considered another necessity. Muir explains: “Should there be a leak at the Koeberg nuclear power station, for example, we would need to know the wind speed and direction to determine where and how far the contamination will spread. It will also help us when dealing with mountain fires. What’s we’re doing here is using technology to our advantage.”

Other onboard features include two digital white boards (one for the operations room and the other for the conference suite). Everything written or drawn on the boards is recorded on to a hard drive and is simultaneously seen in Goodwood’s Command Centre.

A silent-running 10 kW 3-phase generator supplies power to all systems when on location and there’s a 20 kVA UPS to act as a bridge between the generator and 3-phase municipal power while switching between the two.

As luck would have it, Cas Ceyffert, the man who built the first command vehicles in South Africa, now works for the US branch of Fire Raiders – the company that oversaw the project and kitted out the interior. They specialise in constructing, maintaining and refurbishing emergency vehicles, from humble municipal pumpers to HazMat as well as airport rescue and firefighting vehicles.

Says Fire Raiders’ Ian Newton: “As far as I’m concerned, the Americans are the world leaders in this field.  ere’s no cutand- dried plan for a vehicle like this; you have to plan as you go. Cas was invaluable to this project… he picked up stuff from our brief, then found ways that would work better. This vehicle has the latest state-of-the-art technology fitted to keep it on top of its game for years to come.”

We take a look. After clambering up the front steps, you enter the operations room, with its five workstations and computer terminals. From here, staff operate exactly as if they were in the command centre. For example, they can make and answer calls, access GPS information and interpolate co-ordinates into maps, pull out weather information and access the vehicle’s digital cameras.

The supervisor operates the HMI (Human Machine Interface), which allows him to control the distribution board located at the back of the bus, as well as all external lighting. Explains John Myburgh, systems engineer on the project: “We’ve written a load management program into the HMI so that when batteries start running low, it starts switching off low-priority lights first to save power.” The HMI also controls the generator, camera mast and vehicle levelling system.

Pass through the door near the centre of the bus and you enter the conference suite. Here, all the decision makers sit around the table and direct everyone’s eff orts. A multimedia system pulls in various media (DStv, DVD, CCTV, radio and computers), allowing the various specialists to see and hear what’s going on in real time. Another HMI mirrors the functions of the unit in the ops room. As Myburgh tells it, “There’s a lot of redundancy built into this system”.

Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services’ new mobile incident command unit – basically, a big, red high-tech office that can hit the road and communicate from anywhere in the country – elevates the city’s disaster management capability to First World standard. It provides an incredible morale boost for overworked emergency personnel on the ground. If the entire Cape Peninsula goes up in flames again – and we sincerely hope it doesn’t happen – this vehicle and its well-trained crew will be well positioned to manage the disaster.

Says Muir: “If you see this bus on the road, then you can assume that something has gone catastrophically wrong somewhere. Believe it or not, we hope we never have to use it!”

Latest Issue :

May / June 2021