Sheriff reinforces mobile command

Escambia County Sheriff's Office

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Like many public safety agencies nationwide, the Sheriff's Office in Escambia County, a jurisdiction of about 300,000 people in Florida's panhandle, had problems with radio interoperability.

Capt. Larry Aiken said communication between officers and the command center was often convoluted. They worried that if something catastrophic happened to the center, such as a bomb threat, explosion or chemical release, and the building had to be evacuated, communications would be "dead in the water."

So in fall 2001 the Sheriff's Office unveiled an autonomous, mobile command center equipped with systems that access all of the region's public safety agencies.

The 48-foot vehicle resembles a motor home and has a control room and command post areas, a remote camera and a planning section with a large conference table and 40-inch flat monitor, Aiken said. The control room contains four workstations with laptop computers.

The center, however, lacked access to the Sheriff's Office computer network, he said.

To address that shortcoming, officials weighed the affordability, security and functionality of terrestrial and satellite systems. They settled on the latter, and a reseller installed an IG-2500 mobile satellite system in November 2002.

Developed by Hughes Network Systems Inc., the system uses the company's broadband satellite service, called DirecWay. Aiken said the laptops are hooked up to the satellite dish that provides a virtual private network so users can access office reports, the master name index, the intelligence section and the computer-aided dispatch system.

About three months ago, the mobile command center assisted the county's SWAT team, which responded to an emergency call involving a shooting victim and a possibly armed and barricaded suspect. Using the satellite system, which was activated within several minutes, investigators identified the victim and suspect through photos that were downloaded and distributed to on-scene officers.

Emil Regard, Hughes' vice president of business development and government services, said this satellite model is an auto-deploying, fixed mobile, two-way antenna for voice, video and data transmission.

"The key to this whole thing is this fixed mobile antenna that deploys in about seven minutes," he said. "So you could literally pull up to a spot, press a button and basically you turn the gear on, it auto-deploys the antenna, the antenna unfolds, points itself and then props you with some kind of connection."

Previously, such devices would have to be manually unfolded and connected.

Aiken said the satellite system cost a little more than $7,000, including wiring, installation, hardware and a network access point that acts as a firewall and router. The county used a federal grant earmarked for local law enforcement agencies.

Another feature of the mobile center is a voice-over-IP system that's linked via satellite to the office's main PBX network. In addition to providing redundant messaging capabilities, Aiken said, he can dial a colleague's four-digit extension from anywhere in the country with no recurring costs. He said the system also helps in rural areas with limited cellular coverage.

The Escambia Sheriff's Office exhibited the mobile command center at a national conference of law enforcement officials, he said, and many have inquired about its capabilities.

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