COMMAND VEHICLES Designed to Fit the Department’s Needs
Field commanders frequently face the problem of a vehicle that is inadequate to meet the needs at an incident. Imagine looking at a pre-fire plan or an area map with a flashlight, or trying to talk on the radio while standing outside the command vehicle at the fire scene. Picture a department where sedans, stationwagons, and pick-ups—with no uniform working area—are all utilized in different battalions as command vehicles. This was the situation at the Orange County, CA, Fire Department.
Prior to 1980, the California Department of Forestry (CDF), a wildland firefighting agency, protected Orange County under contract for 48 years. When urbanization had grown to the point where the CDF was no longer the most appropriate agency to serve the area, the state terminated the contract and the Orange County Fire Department was formed.
The Orange County Fire Department serves a population of 586,067 and protects 524 square miles of unincorporated area and 10 contract cities, all within a county with a population in excess of 2million people. The combination paid and paid-on-call department, with 1,200 personnel, also provides fire protection for 167,000 acres of state wildland.
The variety of fire protection challenges within Orange County include: highand low-density residential areas, industrial and manufacturing complexes, highrises, shopping malls, entertainment facilities (amusement parks, race tracks, and amphitheaters), nuclear reactors, college campuses, and the third busiest airport in the United States. Additionally, there are numerous urbanized sections located within and directly adjacent to potentially hazardous wildland areas. The department responded to approximately 30,000 emergency incidents in 1983.
Looking at Orange County in these terms, it is easy to see why the command vehicles in use in 1980 were inadequate to meet our needs. The vehicles at that time did not have sufficient space to carry all the equipment necessary to respond to both urban and wildland incidents. Ground clearance was inadequate for back country wildland fires. There was inadequate space to write and poor lighting to view maps, charts, and references. Communication equipment was not accessible outside the vehicle. Interior configurations differed from vehicle to vehicle and affected field commanders’ capabilities and efficiency from one assignment to the next. Couple this with the wide variety of incidents that the department had to manage, and it was apparent that a command vehicle better suited to meet our needs was necessary.
Identifying these problems, Larry J. Holms, director of fire services, instructed the operations bureau to design and purchase a fleet of identical field command vehicles that would meet these needs.
Evaluation was the first step. Other fire departments were visited to study command vehicles in use. A list of desirable and undesirable features was compiled to avoid costly mistakes encountered by other agencies. A questionnaire was designed and issued to the future users of these vehicles. Their ideas and suggestions based on their experiences with actual incidents and vehicle performance were incorporated. An in-depth analysis of all collected data was completed. Design specifications were established and seven identical command vehicles were constructed. This provided one vehicle for each battalion with one vehicle held in reserve.
Photo courtesy of Orange County Fire Department
The four-door Chevrolet/GMC Suburban, capable of carrying five passengers, was selected. Normally the rear seats are kept in the down position, allowing space for proper storage of equipment and the ability to accommodate a modular package for emergency command operations. The Suburban also offered increased ground clearance for wildland fires and flooding incidents. An optional “police package” offered additional features, such as heavy-duty dual batteries, transmission oil cooler, stabilizer bar, heavy-duty shock absorbers, and beefed-up engine cooling system.
It was determined that we would build our own front console and rear modular storage/working area. Fire Captain A1 Volkov was selected for this assignment as he had cabinetmaker experience. Volkov built a prototype from inexpensive materials. A vehicle with this console configuration was field tested over several months and was rotated through each battalion. All field commanders’ suggestions were considered and incorporated into the final design. Seven identical consoles and rear command modules were then constructed.
Photo courtesy of Orange County Fire Department
Mutual aid agreements exist between the Orange County Fire Department and all fire agencies within the county, as well as with all neighboring counties, the California Department of Forestry, the United States Forest Service, and the federal fire service. As a result, the front console is designed to accommodate all radio control heads which may be used in the vehicle. This front console has partitions for district maps and pre-fire plans under a sliding cover.
Continued on page 36
Continued from page 34
The first portion of the rear module construction is directly behind the rear seats. This area stores a 20-pound dry chemical extinguisher, a comprehensive first-aid kit, and one self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). The section is designed with a false bottom to house the radio equipment and is large enough to provide accessibility for radio technicians. The two side cabinets in the rear module store any personal equipment as well as the flashing light for command post identification.
The vertical rear cargo doors open to reveal the core of the command vehicle—the primary module construction unit. This area features a pull-out desk which becomes the main working area for the incident commander. The desk has two full-length, removable file drawers which house identification vests for the various incident command system positions (incident commander, planning chief, logistics chief, etc.), all necessary forms, maps, and reference materials. Four smaller drawers in the module hold clerical and miscellaneous supplies including a weather kit.
The desk surface has a plexiglass top so that plans and maps may be protected from the elements and written on with erasable felt pens. A digital alarm clock, located in the center of the rear module, allows the incident commander to set control objectives and to check critical, timed assignments. Enhanced communication capabilities in this rear module include two portable radios with chargers, a control head for county-wide radio, remote speakers for all other radios with volume controls, and a special amplifier modified to interface with a hard-line, voice-powered, highrise telephone system.
Integral support packages were developed to further enhance the capabilities of these vehicles and the officers using them. These are pre-organized packets of documents, forms, guidelines, and reference materials, including strike team leader kits, high-rise fire packets, mass-casualty medical packets, and hazardous materials disaster packets. This innovation eliminates the need to search through files under adverse conditions. All necessary resources are in one place.
Some benefits of these command vehicles include standardization of all field command vehicles and increased ease in transition of incident command between officers.
The Chevrolet/GMC Suburban with the modular units, which were designed in-house for under $1,000 per vehicle, is a proven, functional, versatile field command vehicle. These command vehicles have been used at a wide variety of emergencies, including structural fires, extended rescue operations, major wildland fires, and major flooding operations. Many benefits have been realized from these command vehicles’ build-up (the interior modular units), including standardization of all field command vehicles; a true incident command post identified by the elevated, revolving blue light; increased ease in transition of incident command upon arrival of a higher ranking officer; a variety of organized resources (maps, plans, and forms) readily available to the incident commander; increased capability for off-road operations; and ease in transferring modular units into new vehicles barring major bodystyle changes.
The Orange County Fire Department will gladly share plans and specifications for these command vehicle modules with any agency requesting them. Please address your inquiries to: Orange County Fire Department. 180 South Water Street, Orange, CA 92666; Attention: Robert H. Hennessey, assistant chief/operations.