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Responders Go High-Tech This is Not Your Father's Rescue Vehicle

12/20/2007 12:00 AM

Imagine this scenario: Police on a routine patrol come across a hit-and-run. A woman is trapped in her car and the suspect, driving a stolen vehicle, speeds off just as the police arrive on the scene. Back-up arrives and pursues the stolen vehicle as the first patrol car radios for help.

But a recent storm has taken out the cell tower, and precious time is lost. By the time EMS arrives, the victim has gone into shock, and rescue personnel fear they may not be able to extricate her from her vehicle in time. Meanwhile, police suspend the chase of the stolen vehicle, fearing it has become too dangerous, and the suspect disappears into the night.

Now, hit rewind, add technology and stir.

Satellite enable the officer at the scene to radio for EMS. Rescue personnel arrive at the scene and use an engine-driven PTO (power take-off) hydraulic tool system to extricate the victim from her car in record time. Police decide to suspend the chase, but tag the stolen vehicle with a global positioning system (GPS) sensor that shoots from the front of the patrol car. The suspect easily is tracked and is picked up the next morning.

First responders are no strangers to the world of technology. But recent advances – many prompted by the costly lessons learned in the wake of 9/11 and, later, hurricanes Katrina and Rita – make aluminum-built vehicles, air bags, independent front suspension and high-tech apparatus advancement systems look almost like yesterday’s news.

Today, for example, the Jaws of Life have a new “life,” courtesy of engine-driven PTO hydraulic tool systems that add strength and speed to extrication tools. Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) vehicles are being enhanced with everything from robotics to bomb-detection hardware and x-ray viewing, helping to keep responders out of harm’s way. Mobile laboratories provide on-site testing, adding yet another tool to the arsenal in the fight against the illegal drug trade. Enclosed fill stations protect fire fighters in the event of a rupture or explosion.

Now a standard feature in many new automobiles, GPS has come into its own in the world of rescue vehicles, says Gary Manges, E-ONE’s technical applications manager, Product Management Team. GPS now is commonplace on rescue vehicles, especially in larger cities, and Manges adds that it won’t be long before GPS can be used to track not only every rescue vehicle, but every fire fighter who enters a burning structure.

Chief among the lessons learned from the tragedies of these past 6 years is the need for instant and infallible communication. And that need is driving much of the technological advances being seen today, explains Jeffrey Bolich, System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER)/Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Technical Assistance Program manager, Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), US&R Division.

As the sponsoring agency for Texas Task Force 1, TEEX (a member of the Texas A&M University System) is one of 28 national urban search-and-rescue teams under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Texas’ only statewide team under the direction of the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management. Texas Task Force 1 also includes one of the country’s most extensive water rescue programs.

“Bringing resources together as an interface has become more critical than ever,” notes Bolich. “Behind each Blackberry, cell phone, land-line, radio, and computer is a police officer, sheriff, fire fighter, city manager, EMS worker, civilian and countless others who all need to communicate with one another, and to do so instantly.”

Enter the command center, which, since 9/11, has come into its own in fire and rescue departments across the country.

Can You Hear Me Now?

The need for instant communication is never as critical as when disaster strikes, whether man-made or natural. Dispatchers need to communicate with rescue personnel. EMS needs a direct link to fire fighters. Police need instant communication with the sheriff and city manager, and the list goes on. Whether cell phones, land lines, computers or radios (and whether UHF, VHF or FRS), all such devices – and the people who operate them– require direct and instant communication.

The buzzword is “interoperability,” and the devices and technology that may once have been viewed as high-tech bells and whistles have now become dire necessities, as cell towers make way for satellite dishes, video data transfer and the like.

E-ONE’s Comms-ONE SUV Command and Control Vehicle, powered by Federal Signal’s suite of public safety software modules, is just one example of the trend toward vehicle design that focuses on communication. Unveiled in August at Fire Rescue International in Atlanta, the vehicle was designed to provide instant, mobile command and control with what the manufacturer calls “seamless emergency communications, rapid disaster recovery capabilities and instant continuity of operations.”

As described by E-One, the suite of public safety software modules plugs into the industry platform, providing radio interoperability and connectivity between any and all devices with first responder vehicles, personnel, other mission-critical municipal assets and citizens. The software suite, which includes the SmartMsg and radio interoperability modules, enables simultaneous text and voice broadcast of alert notifications to first responders with two-way radios, push-to-talk devices, PCs, PBX, IP-based, cell and satellite phones, pagers and wireless PDA’s. Real-time access to local municipal and state databases is provided via Federal Signal’s Predator mobile data module, allowing the system to manage a fleet of first responders from any location. The module also can provide secondary command and control if an emergency operations center is rendered inoperable during a disaster situation. A satellite link delivers landline, mobile two-way radio, Wi-Fi access and video in support of incident command and communications when critical infrastructure is unavailable.

