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The 9-11 tragedy showed what can happen when a major city’s emergency personnel can’t communicate between departments because they’re using different electronic equipment. Two years later, Hurricane Isabel slammed into the East Coast, demonstrating what can happen when an entire region’s emergency efforts are crippled by communication networks that can’t keep local, state and federal personnel connected.

ARINC of Annapolis, MD responded aggressively to those tragic lessons. This company develops and operates communications and information-processing systems for five major industries: airports, aviation, defense, government and surface transportation. Not only did ARINC (Aeronautical Radio Inc.) develop revolutionary AWINS technology to deliver universal communication, it installs this electronic translator into a growing fleet of MCVs (Mobile Communications Vehicles), offering the ability to drive into the epicenters of disasters and quickly establish communications command centers for entire regions. Whether the emergency personnel are police, firefighters, state patrol, U.S. Coast Guard, Homeland Security, U.S. Army National Guard or all of the above, AWINS-equipped MCVs keep everyone in touch.

Although the MCV might get most of the attention due to its size—26 to 48 feet long and 14 feet high—and can go nearly anywhere in the country, it would be just another big truck if not for the AWINS technology. AWINS (ARINC Wireless Interoperable Network Solutions) instantly connects all types of radio and telephone systems by electronically translating their varied signals into one common language. Whether the various agencies use standard UHF and VHF analog radios, mobile digital, satellite communications, broadband wireless, voice-over IP systems, ship-to-shore radio, air-to-ground radio, standard phones or push-to-talk cellular phones, AWINS allows units to use the devices they’re issued, not only saving money but eliminating the need for additional training.

No More Tower of Babel
Before AWINS was available as a universal translator, all those different electronics re-created a modern Tower of Babel scene, in which the people of Babylon awoke one day to find their world in chaos because they were all speaking different languages. As the 9-11 Commission reported, a major failing on 9-11, was that emergency personnel had functional, state-of-the art communications equipment, but they couldn’t communicate with anyone outside their own units. For instance, police couldn’t talk to firefighters, even though they were on the same radio frequencies.

The company was called on again after Hurricane Isabel revealed another major problem by tearing through North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland in mid-September 2003. In Maryland alone, damage totaled $820 million and about 1.25 million people lost power. After the storm passed, Maryland’s emergency management director in Anne Arundel County struggled to coordinate cleanup efforts for months because he couldn’t communicate efficiently with the multiple agencies handling the effort. State administrators worked with ARINC to design and build a mobile communications vehicle that could be dispatched to disaster scenes with the AWINS system to establish a regional command post.

As fate would have it, Maryland received this first-of-a-kind vehicle in August 2005, only two weeks before Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The hurricane destroyed homes, roads, businesses, hospitals—and the region’s emergency services infrastructure, including radio communications—across the region. Realizing they had the nation’s only vehicle that could put emergency workers back in touch with each other, Maryland’s emergency-services personnel drove their new 40-foot MCV to Mississippi and set up a communications center in Jefferson Parish.

“They went down there and became the interoperability coordination center for Jefferson Parish, and re-established some radio communications for the area,” said Marvin Ingram, ARINC’s senior director. “Katrina had wiped out the region’s entire radio infrastructure, so it was vital to get radio communication back up.”

That emergency mission included 14 entities from Maryland and seven large jurisdictions in the Gulf, including police, fire, National Guard, state patrol, U.S. Park Service and private ambulances. Few of these groups were using the same type of radios and phones, but the MCV team used the AWINS technology to piece together a network employing at least nine different types of radio connections. People who had never before worked together formed a team through Maryland’s mobile command post, which only days before had been 1,100 miles away, still carrying its “new-car smell.”

Growing an MCV Network
Since that time, ARINC has built 10 more MCVs, with four of them going to strategic sites around the country for use by FEMA. Emergency organizations in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and other locations have also bought MCVs to ensure they’re prepared for large-scale emergencies.

By deploying these MCVs to Boulder, Colorado; Maynard, Massachusetts; Bothell, Washington; and Thomasville, Georgia, FEMA can better ensure its regions have functional mobile emergency response units. When an MCV rolls onto the scene, they often establish a communications system superior to anything the region had before.

“These vehicles quite likely have much more technology than what currently exists in most command centers, but they also have the flexibility to go where they’re most needed,” Ingram said. “That mobility can be invaluable.”

Ingram said Washington State provides a good example of the combined power of MCVs and their AWINS technology.

“That project connects a large geographic area that involves 42 agencies and more than 200 different radio channels,” Ingram said. “They’re all connected over an IP network and they’re all fully interoperable over UHF, VHF, marine-band, aviation-band and U.S. Coast Guard frequencies. Everyone is integrated and able to communicate back and forth.”

Another feature of the AWINS technology is that it can expand to handle evolving challenges. “This is what we call a ‘scalable’ solution,” Ingram said. “Flexibility is the heart of what we can do. It’s just a matter of adding onto a network as needs dictate. We can start as small as they need or can afford, and grow the system as large as they need or envision.”

In addition to housing AWINS technology, MCVs are equipped with multiple work stations, video-surveillance and video-conferencing technology. One failure of voice-only communication is that people far from the scene can’t always grasp the situation based on what’s described to them. Because the MCV can get close to the action and provide real-time video surveillance, it provides real-time views of the scene while allowing emergency personnel to look each other in the eye as they talk miles apart. This helps “bring it home” for everyone so they better understand the situation.

“Video technology brings so much more to the discussion,” Ingram said. “Sometimes words are inadequate for describing the situation.”

Each MCV is built to fit the needs of the region it serves. That’s why some are 26 feet long and others nearly 50 feet. “The chassis is the only thing that isn’t custom-built,” Ingram said. “The box we put on the chassis, its interior work stations, and all the technology it holds are custom-designed to match whatever the customer specifies. We could build these units atop nearly any truck. We can also retrofit them onto existing units, so whether you have a Suburban or an RV frame, we can integrate the technology into those vehicles.”
Ingram believes the MCV fleet is in its infancy. “The growth of these vehicles will be widespread across the country because they have so many capabilities,” Ingram said. “Plus, they can be deployed anywhere, so they usually aren’t owned by an individual police or fire department. Because they have multi-agency capabilities, they’re typically owned by larger entities to support an entire county or state. With that kind of diversity in ownership, emergency management has more flexibility than ever.”

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