Houston Airport System Improves Incident Response With Mobile Command Center

Houston Airport System Improves Incident Response With Mobile Command Center
Ronnie Garrett
Published in: 

"Be prepared” isn’t only the motto for Boy Scouts. The Houston Airport System follows the same philosophy for providing emergency services at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) and Ellington Field (EFD). The timeless wisdom of its approach was demonstrated last June, when an F-16 crashed at EFD— a three-runway airport that serves a variety of military, NASA and general aviation operations. 

Fortunately, the Texas Air National Guard member who was piloting the fighter jet ejected shortly before it crashed, and the airport had ready access to a mobile incident command center the Houston Airport System had put into service just months before. In short, EFD was prepared; and the $975,000 custom-designed vehicle improved the airport’s response capabilities, inter-agency communication and overall public safety during the dramatic event. (EFD is located just 15 miles southeast of downtown Houston.)

“The command center was a very, very critical piece of our response in the F-16 crash,” says Frank Ciaccio, emergency management coordinator of the Safety & Emergency Management Division for the three-airport system. 


Project: Mobile Incident Command Center

Location: Stationed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport; also serves William P. Hobby Airport
& Ellington Field 

Cost: $975,000 

Funding: Houston Airport System

Primary Benefit: Improves public safety & emergency response by providing on-site command center for airport & local agencies 

Project Partner: Motorola Solutions 

Vehicle Components: Freightliner chassis; Motorola MCC 7100 dispatch consoles; ASTRO 25 land-mobile radio equipment; WAVE push-to-talk technology; smartboards; video cameras

Having high-tech response capabilities was particularly important for this incident because the single-engine, supersonic aircraft was still “hot” when it crashed. “The engines were still operating,” explains Ciaccio. “We had to form a one-mile perimeter around the aircraft; and because of the fuel on board, we needed to watch that fuel.”

The vehicle’s on-board cameras allowed personnel to do so from a safe distance. “We used the cameras to zoom in on the aircraft until the beacons went out. We watched it for about six hours,” he recalls.  

The mobile command center is also used in a pre-emptive manner. The city fire department dispatched emergency response crews from it during Wings Over Houston, an annual airshow at EFD, and the vehicle served as a unified command post for local police and fire units at Houston’s Fourth of July celebration.

Notably, the $975,000 vehicle was purchased entirely with airport system funds. 

Dual-Purpose Purchase

“Most airports have access to a [shared] incident command vehicle,” says Ciaccio. “But what makes this vehicle unique is that it is Houston Airport System’s own stand-alone incident command vehicle.”

Before the system purchased its new rig, it owned a Winnebago-style vehicle previously operated by the Houston Fire Department. “[The old vehicle] was no longer capable of doing what we needed it to do,” Ciaccio explains. 

System officials initially considered refurbishing the aged vehicle, but changed their minds after learning that it would have to be completely gutted and modernized with new technology. The difference in price between refurbishing and buying new was less than $100,000, and officials determined that it wasn’t prudent to invest that much money in a vehicle that had long since passed its useful life. 

“The lifespan of a command vehicle is about five to six years; and this one was already over 10 years old,” Ciaccio notes. “Plus, we wanted a vehicle that was more than an emergency response unit…If the airport communications center went down due to a power failure, for example, we wanted the vehicle to act as a mobile communications system. But even with updates, the existing vehicle wasn’t going to be able to do that.”

Officials consequently consulted Motorola, the system’s technology partner for more than a decade. “We looked at designing, developing and engineering a vehicle…that could be used for anything from a plane crash to a hurricane event, but also act as backup to our airport communications center (ACC),” Ciaccio says. “We use Motorola in several of our key components through the airport system, and that’s why we wanted to go with them. They know our computer and communications systems, our electronic systems in the ACC, and that’s why it made for a great partnership.” 

George Ebelt, senior account manager of Motorola Solutions, explains that the company and airport system worked together to custom-design a command vehicle that expanded the airports’ response capabilities with state-of-the-art video and land-mobile radio technology. The resulting 40-foot mobile command center has room for 12 people and includes a 48-foot boom with a high-definition camera that links to four external cameras. The unit is also equipped with Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite connections; emergency radio communication equipment; and backup generators to supply its own power. 