A few of these state-of-the-art vehicles have already been purchased, and are operating in Chicago and Columbus, Ga.

Going Green

What happens when high-tech meets “environmentally correct?” The E-ONE Hybrid Command Center is, says Manges, the company’s newest contribution to the world of high-tech rescue. E-ONE is one of the first manufacturers to offer a hybrid mobile command center vehicle complete with satellite communications. The diesel/electric vehicle saves on fuel consumption and engine wear and tear, while reducing harmful emissions.

The heart of the Hybrid Command Center is the auxiliary power generator, which provides 25,000 watts of AC power on demand. A unique power distribution design enables conversion of 340-volt DC hybrid battery power into usable 120-volt AC power. Rather than running the engine constantly, operators can run the vehicle off the battery, in an engine-off mode, for 20-30-minutes, quietly and with no fumes and no diesel. As the hybrid batteries loose their charge, the diesel engine automatically restarts, running for about 6 minutes to fully recharge the batteries. In addition, the electric motor provides driving power to reduce diesel engine demand and overall emissions.

E-One expects overall fuel savings of up to 60 percent, and on-scene diesel engine use is expected to be reduced by 50 to 60 percent.

Designed for prolonged on-scene activity, the medium-duty Hybrid Electric System (Eaton) serves as a parallel system, mating the hybrid electric system to a conventional powertrain. If, for any reason, the hybrid system should go off-line, the vehicle would continue to operate conventionally.

A limitation involves the chassis. A vehicle that needs to pump 2,000 gallons of water per minute, for example, needs more energy than that what currently is provided by the hybrid. There is, of course, an upcharge for the hybrid at this point in time, but this, says Manges, becomes relatively minimal over the years, especially with the associated savings.

Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog

Of course, technology is only as helpful as the people who use it. As responders across the country consider when and how to jump onto the high-tech bandwagon, several considerations should be kept in mind.

First, says Bolich, is the need to remember that just because a high-tech device or service is available, doesn’t mean it’s actually needed – at least right now. Decision-makers need to examine the “better-widget claims” with an eye on the practical, Bolich cautions. He cites inventory as an example, for which a clip board and pen might serve a department just as well as, or even better than, high-tech touch pads and bar code scanners. Bolich, whose experience includes running devices through their paces in scenario-based exercises, notes that while so many new technologies show such promise, “waiting for deployment-proven results is always preferable to making a blind purchase.”

Also important to keep in the mind is the concept of the learning curve. The best piece of equipment is, of course, worthless without the knowledge and ability to use it. Bolich notes that manufacturers generally offer education when new equipment/technology is purchased. He adds, however, that initial training isn’t enough. “Depending on the type of technology or equipment that’s acquired, continuing education, or ‘refresher courses’ will be needed.” He further explains that departments need to plan for the costs involved in such continuing education efforts, since even in-house training may require personnel to attend on their days off, or put in overtime.

And then there’s the bottom line. Make no mistake: grant money to fund the purchase of new, high-tech equipment has revolutionized the ability of fire and rescue departments across the county to gain access to state-of-the-art equipment. Lives are being saved because of such funding, and the Department of Homeland Security has been instrumental in such endeavors, first in the truck arena, and more recently with regard to communication systems featuring optimal interoperability. But many early recipients of such grants are, while grateful, now feeling the pinch of the often unplanned-for “landed costs” (maintenance, training, upgrades, ongoing certification, etc.), which aren’t, of course, included in the initial grant monies. All of this must, of course, be kept in mind and planned for, especially since the temptation to take advantage of funding for potentially life-saving technology can be a strong one.

“Just like a new home or car,” says Bolich, “the costs don’t end with the purchase, and ongoing expenses may even ultimately exceed the initial cost of a new piece of equipment.”

Finally, all of these considerations should be kept in mind in the context of the life-span of rescue equipment, especially vehicles.

A rescue vehicle’s lifespan (in general, 15-20 years) depends on many factors, explains Manges. “A vehicle used in urban areas might last for 5 years, while one used in a suburban area might last for 10 to 15, and in rural, even longer (20 years).”

He adds that in most cases, a modular-body design enables replacement of the chassis if a vehicle has been well cared for. Furthermore, depending on the vehicle, retrofitting can enable upgrading of an older vehicle with a newer communications system.

Annex D of the NFPA Guidelines recommends that first-line and reserve apparatus be updated and upgraded (at least updated with regard to safety) at 25 years. This is up to individual departments. At one point, a mandate to force updating and upgrading was discussed, but the variable capabilities of departments with regard to finances and other issues has made such a mandate unrealistic.

Acts of terrorism and acts of nature have brought a laundry list of needed improvements to the forefront of the first responders’ priority lists. But as technology responds to those needs, it’s important to remember that the “human factor” must remain ahead of the curve.

Contact Information

Kathy Fraser

Associate Director of Marketing and Communications

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