(TNS) -- If it weren't for the smart graphics of red, yellow and black on glossy white, that declares "emergency vehicle," this bus could be mistaken for a fun way to take a road-trip to Branson. It looks plenty big and roomy from the outside, but the inside is all business. It's officially called the Rolla Homeland Security Response Team vehicle and it will take center stage during a local or national emergency or disaster.
"More specifically, it's a communication vehicle command post," says Rolla Fire and Rescue Chief Ron Smith. We can provide communications all over the state of Mo. if needed. That means, any channel—we can talk to them all—throughout the state.
Homeland Security provided the bus funding in 2003, to the tune of around $500,000. Rolla Fire and Rescue outfitted the bus in 2004 for another $200,000. "We were able to bring to the region, capabilities to take over if a [town's] 911 system was down or, if the radio system went out, we could take this to the site and this bus would function as their radio system.
Interoperability is what emergency communications is all about. It's the ability to communicate across two different radio frequencies or "channels." Here's where the average person gets lost in the realm of transplexers, radio frequencies, transmitters and receivers.
Simply, a communications system has to be able to send a message using a transmitter and receive a message through a receiver, from another transmitter/receiver at another location. But both transmitter and receiver need to be on the same radio frequency to send and receive messages. Now, add different technologies that allow receivers and transmitters to talk in other parts of the radio spectrum (through the way the signal is electrically processed) and things can get complicated quickly. You wouldn't want to hear the Phelps County dispatcher breaking into your favorite radio program on KTTN, would you?
Radio signals vary in strength, so some signals carry further than others; but they can also be effected by geographic barriers such as the Ozark Mountains. This is why antennae, such as cell phone towers, are spaced throughout the countryside. Transmitted radio signals are received at the tower, amplified and passed along until they are picked up by a receiver. That's why it is called a repeater system—it carries the transmitted signal along from antenna to antenna.
According to Chief Smith, the Missouri Statewide Interoperability Network (MOSWIN) is a digital repeater system throughout the state of Mo. that can allow him to talk to any type of processed radio signal, no matter the type of signal or frequency. "It's all internet-based, Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP)," he says, with a graphic software interface on the computer monitor.
"The tower at Troop I (Missouri State Highway Patrol) is the MOSWIN tower. I can talk to that tower (from the mobile comm center) and that tower will "talk" to Jeff City, but not all agencies have that capability."
Chief Smith explains VHF channels, which are analog channels versus MOSWIN's digital capabilities.
"Departments like Rolla Rural, Doolittle and St. James are all on the analog system, so they're on (theoretically) Channel 1 and we're on Channel 2," he said. "We have the ability at this command post to patch the two together. "Patching" is literally an intuitive process of selecting the box that represents the type of signal and frequency you want to talk to, on the graphic interface.
"We can talk across all these lines regardless of the type or frequency you have in your radios," Chief Smith explained.
He said there were four primary frequencies (UHF is another analog frequency) that they need to be able to communicate with in emergency situations.
"From this bus, we can talk across all four lines," he said. The huge benefit of the bus telecommunications, besides just being able to communicate across analog and digital technologies, is mobility as opposed to a fixed antennae to receive and transmit signals.
Not everybody knows how to get the mobile system up and running or can handle the dispatch of communications. Chief Smith says Rolla Police Department (RPD) handles Central Communications, so the dispatcher comes from the RPD team. He says that during the Lions Club Carnival this weekend, first responders will need to talk between two different frequencies. The communications bus will be stationed at Lions Club Park and manned by a RDP dispatcher. Besides local uses, the mobile command post is ready for big time disasters, or emergencies, should they occur.
During the Joplin tornado, the Rolla emergency responders worked with Americorps, the volunteer group that came in to provide support for recovery. Though 911 service was up, all other forms of communication were down.
"We were 24/7, 21 days on the ground and our responsibility was to provide them communications back and forth for phone lines, satellite service, internet service, cell phone service and general communications so they could talk to the commanders back and forth so decisions could be made on the ground," said the Chief.
Other Homeland Security command center buses were on the site for communications because one couldn't handle all the communications according to Chief Smith, so the communications responsibilities were divided up with our region handling the volunteer service groups like Americorps.
During the Joplin visit, Chief Smith said that once some responders got more than several miles away from the bus, they were losing communication signals. They had to bring in another emergency unit with a transmitter and receiver that would serve as a mobile repeater.
"That was a flaw in the system, so we came back and designed a repeater system that we can place in
a city—three mobile repeaters—each, the size of a suitcase, to triangulate the signal. They have their own generators, their own weather-proofing and radio system with portable antenna."
The communications vehicle also provides a cache of radios that can be checked out to provide responders a way to communicate among themselves. For those that have radios, but different frequencies, the Rolla Fire and Rescue team can program all the radios so everyone is on the same frequency.
During the recent floods further south of Rolla, the U.S. Forest Service brought in additional help from around the country. They needed to communicate not only among themselves, but with local law enforcement as well.
"We provided them with six programmed radios and they were able to communicate successfully," the Chief said.
"The three big things agencies want us to arrive with are cell phones, programmed radios and internet," he explained. He said this enables them to hit the ground running to access an emergency situation.
the back of the bus is where the telecommunications systems and power supplies are located.
"We can bring in a total of 18 phone lines here," Chief Smith added, pointing to the hookup busses.
Walking to the front and through the central galley, this vehicle has all the amenities of home, with a kitchen, a toilet and shower, a place to recline and it is used on location at fires to either warm up or cool down, depending on the season.
There are nine Homeland Security Regions in the state, all funded by Homeland Security. There are six counties in our Region I—Maries, Phelps, Pulaski, Laclede, Crawford and Dent. Each county is represented by city and county personnel and make up a 15 member board that formulates emergency response and funding policy.
"This region receives about $70,000 a year and is the least funded region in the state," he said. "It's based on the number of people you serve and the threat capacity."
Chief Smith notes that having the mobile communications center here in Rolla is a responsibility and one they welcome; but keeping up with the technology is a moving target.
"The technology is always changing and we're always looking at different ways to do things better," he said. "But in the end, we're just trying to protect the emergency responders so they have the help they need—to provide the best service possible."
They will take the bus to any emergency situation that will involve many law enforcement agencies who need to communicate with mismatched technology. Lost children situations and man hunts rate high on the list. Also hostage negotiations and the normal scheduled down-time at a 911 center.
So, who drives the comm center bus which features an automatic transmission and gets 13 miles to the gallon?
"Anyone can drive it," said the Chief. "It's a little hard on the turns, but it's very easy to drive. It's a big box, so it does have a little problem [driving] in the wind."
©2017 The Rolla Daily News, Mo. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.