The high-tech vehicle connects with the airport system’s communications network and emergency operations center database. Plus, its onboard communications system allows onsite personnel to upload video instantly to the National Transportation Safety Board and/or FBI. They can also readily share information with state and local agencies such as police and fire departments. 

“This is a huge benefit,” emphasizes Ciaccio. “One of the limitations we had before is that everyone involved could not communicate during an emergency. We had people on different channels and frequencies. With this vehicle, everyone can come together in a more unified command.” 

The vehicle’s modern communication systems proved especially valuable during the June incident at EFD, he notes. 

Onsite Tech

Mobile command vehicles are essentially field dispatch centers, and as such, must be equipped with the technology needed to perform many crucial functions, says Ebelt. The vehicle used by Houston’s airports has a Motorola Solutions MCC 7100 dispatch console, which provides satellite communications for Internet and network access. It also has a conference room for strategic planning purposes, and is equipped with Motorola’s ASTRO 25 LMR (land-mobile radio) equipment to communicate with first responders and emergency response personnel. 

By partnering with Motorola, Houston Airport System was able to incorporate the company’s intelligence-led policing technologies, which enable the unit to access the system’s video resources. The vehicle also provides a remote standalone dispatch center via a connection to Harris County’s band-class public safety LTE system. Other notable features include a Motorola Solutions WAVE Push-to-Talk application for secure communications with emergency responders across any network or device, and smartboards to transfer information from working sessions to designated personnel not on the scene. 

One side of the vehicle contains three crucial monitors known as the Incident Command System. “We can have an operations person, a logistics person and a planner together with monitors in front of them managing the incident,” explains Ciaccio. 

The other side of the vehicle has four monitors that help dispatchers communicate with first-responder teams and other state and city agencies. 

“The 10 radios in the command center are patched into the Texas Department of Public Safety, the state police, and we are in the process of tapping into the Houston Police Department and Houston Fire Department,” he says. “We can also tap into the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. If there is no Internet or Wi-Fi, we can use satellite to operate everything, even the phones.” 

The vehicle also has cameras on all sides and a 45-foot mast that personnel inside the vehicle can guide to obtain a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. 

“In the back portion of the vehicle, there is a secure room where we can do interviews or high-level planning,” adds Ciaccio. Diagrams and notes from the smartboards can be uploaded directly to the National Transportation Safety Board, FBI and other agencies in a similar manner as video. 

Finally, there is a weather station inside the vehicle that enables personnel to monitor wind, rain, temperatures and other factors that might impact the incident response.  

Driver Training

The mobile command center is housed at IAH and driven to the other system airports as needed. 

“It is classified as an emergency vehicle, so it has lights, sirens and is a marked vehicle,” Ciaccio says. “Because it is classified as an emergency vehicle, we would have no problem getting it to Hobby Airport or Ellington Airport if we had to. We had a real-life test with the F-16 crash, and it took us under 40 minutes to get there—and that would be the farthest we would ever have to go with it.”

Because the command center is a Class B emergency vehicle, all potential drivers had to train and earn the associated certification. Houston Airport System sent six members of its emergency response team to a one-day classroom training session, followed by field training with the Houston Fire Department. Employees had to pass driving tests and a written exam with the Department of Public Safety to receive certification. These employees are now certified to drive the vehicle to incident scenes, set it up and troubleshoot problems onsite. 

The vehicle’s high-tech features and capabilities required broader training for other employees as well. Motorola provided training to select personnel, who then trained others at the airports. “We get additional training as upgrades come out, and we had Motorola’s IT folks on call the first six months we had the vehicle in case we needed them for anything,” notes Ciaccio. 

He and Ebelt describe the training needed as minimal. “Motorola Solutions integrates several technologies into one platform, making it very intuitive and easy to use,” Ebelt says. “We leverage video assets into one central command center, for example, for secure access based on roles and responsibilities.”

The airport system and Motorola both foresee working together on future projects. Ebelt notes that continuing the partnership will improve connectivity between the system’s current and future technologies. “In addition to ASTRO 25 LMR (land-mobile radio) technologies, we support WAVE PTT (push-to-talk) for seamless communications and a distributed antenna system that enhances cellular and mission-critical radio frequencies,” he says.  

Moreover, Ebelt predicts that Motorola’s work in Houston will also benefit airports across the country, as the company continues to enhance its site-specific, intelligence-led policing systems.

Emergency Operations

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