Past Issues of Government Technology

Going Mobile

Interoperable communications trailer hits the road in Tempe, Ariz.

by / June 27, 2003 0
Mike Lindsey is pretty proud of his "war wagon."

That's what he calls the mobile communications trailer he helped develop for Tempe, Ariz., to facilitate communications between multiple public safety agencies during major events like the 2002 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl National Championship football game.

"We took multiple police agencies on multiple frequencies, on different bands and different formats and everything else, and tied them all together so they could communicate on one channel and be dispatched by one dispatcher," said Lindsey, communications network supervisor for the city's Information Technology Department. "We built a true, public safety interoperability platform."

Years in the Making
The city flirted for years with the idea of building a mobile communications trailer for events like the Fiesta Bowl and the annual Block Party, which draws more than 100,000 revelers. The city would prepare for months for these events, then disassemble everything until the following year, Lindsey said.

Then came 9-11. "It became really apparent that we needed to move toward this," Lindsey said. "We said, 'OK, we've got to be prepared for events like weapons of mass destruction as well as other things.'"

The city bought an 18-foot trailer. "Just a box unit with two AC units on it," Lindsey said. Then the city added a highly specialized cross-connect system known as an ACU 1000 developed by JPS Communications. The technology -- previously available only to the military -- provides the translation between the disparate systems, allowing the city to patch one or many agencies' radio signals to another agency's receiver.

The system is capable of tying together three 800 MHz trunking systems, three VHF radio systems, two UHF radio systems and a ham band, according to Lindsey. "It brings everybody together, so you have true interoperability," he said.

The system also supports long-range cordless phones that work indoors, unlike satellite phones that only work outdoors. The phones have two-way radio capacity and text messaging.

Some of the equipment was collected through the years, but Lindsey said if he had to rebuild today, the cost of the entire unit would be $180,000.

Coordinating Efforts
The trailer proved useful during large events, such as the Fiesta Bowl Block Party on New Year's Eve and for the DUI task force, which convenes for a month during the holidays and for various occasions throughout the year. It also provides a backup to SWAT operations and two-alarm fires.

The trailer also was activated during the Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State University and the University of Miami, which held potential for terrorism because of the event's size and visibility. To compound the situation, this was the first game where beer was sold and city officials were cautioned that Ohio State fans got out of hand after the team's previous win.

The Fiesta Bowl attracted federal agencies including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as military bomb disposal units, local police, Arizona State University police and University of Arizona police -- and all efforts had to be coordinated.

Under the direction of university police -- who coordinated the effort from the communications trailer -- the bomb disposal units covered the entire stadium prior to the game. After the Ohio State victory, fans poured from the stadium and headed for downtown Tempe, and several hundred police officers from various jurisdictions were rerouted to different sites near the stadium.

"We had no problems whatsoever, but I think that was because we had a coordinated effort with over 200 police officers involved in making sure nothing did get out of hand," Lindsey said.

Kevin Kotsur, Tempe's assistant chief of police, said the event was routine from a police standpoint with the usual incidents -- like fistfights and minor injuries -- but the trailer helped improve response time, which was vital for the many calls that required medical attention.

Numerous public safety officials from the various jurisdictions took advantage of the trailer's central dispatch system. Without it, a request for assistance would have gone through several dispatch locations to get a response. "They'd have to call their own dispatch center, which would then call ours, and we'd dispatch someone," said Dan Masters, public information sergeant for Tempe Police.

"We were really able to use our manpower more effectively than ever before," Lindsey said.

The trailer had a few glitches, but it's a significant improvement over previous communications, according to Masters. "We've had some dead air zones within the city, but those problems seem to have gone away."

The first real test came from a DUI task force deployed during the holidays. It's an annual task force that runs between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and involves 16 agencies from several cities and the department of public safety within Maricopa County. Lindsey called it one of the biggest task forces in the country.

The task force establishes itself in a large parking lot and commands officers from the different agencies. The communications trailer allowed the task force to operate without interfering with regular radio network traffic.

The Limiting Factors
For the trailer to be a viable tool, it must be used more than just once or twice a year, according to Lindsey. "The need for training and working with these things is paramount."

He said building the trailer was easy. Getting people to use it and understand the procedures involved is the hard part. It's necessary, for example, to refine communications and use "plain English" when communicating with multiple agencies.

"We're coming up with the technology," Lindsey said. "Now we have to come up with the operating standards to use that technology the most effectively."

Sgt. Bob Gage said the trailer has its place but has limitations as well.

"In the past, everybody was pretty much on their own [during an event]," Gage said. "You didn't know if an officer from another agency was in a backup or was in a fight or on foot. [With the trailer] we can kind of keep track of everybody."

But Gage said having between 100 and 150 officers using one radio channel could spell trouble. He noted that some agencies couldn't get patched through during the major DUI task force operation.

"You'll have instances where officers will have stopped a car and have already made contact with the driver before they are going to be able to get through on the radio to let somebody know where they are."

Best use of the trailer, according to Gage, is for interagency operations such as SWAT where two or three agencies need to work together and communicate.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor