In 2006, the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) unveiled its Unified Command Vehicle, a technology-packed truck designed to deliver the functions of the city's emergency operations center (EOC) directly to disaster sites.

The truck is the OEMC's answer to a significant problem -- a disaster obliterating a local emergency response team's remote communications facility or failover data center. These buildings serve as cities' backup plans in case their primary emergency operations centers (EOC) get knocked offline.

Chicago backed up its backup plan by putting an emergency command center with server failover capabilities on wheels.

"We have a nice emergency operations center," said James Argiropoulos, managing director of information technology at the OEMC. "We have a gorgeous 911 floor. It looks like NASA when you're looking down at it. But you have to be within the confines of the building.

"We've pooled the great aspects of this building, piped in a satellite and now we can afford to operate directly out of a vehicle," Argiropoulos said.

Mobile Nerve Center
The truck could serve as the city's primary EOC command center in a "doomsday" scenario in which both of Chicago's backup disaster management facilities were destroyed, Argiropoulos said, though the city also plans to use the vehicle for small-scale emergencies that could benefit from an on-site command center.

"Maybe a storm hit the south side of Chicago," Argiropoulos said. "It's hit a small four-block-by-four-block area. A couple hundred people are without phones and electricity. The phone lines are damaged. The radio lines are damaged. We could roll that truck directly in and supplement that particular devastated area."

The satellite equipment mounted atop the vehicle gives it video and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) capabilities, as well as secure Internet access.

"We're utilizing a satellite provider that provides us one of six satellites," Argiropoulos explained. "One is the primary, with the other five being redundant so that we don't have a point of failure at the satellite. We can take [all of the data] that was in the EOC building and pipe it directly, via satellite, to the vehicle."

The OEMC essentially owns and runs its own telephone company that connects all agencies critical to a first response to the OEMC.    

"We have a little over 500 miles of fiber and 850 miles of copper that connects every police, fire and strategic government location back to us at the OEMC," Argiropoulos said.

The vehicle's satellite connects to the OEMC's self-healing fiber network, which carries VoIP signals back to agencies participating in the response. The truck also has its own cellular switch, which can utilize the satellite for cellular functionality. That becomes especially useful if Chicago's normal telecommunications infrastructure fails, Argiropoulos said.

"If we come into a devastated area, and the superintendent of police, the fire commissioner, the executive director, the chief emergency manager -- the hard-core decision-makers -- need cellular, and cellular has been substantially damaged," Argiropoulos said, "we can pass them one of our cell phones, pop up a 50-foot mast, and now we have instantaneous cellular."

Most responders won't actually work inside the vehicle, although it includes a five-person conference area for small-scale operations. The truck pulls a 16-foot trailer, carrying a tent that self-erects in four and a half minutes and accommodates up to 100 staff, who won't exactly be roughing it -- the tent is outfitted with heating and cooling equipment, and power from the truck can supply 120 laptops and VoIP phones, along with 35 cellular phone connections.

"We can send our 911 calls, via satellite,

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.